By Barbara Trainin Blank @traininblank
Great-grandmothers play a large part in the “One House Project” exhibit, the ArtWatch show of the work of visual artists.
Each artist received a 12-inch square panel on which to tell the story, visually of one of their ancestors, who came to this country from elsewhere, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.
Some of the artists had themselves migrated from other shores.
ArtWatch is a collective of artists who express support for such values as tolerance, equality and stewardship of the environment. Ellyn Weiss and Jackie Hoysted convened the group.
In her panel, artist Cheryl Mendenhall honored her maternal great-grandmother, Yeva Cyktich, in an acrylic painting of a young immigrant leaping across the Atlantic.
“In 1905, when her wedding plans were quashed by her stepfather’s refusal to provide a dowry, 22-year-old Yeva borrowed $25 for a one-way ticket to America,” said Mendenhall. “Years later, she told how immigration officials tagged her ‘like a piece of luggage’ and put her on a train to join relatives in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania.
“In a dark twist of fate, Yeva had traveled from a poor village in the Carpathians to another impoverished region in the mountains of Appalachia,” Mendenhall added.
Despite marriage to a miner, “she endured decades of hardship and poverty, but she learned to read and write and applied for U.S. citizenship when in her 60s,” Mendenhall said.
“My painting draws inspiration from a 1920 family portrait, Eastern European folk art, Orthodox Christian icons, and the Ellis Island photos of Lewis Hine,” the sociologist/photographer who used his camera as a tool for social reform,” said Mendenhall, an illustrator who usually works digitally. “The spattering of black in the lower right corner evokes coal dust, while the dozen roses allude to Yeva’s 12 children…”
In her panel, Sandra Davis has paid a visual tribute to her great-grandmother, Hattie Evans. She called her work “224 Elizabeth Avenue,” an address that highlighted families coming together.
Although Davis’ family doesn’t know whether Evans had been a slave or from a family of slaves, in general, “African-Americans families were pulled apart during slavery when they arrived in America,” she said. “Letha E. Payton (my grandmother), the mother of 13 children, had emigrated from North Carolina to the Rockville area in search of work. When she found a job, she sent for her mother, Hattie Evans, and eight of her children to live with her.”
Mrs. Payton and her family moved into the abandoned Milo movie theater, where they lived until 1952, when the theater and small grocery store were sold and the Payton family would have to move. To ease their burden, the owner of Stern Furniture, offered the grocery store as a house for the family – on the condition they move it to a new location.
“Members of the community and parishioners of Mount Calvary Church ensured the home had a strong foundation and could be moved,” Davis continued. “My mother, Virginia, remembers her grandmother Hattie sitting in her rocking chair inside the house as it was moved by tractor and rollers down Frederick Avenue to Elizabeth Avenue, where the home still stands.”
When a church group wanted to buy the house, Davis’s grandmother fought the move before the Planning Commission. The home is now on the historic registry.
Davis works in mixed media – mostly with paper collages and paint overlay. “I don’t do very elaborate focus, because I want the viewer to see him or herself in my work,” she said.
Davis is a member of the Women’s Caucus for Art – D.C. chapter.
The “One House Project” is on view through Dec. 15, at the Kay Gallery – main level of BlackRock Center for the Arts, located at 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. For more information, call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org.