Writing and Designing “The Ballad of Swarthy Jean”
I spent a beautiful week in September at the Wildacres Retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, the fortunate recipient of an artist’s residency. I stayed in a cabin with a tin roof called The Owl’s Nest. Acorns hit like irregularly timed gunshots, reminding me of Nature’s waywardness. We ignore it at our peril.
My original plan for the Wildacres residency was to design an artist’s book (text and visual imagery) on the controversies surrounding attempts to categorize the Appalachian mountain people known as the Melungeons since the 19th century. With research, I rediscovered centuries of disagreement about these people of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina who sometimes combined olive skin, black hair and startling blue or gray eyes–whether to allow them to marry, vote, or own property, since they were neither white nor black. Discrimination against them was intense.
Geneological literature since 1990 has reawakened the controversy over whether Melungeon heritage is tri-racial (white, black, Indian) or ethnic Mediterranean, or a combination of all. The Internet and social media have resulted in a virtual community of present-day Melungeon descendants who share passionate interest in their roots. Changing perceptions illustrate the range of American attitudes toward ethnic and racial mixture and “otherness” and also suggest the role that information technology can play in promoting change.
My reading and interpretation have distilled into “The Ballad of Swarthy Jean” and a series of portraits (in collographic prints with etched details) about a hypothetical early 20th c. Melungeon woman who embodies the fetching, witchy, dark haired female with mysterious “skills,” but one who is powerful–a healer and an activist.
And she is also a moonshine still–so, I call this work “Appalachian Steampunk,” with a nod to the pop cultural movement in literature, art, fashion, and performance known as Victorian Steampunk. At Wildacres, I finished the ballad and started a portrait in prints. The artist’s book will include historical notes on Melungeon heritage and the history of mica mining and whiskey production in western North Carolina.
If you would like to read and view my visual journal of the experience, please click on: Swarthy Jean
or for higher quality: Swarthy Jean_Higher Res
Below- original sketch of Swarthy Jean
Right – Collographic plates and prints, in progress
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