Reflections on Mountain heritage at The Owl’s Nest

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

Double click on pictures to see more


About Lillian-Trettin

I grew up in the Appalachian "Bible Belt" of East Tennessee in the southern United States, listening to banjo music and gospel lyrics as well as the Beatles. As a kid, I was curious about religious rituals like speaking in tongues and snake handling but resistant to the fundamentalist thinking they involved. Flannery O'Connor's tales of religious fanatics, con men, bigots, and the spiritually bereft or ambivalent resonate for me. Despite having traveled widely and lived in other places, I am (as so many Southerners claim to be) permanently "South haunted." I returned to making art full time in 2011, following a career as a teacher, researcher, and consultant and after raising two sons. I’m convinced the delay enriched rather than impeded my growth as an artist.
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One Response to Reflections on Mountain heritage at The Owl’s Nest

  1. sally james says:

    linnie…you are one talented gal!! i am still reading your various blogs and am enthralled by your seemingly unlimited imagination, not to mention the diversity of your knowledge and the directions in which your mind can roam!
    i don’t understand all the art forms and techniques you mention, but they do appear to be complex procedures. but, the pattern and color they yield are fascinating!
    and, i loved your ballad of swarthy jean!
    it’s obvious, jay and i need to have you over more to discover more of your seemingly unending talents!!

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