Swarthy Jean came to be during an artist’s retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2011, and she continues to be an important character for me (You can read more in the first blog post). Her anatomy is a little complicated—she is part Melungeon mountain woman and part moonshine still. At first, I made simple drawings and diagrams to develop my concept of what she looked like and how she worked.
Sometimes she’s rosy and feminine, though a little bedraggled.
She can be a steely gambler, adept at hiding her feelings.
And sometimes she’s downright spooky. You would not want to run into her in the woods in the middle of the night.
Now profiles have replaced full frontal views in my work, and Swarthy Jean is becoming less static. She has started to find her voice. In a short story I wrote this year, Jean rescues her brother from unscrupulous mountain men. She also chases revenuers and greedy land developers from the Linville Gorge in western North Carolina (where she sometimes hangs out).
In Appalachian legend and lore, mountain women are witchy, alluring, shrewd, and inscrutable. I particularly like the story about a mountain woman who kills a rival, buries her, and plants kudzu across her land, knowing that over time it will become impossible to know where to dig for the body.
Swarthy Jean also fits this stereotype. But she is complex (like the Melungeons) and multicultural, rooted in traditions that extend far beyond the American mountain south. My Jean has a feudal Japanese spirit, built on bloody feuds and the belief that spirits permeate the natural world. Genealogists debate the complicated roots of Melungeon heritage (Black, Red, and Middle Eastern), but this Far Eastern connection is my own making. The Linville Gorge, endangered in 2013 by a micro-managing bureaucracy, needs a guardian spirit. So, in this iteration of Swarthy Jean, she is a female samurai, or maybe a mountain oni (Japanese for “demon”). She roams the gorge, unseen and unheard, until time to strike.