Fall Already? / by Brielle DuFlon

Hi guys! 

Hope everyone had a wonderful summer. I had a great one (though I am already feeling nostalgic for all the summer activities and am going to continue wearing skirts until it's uncomfortably chilly). Lots of things have happened over the last month and a half! This year has been so unbelievably fast-paced. 

First off - I had the amazing opportunity to get interviewed by Culturescene Magazine based in Richmond, VA. The interview was published on August 4th - sorry I'm so behind! But you can find it HERE - it's a great interview - super amazing questions and some beautiful photographs by James Millhiser and David Talton - thanks again guys, it was so much fun! 

After Art Extravaganza day camp wrapped up I completed my first corporate commission for a PR company in NYC - it was a somewhat excruciating process but also a huge learning experience. Reminded me how important it is to draw up a contract for every commission, and to make sure expectations are understood on both sides. NO ONE IS GOING TO VALUE YOUR TIME IF YOU DON'T and YOU'RE THE ONLY PERSON STICKING UP FOR YOUR TIME. That's for all my fellow emerging/establishing artist friends out there. Don't feel bad about charging people the money you deserve for the hard work you do - there should be no guilt associated with asking what you deserve to make a living. 

While I was working on that commission I was also working on a piece for "Cherry Bounce" - a collaborative show at the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, VA. The museum reached out to over fifty Appalachian artists to ask them to create an assigned artwork. Each artist was paired with a U.S. presidential election year and given specific campaign posters and cartoons to respond to. I was assigned 1804, Jefferson's second election in a row (which he won), and was given two cartoon's to respond to. The one I ended up picking was the following: 

  The Philosophic Cock,  James Akin

The Philosophic Cock, James Akin

When I was thinking of what to do in response to this cartoon depicting Thomas Jefferson as the Philosophic Cock with Sally Hemings, his slave and (at the time speculated, now confirmed) concubine standing behind him as a hen, I did a good amount of research, including a little trip to the Historic Society of Albermarle County to look through the Hemings' file. This cartoon was anti-Jeffersonian, throwing shame at Jefferson for a forced sexual relationship with one of his slaves despite it being common practice for white slave-owners to pick a concubine.  I was pretty repulsed by this cartoon for various reasons, and in large part because of that it seemed extremely relevant right now in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a lot to say about the forced relationship between slave women and their white owners. 

The route I ended up taking for my response piece was to make Sally Hemings the center of attention, without making her a hero. To consider Sally Hemings a hero would belittle the efforts by the black heroes who have risked tremendous amounts for the civil rights movement and the struggle for equality and justice. Making a hero out of Sally Hemings would in fact give credit to Jefferson for giving her a name - it's only because the master she was forced into a relationship with was Thomas Jefferson that we know about her - there were many, many slave women taken as concubines who we've never heard about because their white owners weren't of particular importance. I wanted to depict Sally Hemings as a whole human being, surviving.

The painting I made depicts Sally going about her daily work. If she wanted to stay alive and stay in-tact she had to deal with Thomas Jefferson, a task she could not avoid in the same way she couldn't avoid anything else asked of her. Tending to her duties and his attentions were what was expected of her in her position at that time - she followed through, and she stayed alive, physically. In my painting her face is set, desensitized and unexcited - she is feeding the chickens, amongst them Thomas Jefferson, the philosophic Cock from Akin's original cartoon. It's a job without pay and nothing more and she does what she has to, mentally and physically, to wake up every morning like every other slave had to. Thomas Jefferson the rooster has his eye on her but she's not thinking about him - she could be thinking about anything: her children, her duties, her coworkers and friends.

Here are some detail shots: 

You might wonder why I painted Sally with straight hair, and somewhat caucasian features. When I was researching her and her family tree I saw that she was actually 3/4 white, her mother and grandmother having been taken as concubines by their white owners. In physical accounts of her she is described as being light skinned, with straight dark hair and caucasian facial features. I also found out that she was Martha Jefferson's half-sister, Thomas Jefferson's late wife who passed away before he took Sally as his concubine at the age of fourteen. Apparently Martha's father John Wayles had owned Sally's mother, Betty Hemings who he took as a concubine whilst married to Martha's mother, Martha Eppes. Sally was Betty and John's daughter and Martha was Martha Eppes and John's daughter. When John Wayles died after Martha and Thomas Jefferson had married, they inherited all of John's slaves - including Sally Hemings, Martha's half-sister. Here's an incomplete and very basic family tree from wikipedia: 

 

It's a pretty crazy story and a convoluted web - just goes to show how complicated and dehumanized things were, then. This family tree is not unusual, it was a fairly common situation at that time. I learned a tremendous amount from this collaboration/challenge. The piece is on display with over 50 other pieces in Abingdon, VA if you happen to be in the area and want to check it out sometime! Please do and shoot me a message telling me what you think!