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ANCESTRY: RELIGION, DEATH AND CULTURE

Master of Fine Arts Show, Spring 1994

University of California, San Diego

by Belinda Di Leo

The paintings in Ancestry: Religion, Death and Culture document my own native culture of Central Appalachia. The work portrays a sense of place and character, as well as spiritual conviction, all reinforced by a repetition of visual imagery. Through the juxtaposition of a variety of images, the paintings explore the interrelationship between religion and the inevitability of death.

In this series of work, I began a visual exploration of Appalachian culture with paintings of the self-supportive farm in southwestern Virginia. The farm originally came into my family as a portion of a Revolutionary War Grant. Several hundred acres had been divided with each generation. As a result, neighbors within the local farming community had descended from common ancestry.

Part I: Appalachian Imagery

The Place of the Ancestors, O/C 4' x 5', 1993

The landscape is a view from the hillside where these ancestors are buried. The scene is of life: the vegetable garden, rolls of hay, and weathered buildings for the raising of livestock. For the ancestors, continuity was through their descendants whose existence was in turn sustained by the land.

Family Cemetery O/C 42" x 42" 1993

To me, the land was a sacred place. There, I could form a relationship with people not physically alive, but whose presence could be felt nevertheless. Having this connection to family history reinforced the knowledge that my own existence was merely a link between past and future. I was reminded that the choices I make will effect the lives of people who will never know me. In Family Cemetery, one sees the image of a gravestone marking an ancestral burial site. Across the top of the painting I have added "One day I will be one of the ancestors."

Room in the House of the Ancestors O/C 3'x 4' 1993

depicts the room where I slept when I stayed with my grandparents. Every object in the room speaks symbolically of the lives of the people who resided there. On the dresser sits an oil lamp suggestive of another time, of a thing that could be used if modern ways failed. To me, the lamp represented my grandparents' deep religious convictions. For, like the parable of the virgins, they were preparing for the time they would be taken. Beside the dresser is an open doorway revealing a room with a bed and a veiled window. The bed was my grandparents' alter, the place where they knelt to pray every evening before sleeping and every morning upon waking. The bed invites rest and dreaming. It symbolizes a place for entering and exiting the world. In the mirror over the dresser is the reflection of a wooden moom and star that hung on the opposite wall. These heavenly signs refer to cycles of planting and spirituality.

The Room Upstairs O/C 3' x 4' 1993

A second view of this room looks at the quilt covered bed where I slept when I stayed in the house. When I began The Room Upstairs, my thoughts were romantic, remembering the sounds of the stream below the windows and the owls at night which lived in the woods across the road. But, as I painted other thoughts came to mind. I remembered how difficult it was for me to breath in a room so old and musty. The slightest shift in position caused the bed to rattle, a sound that could be heard throughout the house. The process of creating this painting stimulated a mental tug-of-war which continued throughout the production of the rest of the work. I remember the Appalachian farm as a spiritual place, one in which I was empowered in a relationship to land and ancestry, where life was simple and deeply felt. I also remember feeling suffocated and self-concious, inhibited by expectations and religious ideology.

High Mountain O/C 18"x24", Shepherd's Call O/C 18"x24" 1993

High Mountain borrows a landscape from 19th Century artist Casper David Friedrich. This romantic artist created landscapes which portrayed a sense of spiritual yearning. On the right is a popular 1930s dimestore picture. In Shepherd's Call, a lamb stranded in snow finds deliverance through the aid of a collie, faithful friend and savior.

The Good Shepherd, O/C 18" x 24", 1993

Surrounded by his flock, a shephard rests beneath a large tree which signifies the connecting link between heaven and earth.

Interior Space/Grandparents, Sister and I, O/C 3' x 4', 1993

Good Shepherd Political Fan, O/Cardboard, 2' x 2, 1993

Biblical scenes were also printed on cardboard fans distributed by Appalachian funeral homes or individuals advertising for votes in minor elections. A second version of The Good Shepherd appears on an enlarged replica of a political fan distributed in 1944 as an advertisement for a Highway Commissioner's re-election. The fair-skinned Jesus opens a gate allowing his flock to come forward, connoting an entrance into Heaven.

Virginian Funeral Fan, O/C, 2' x 2', 1993

The reverse side of Good Shepherd Funeral Fan indicates to the viewer the function of these fans as advertisements. This also draws attention to the relationship between religion and death.

Funeral Fan O/C , 1992

Jesus shares the company of four doll-like young girls. The scene is staged in a transitional period between daylight and darkness.

Crows' Nest, O/C, 2' x 2', 1993

The triad of images narrates the Christian promise that death is not permanent, and metaphorically refer to the concerns of an afterlife. Crows as symbols of death are building homes for the new life approaching.

Daffodils, O/C, 2' x 2', 1993

Daffodils emerge from a British bed-shaped grave marker as the promise of ressurection.

Della and Dolly, O/C, 3' x 4', 1993

is a portrait of my great-aunts, who lived their entire lives on the ancestral farm where my paternal grandfather was born. The pattern of their flowered print dresses has been repeated on a smaller canvas, Old Maids. During their mid-teens, my aunts' mother died in childbirth. My aunts chose a life which did not include marriage, one that was equated with undesirability, a stereotype reinforced by children's playing cards. Yet for them, it was a life that allowed them to avoid the fate of their mother while maintaining a bond to land and community.

Old Maids, O/C, 1993

In Old Maids, scriptures superimposed over the popular playing cards define the roles of women as serving a husband, as a god and suffering the pains of childbirth.

Grandfathers, O/C 5' x 3', 1993

A portrait of my great-grandfather hung in the living room of my aunt's home, an image that appears in the painting Grandfathers. In this painting I portray my paternal grandfather seated in a chair on his front porch, dressed in the garments that he wore to work in the fields. In the window behind my grandfather appears the portrait of his father dressed in clothing from another era. My grandfather is in the act of speaking. His stories opened my mind to a sense of historic conciousness.

Part II: Death as Continuity (click here)

Color slide scanning by Susan Jurist, UCSD Art Library. Address all comments and inquiries to [email protected] All original works are copywritten by Belinda Di Leo and cannot be reproduced electronically, or by any other means without permission of the artist.