Bowls of Memory

I have been working on a piece conjuring up memories of my Irish ancestors with these bits of cloth and emblems of places and things.  My grandfather came from Northern Ireland the year before the Titanic sailed; he was one of 12 children and since he died in the 1940s, he was never to see his parents or most of his siblings again. He made his way from New York to the copper and silver mines of Jerome, Arizona. Since he did not like mining, he parted ways with his brother Henry and struck out for Los Angeles.  He met and married my grandmother and worked as a motorman on the Pacific Red Car Line his entire career.  (That would be the kind of job you could get with a third grade education.)

This piece is almost finished…I intend to finish the border, although I still would like to leave that material on the right going beyond the right-hand border.  I have added a few references to my father and his family…he is in the lower dark square holding a pole vault pole.  He grew up quite literally on the other side of the tracks from my mother—he was in South Central LA and she was in West Hollywood.  A small thread connects their initials.  There’s more, but I need not explain every symbol; every memory triggers another.  These words of James Joyce from Finnegans Wake seem apt:  “over the bowls of memory where every hollow holds a hallow…”

I have used rusty nails, quilting scraps, photos transferred to cloth, and both hand and machine stitching for this piece. Here are a couple detail photos:

Long and Winding Road

Riverlake Plantation was built by Antoine DeCuir in 1823.*

It has been a challenging winter since my wonderful mother passed away last month. She was the best person I knew. I am lucky to have art to turn to, as it always proves to be such a refuge. I practically run to board the train each week for art class in downtown L.A. Although I still enjoy painting, my latest refuge has been working with fabric — I’ve been creating a large piece that explores my family’s past.

Detail from new artwork

My father always warned me not to look into his family’s side, saying “you may find a horse thief.” So far no horse thieves but definitely some twists and turns. Turns out I am descended, in small part, from people from Benin and Ghana. My grandfather was one quarter black; my dad was an octoroon.

Albert DeCuir sailed to America in 1720;
hand and machine stitched.

As I have learned, the DeCuirs came to the U.S. in 1720 from Macon, a town that was once in France but is now in Belgium following a few wars and boundary changes. In Louisiana, our newly arrived ancestors started marrying those already there….many were free people of color.

Apparently, Louisiana has a complicated racial and colonial history. Before Louisiana became an American territory in 1803, the area was under French and then Spanish control. Some of these free people of color were quite wealthy and even owned slaves themselves. (At the time, slaves could gain their freedom in several ways, by fighting for the colony or teaching the master’s children, for example.) I have a hard time getting into the mind of my slave-owning French, Black and Creole ancestors. I can’t help but think about how bizarre this is while I sew.

Checked fabric is French from the 1800s. Symbols are from those found on a grís-grís bag, worn by girls for protection. Note Islamic verses; this tradition traces back to Senegal & Ghana.

Using fabric from the present and the past, this new artwork uses as a reference point the area of Pointe Coupée, Louisiana, but rather than just copy a map, I have used it as a way to suggest many elements that come to mind: the much-divided plots of land for sugar, indigo, and cotton fields, the winding Mississippi, the mixing of French and African languages that became Kouri-Vini, the stolen lives of endless work, and the fact that I nearly lived my whole life knowing nothing about these ancestors.

Artwork so far…about 6′ x 8′

*Re. Riverlake Plantation: I opened The NY Times in December of 2019 to learn, to my horror, that author Ernest Gaines (Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) grew up on Riverlake where five generations of his family had lived as slaves. About 20 years ago, he purchased the unkempt graveyard in order to be sure it would be taken care of properly.

Suzanne’s website is suzannedecuirfineart.com. Click here to watch “Life Jackets,” the 8-minute film by Pamela Beere Briggs & William McDonald featuring another of Suzanne’s recent projects.

“The Cotilda”

After finishing my Life Jackets project, I felt the pull to do a little painting again. During the months of making those jackets, I had done a lot of thinking about the unknown futures of individuals—now my thoughts turned to unknown pasts, especially relatives on my late father’s side. A genetic test revealed I was 6% black. Further research revealed I had ancestors who were free people of color who actually owned slaves themselves. Disturbing to say the least. A little research brought me to news that the remains of the last slave ship to reach America had been unearthed; this provided the inspiration for the painting “The Cotilda” which landed in Alabama in 1859.

Click here to watch “Life Jackets,” the 8-minute film by Pamela Beere Briggs & William McDonald featuring Suzanne’s recent project.

Life Jackets

Twenty one years ago this month, a very bundled up baby was thrust into our arms in a tiny hotel room in Chengdu. After the Chinese adoption contingent left, we started to unbundle her because she seemed too warm. Garment after garment came off until we reached the last one…a beautiful, humbly made, and somewhat fragile jacket. Someone had really worked on this to make it useful, repairing it by hand over and over again. We brought it home with us.

I came across it a some months ago and an art project has grown out of it – exploring ideas about lost potential (all those kids who are still there, maybe working in factories and fields), about fate, randomness, and so on. With the encouragement of my teacher I have gone somewhat beyond my initial thought of making a few and I am over 100 now, all smaller than the original. I want them to look as old and worn as the original, but evoke the feeling of being worn by an individual whose life we know nothing about. 

Pamela Beere Briggs and UCLA Professor William McDonald, filmmaking and life partners, decided to make a film about Suzanne’s new project “Life Jackets” when they saw a few of the jackets. They both believe that the world needs as many stories about people doing things out of love and looking at what connects us all as a community. “What we can do as filmmakers and storytellers is share stories about people who are actually doing things out of thoughtful kindness.”