The following work was presented at a special exhibition at the Brisbane Institute of Arts in Brisbane, Australia, November 2017.
My Inevitable Past
In 1901, a young woman was found beaten and unconscious on a train station platform in Macon, Georgia (U.S.). She was alone. She had no identification, no purse, no luggage, no wedding band and no mark on her hand where a wedding band might have been.
She was clearly pregnant, so the police took her to the Door of Hope, a home for “fallen young ladies,” i.e., a home for unwed mothers. A doctor was called to come examine her. He guessed that she was fairly far along with her pregnancy and likely to die from her injuries, so he decided to perform an emergency C-section to try to save the baby.
The baby was my father.
The story has haunted me my whole life.
There’s more to the story, of course. As a result of the emergency C-section, along with the possibility of oxygen deprivation, my father’s eyes were damaged to the extent that he was blinded. Mrs. Knowles was the matron of the Door of Hope. She was widowed and had no children of her own. She knew, given my father’s circumstances, that he was not likely to be adopted, so she took him in and gave him her family name.
At the time of my father’s birth, Mrs. Knowles posted a description of my father’s biological mother in the local paper. No one ever came to claim the body.
Who was she? Where was she going? What had happened to her? What were her dreams?
Although I have written many stories, I had never thought about writing my biological grandmother’s story. I didn’t know her or her story. Not knowing has always bothered me.
However, even though I didn’t know anything about her, I knew instinctively that there is something of her in me, something more than her genes. But what?
The Inevitable Past
What is inevitable about the past? Was it inevitable that I would eventually write about my grandmother?
Creating a grandmother, my real grandmother, out of whole cloth, with no clues, was hard, as hard in fact as any writing I’ve ever done.
Slowly, word-by-word, page-by-hard-won-page, my grandmother became flesh. I didn’t feel so much like I was creating her, but more that she was working with me, letting me create her.
When I began work on a visual presentation of my concept of an inevitable past, I went back to the book I was writing, hoping to find some clue as to what I should do. When I reread the first page, I realized my grandmother, or at least, the grandmother I was now creating, was speaking to her fictional granddaughter from the grave.
The grave. She was dead. That’s when I decided to create a shroud for her using her words, or at least the words I had written for her.
A shroud is traditionally five meters of heavy linen that are then wrapped mummy-style around the body to prepare it for burial. The wrapping is not unlike the way we swaddle newborn babies.
I lean towards symbolism in both my written work and my artwork: words, colors, lines, and spaces. The idea of creating a shroud for the grandmother felt right. The grandmother was telling the story of her life in order to wrap her arms around her granddaughter and keep her from harm. The grandmother’s story, in essence, becomes a window into the granddaughter’s inevitable past.
Science now supports the idea of an inevitable past. Epigenetics is now able to show how traumas or other dramatic events, have the potential to build an additional layer of information onto your DNA. This overlaid coding of information shapes how your genes express themselves. And, along with your genes, this epigenetic coding can then be passed on, sometimes skipping a generation. In other words, the imprint of your grandmother’s life experiences can become part of your responses to your life experiences. (If you would like to read more about epigenetics, see the articles described at
Put more broadly, your ancestors’ experiences, their joys, fears, triumphs and failures, might imprint on and change your personality, bequeathing anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of your genes.
In order to convey this idea of epigenetics and the inevitable past, I decided to batik a twisting double helix rope of DNA across a length of heavy linen. After some sketching and planning, I began to realize that five meters of linen, the prescribed length for a shroud, would not give me room enough to present the grandmother’s opening statement, so my shroud is 6.4 meters long.
Not being a fabric artist, and not knowing anything about batik methods or dyes, I asked Kim Kirschstein, a talented batik artist, to assist me through this process. After a couple of trials, we settled on first waxing the double helix image, then hand brushing the shroud with four colors of dye: red, a deep gold, orange and a soft yellow. The dyed linen became the foundation for the shroud.
I decided to embroider the grandmother’s opening words to the granddaughter on scraps of linen and antique handkerchiefs. These embroidered words were to represent the additional layer of epigenetic imprints on the genetic sequence that makes up the granddaughter’s DNA.
I haven’t embroidered anything since I was ten years old and wasn’t much good at it back then, so I am unclear why I decided on this challenge, other than to say that it felt like the right direction to take. So, I bought a book about embroidery stitches and practiced. I chose to embroider the words freehand, not worrying about the size or shape of the words. I wanted it to look and feel like someone was writing a letter to a family member. I didn’t want the words to look like a printed wedding invitation.
To add to the inevitability of the project, about six months before I embarked on creating the shroud, my office mate, in clearing out the belongings of her deceased Aunt Betty, came upon a bag of embroidery thread. Not knowing what else to do with the thread, she gave it to me, which was reason enough for me to use all the colors Aunt Betty had chosen.
The embroidery process was a slow and arduous one, though I picked up speed and skills as I went along. Once I finished embroidering all 150 words from that first page, I cut the bits of fabric and old handkerchiefs, with the words embroidered onto them, into the leaf-like shape found in the twisted strands of DNA.
Just as I didn’t know my grandmother’s story until I put words onto the page, I wasn’t sure how I was going to create the shroud until each step in the process was done and it was time to move on to the next.
For instance, my first thought about how to attach the leaf-shaped bits of cloth to the shroud was to use a sewing machine, but I quickly discovered that the differences in weight and flexibility between the leaf-shaped embroidered cloth and the heavy dyed linen would make it impossible to do the sewing by machine without the embroidered cloth puckering and buckling. So, I was back to square one and to more hand sewing ahead!
By this time, having embroidered each word one at a time, then cut them out, one at a time, I had developed a strong relationship to the words I had written. Although, when I write, I tend to edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite some more, I had never before spent so much time with anything that I had written.
Once I had embroidered all 150 words, I began to believe they were my grandmother’s words: the words she wanted to speak to me, the story she had to tell. They had become words that would both guide me to the end of the story and teach me about my own life.
They were true words to live by. Golden words.
So, I bought some gold metallic thread and practiced a new embroidery stitch: the blanket stitch. And, word-by-word, I began to sew the leaf-like shapes onto the shroud with gold thread and a blanket stitch. That also seemed right.
When I was done sewing the words onto the shroud I could see that more needed to happen in order for the image of the shroud to come together. So, I went back through to embellish bits and pieces of the double helix with the same metallic thread I had used to sew the leaves/words onto the shroud.
This is the first fabric piece I have ever created. It is also the largest piece of any type of artwork I’ve attempted.
In ancient Greece, creating your parent’s or in-law’s shroud was a sacred duty of a daughter or daughter-in-law. Hence, why we have the story of Penelope weaving Laertes’ shroud in order to put off her suitors in the story of Odysseus.
Over time, as I worked on this shroud, what I was creating for my grandmother became less of an artistic act and more of a loving duty.
In creating it, I both helped bring her to life and made a way for her, at last, to rest easy.