Abstract artist takes a stab at history with one drawing, 11 generations

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BRATTLEBORO — An unlikely combination of abstract art and local history covers an entire wall in a new exhibit.

"I think it's just a study in paying attention to former people," said artist Craig Stockwell, of Keene, N.H. "This is a family. This is a history. But it's not because it's glorious or anything. It just happens to be mine."

Eleven generations were documented in a project that took Stockwell four days to draw, stencil and set up. He had an outline going in his own studio, allowing him to test techniques and ensure the whole thing would work out, and his daughter Willa assisted when it came time for the real drawing.

The seed was planted about a year ago when Stockwell was told a wall was his in the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center's "Drawing On, In, Out" exhibit that runs up until Feb. 8. Being an abstract painter not normally employing narrative or subject matter but wanting to focus on his extensive local family history, he wasn't sure how to proceed. The invitation ultimately was looked at as an opportunity to explore how his ancestors moved about the area.

"I've been wanting to do more with that anyway," Stockwell said. "I didn't know how the two would mix and what would end up on the wall. I just began my research."

Already knowing "this and that," he plunged deeper and deeper into his roots to learn several things. Having formerly taught at Marlboro College five or six years ago, he was pretty fascinated by the earliest generations he traced that chose Marlboro as a place to live.

Stockwell had previously heard of one of the first Marlboro settlers dying of "black fever," known by the Mayo Clinic now as a disease caused by infection with leishmania parasites. He knew "somebody who knew somebody" aware of a stone marking the site of a cemetery where those infected were laid to rest.

"There were probably only 50 people living in Marlboro at the time," said Stockwell. "They buried them way off in the woods. It being an infectious disease, they obviously wanted them away."

Trying to imagine the era, he visited the marker. He wondered: What were they thinking? What made them stay?

Stockwell and his daughter took several walks for the project. Born in Brattleboro, she is now 26 years old.

One day, they parked in Marlboro and rode their bicycles to a cemetery in West Brattleboro. They locked up their bikes then walked seven miles up Ames Hill Road to a building once known as the Stockwell Tavern.

While walking various routes along the Whetstone Brook, Stockwell continued the line of questioning. He asked himself: What did they see? Why did they stop?

"I think a part of it was trying to enter into my own imagination," he said.

Stockwell has set up an informative blog about the project at craigstockwell11generations.wordpress.com, where he shares historical and family background. Also, it features his research process and photographs of the exhibit.

One relative coming from Scotland was captured and taken to Canada. An account of the ordeal, found at Boston Public Library, featured opinions on camping for a few nights in Deerfield, Mass., where the ancestor later returned to live.

Stockwell tried to think of this episode as he drove up Interstate 91, crossing the West River.

"It was horrendous. It took him months to get up to Montreal (Canada)," said Stockwell. "He got up there in January."

Stockwell also visited other places he read about in the narrative, saying he wanted to try and get a picture of that world.

Some clarification regarding perceptions Stockwell once had about family living in Windham County was another part of the process. He always figured his great-grandfather owned "a big old farm" in the area but found that was not the case.

"They were just sort of scrapping by," he said.

After Stockwell's great-grandfather left Brattleboro, the family did not return to the area until Willa's birth in 1989. Stockwell acknowledges there are many local people sharing the same last name.

"A lot of the cousins stayed," he said.

Stockwell spent several days a week, starting in August, taking research trips after "chewing on" ideas for the project. He soon discovered a smart phone application allowing him to track his walks.

Maps of his travels, saved in his phone, were transferred into black lines then loaded onto his computer. Stockwell would recreate those lines.

"They become just beautiful line drawings," he said. "Part of the funny thing is, in doing those walks, I became self-conscious. I thought why not take a loop? It's going to look good on the drawing."

Without checking out the exhibit, it would be nearly impossible to see notes Stockwell made in pencil. These get at the heart of what he took away from the project, which he compares to a landscape painting rather than a historical society presentation.

"It is really getting to know the Connecticut River Valley," he said. "I took a long trip from Northfield (Mass.) to Turners Falls (Mass.) riding bikes. That feel of the silence, beautiful light and beautiful fall time. To enter that world, because I entered it through my imagination, it was very keyed up to trying to get a sense of these ancestors. I think I experienced it."

The museum's exhibitions manager Sarah Freeman nervously watched Stockwell's project unfold, wondering whether it would affect other drawings going up nearby and if he would finish it in time for the exhibit's Oct. 30 start. The latter concern was shared by Stockwell.

According to Freeman, Stockwell began with geometrical abstractions, forming lines and circles on the wall using compasses and other measuring tools for the 11-layer drawing. "Touching circles" were applied with charcoal followed by the stenciling of family names and lineage with dates going back as far as 1640.

"His family is so linked with this area," said Freeman. "It's fascinating because it's about the history of the family but it's also about the sense of place for this region."

A tour of the exhibit with curator Mara Williams and the six participating artists is slated for Dec. 6 at 2 p.m.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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