Trails, Trials, Treasure
In 1918, 24 young women were admitted as undergraduates, making William & Mary the first co-ed public university in the Commonwealth of Virginia, USA. Today, 58% of the student body is female, and the President is Dr. Katherine Rowe. In 100 years, 55,000 women have graduated from W & M. Three of us keynoted as artists to kick off W & M’s 100 Years of Women at the College, on September 20, 2018, in Andrews Hall.
Full text of my presentation to follow the video below:
Trails, Trials, Treasure
In my first semester on the campus of William & Mary, outside Barrett West, I shook the hand of grinning presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. That fall, folky John Denver sang to us that his wife fills up his senses like a night in the forest.
It was my professors who filled up my senses for the next four years.
In a cozy A-frame attic room of the Wren Building, my beloved English professor Elsa Nettles brought the pre-imminent Ralph Waldo Emerson scholar to our small class. Professor Gay Wilson Allen and I corresponded, by typewriter, for years. My son is named Emerson.
I crossed campus to be with my other major fascinations, Studio Art and the stars who taught it. When Professor Bill Barnes assigned us to produce a self-portrait for homework, he stipulated no limitations. Besides one older student in our class, the unapologetic cubist, Athena, everyone complied traditionally, except for me.
I loved Italian High Renaissance art, and equally, Professor Barnes’ beard, so I quoted Michelangelo’s Moses’ statue’s ropey, cascading beard on my self-portrait.
Bill Barnes didn’t blink. He praised the joining of my cheeks to the stony beard of the prophet, and in that instant, anointed and empowered me as an alchemist, an artist capable of transfiguring painted canvases into edifying social narratives.
Down the hall, my drawing Professor, Paul Helfrich, wore a cow’s vertebra as a necklace. He urged us: “The tip of your pencil is a wounded flea. It can not hop. Feel the flea climb over the mountainous rise of your nose. Feel the crippled flea descend to the plain of your cheek. Crawl forward with painstaking care—and don’t lift your pencil, and don’t stop honestly tracing the subtle topography of the model’s face you are drawing, for three hours, starting now.”
That class was back to back with Visiting Professor Bob Franzini’s, who instructed: “Hold your India Ink brush vertically. You have three hours and may make exactly three marks. So you had better try to see the serious essence of our model before you begin.”
These were the cruel tutelages of my perfect Pei Mei masters long before Uma Thurman had her training in Kill Bill.
These 1976 instructions to an 18-year-old from tobacco country in eastern North Carolina were audacious and spiritual. I had never been happier, pounded by the fresh academic waterfall of this great College. I was finally home.
In 1978, I applied to study abroad, and flew for the first time in my life—to William & Mary’s exchange campus, England’s University of Exeter. In my first week there, I answered a hand-scrawled notice to ride horses through the Devon countryside in exchange for mucking their stables every morning pre-dawn on nearby Cottage Farm. I moved off campus to live in an Irish linen tent that year, through the Winter, on that beautiful farm, unzipping my door to sheep, geese, cuckoo birds in the hazelnut hedgerow, and red foxes delighting in their absolutely silent, dewy gliding.
On the weekends I would walk 9 miles to Dartmoor, where I was entranced by an English watercolorist and his Dutch wife, Marja. She practiced the harpsichord and carded wool. He was Alan Lee, who resembled a young George Harrison. Sprawled on the floor of Alan’s tower studio, I modeled as a dying Trojan woman for an illustration in Black Ships Before Troy, a modern retelling of Homer’s Iliad. Alan would later illustrate the centenary editions of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and become the artistic director for Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
In 1980, Virginia Tech lured me to graduate school, and in Blacksburg, I was introduced to the reclusive art critic, Suzi Gablik, who had written the first book in English on Rene Magritte, helping to define surrealism. Suzi also authored groundbreaking books such as Has Modernism Failed?, The Re-Enchantment of Art, and Conversations Before the End of Time. Suzi brought Henri Matisse’s elegant Parisian granddaughter Jackie to my home to see my paintings, took me to New York to show my work, and started writing about me as well, in collections such as Satish Kumar’s Resurgence Anthology, Images of Earth and Spirit, a publication named by The Guardian as “the spiritual and artistic flagship of the green movement.”
By then I had begun 30 years of studying South Asian craft and folk art traditions and cave murals, traveling in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. I collected early masterworks of female Mithila art, became friends with the Gujarati gold-thread Zari embroidery sellers, collected Pushkari camel bridles ornamented with the emerald green wings of Rajasthani beetles, and imbibed Pupul Jayakar’s Earthen Drum, a book of Kalamkari dye-fastening recipes, including pomegranate peel, turmeric root, and rusty nails.
With a deep affinity for Himalayan Buddhist art, I took ten years in remote Nepal to make a documentary called A Gift for the Village, a project blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the story of my becoming the first westerner and the first female to do a lineage painting of a revered Tibetan healer, Amchi Tsampa Ngawang Lama, and to deliver that painting to a Himalayan village and to King Jigme Parwar Bista, who proclaimed it “the jewel of [his remote region], Mustang.”
I dedicated that Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science-awarded film to one of my young students from the dozen years I taught a Humanities course called The Creative Process at Virginia Tech.
Her name was Morgan Harrington.
Morgan sat in the front row and loved my demanding class in Spring semester, 2009, the last Spring of her life. On October 17th, that year, Morgan attended a concert in Charlottesville, but never made it home. On January 26, 2010, one hundred and one excruciating days after she went missing, Morgan’s skeletonized remains were discovered by a farmer, checking his fence lines after a heavy snow.
Just before the second anniversary of Morgan’s murder, in 2011, I woke from a dream with a startling, clear vision of a painting. I made that painting, called The Hunted, which showed a doe paused in the switchgrass of that mountain pasture, standing exactly where my beloved student’s body had been dropped, like trash. With her mother’s blessings, I mixed Morgan’s ruddy hemoglobin dust and gritty grey bone cremains in clear oil paint, to form the pasture, made of her, on my canvas.
Imagine the intimacy of those loaded brushstrokes.
Prints of The Hunted now hang in FBI, police, and sheriff’s offices across the country. Coupled with The Hunted are many pen & ink drawings I did of her murderer as I sat near him in every one of his dozens of courtroom hearings and trials, on his way to receiving seven consecutive life sentences.
Those drawings, and the ones I made on the sidewalk in Charlottesville where Morgan was last seen alive, became the visuals in breaking news and in documentaries by 48 Hours, Voice of America, and Vanity Fair.
Morgan’s mother, Gil Harrington, is with us today. In response to her daughter’s murder, Gil founded the powerful Help Save the Next Girl Foundation, for which I serve as Vice President.
Gil and her husband Dan have lobbied successfully and changed ten laws in the State of Virginia. Among them are the common-sense requirement that sexual assaults which happen on college campuses must be reported externally, to the regional prosecutor’s office. In this way, our girls receive equal protection under the law, whether they have been violated on campus or across the street, since university grounds should of course have no Vatican status.
When police departments haven’t ordered Kevlar vests in sizes for their police women, Gil Harrington orders them. When families of missing or murdered girls miss work to attend press conferences, Gil pays their electric bills. Help Save the Next Girl has 80 chapters in middle schools, high schools, and universities across the country, making safety a positive, peer-to-peer, radically empowering message among our young people, who chalk sidewalks with safety reminders and who get involved in making creative public service announcements for radio and television. We would be very proud to start a chapter on this great campus.
Crime Stoppers credited Gil and Help Save the Next Girl’s relentless and compelling public work for the eventual capture of the serial sexual predator who murdered 20-year-old Morgan Harrington. We worked hard to do so, and I’m proud that art did play a constant role in our presence.
Gil and I wrote a book about Gil’s grief journey and her brilliant path out of Hell. It’s called Morgan Harrington, Murdered and Dead for Good: A Mother’s Quest to Find a Serial Killer and Healing.
You should read it. Imagine having the strength to make sure that much good and strong positive legacy do come from your beautiful daughter’s brief life, including a school built in Africa, and a need-based scholarship at Virginia Tech’s Carilion School of Medicine, both in Morgan Harrington’s name.
For the last six years, I have traveled with Gil, who is a nurse, to assist in her Wound Care station in the medical mission work we do in the deep bush and slums of Zambia, Africa.
For these years, I have worked on three dozen paintings I call The Africa Series. At 60, you begin to know what you’ve managed to do of significance. I think these Africa Series paintings of mine are significant, because I believe that they dissolve the hard battle lines drawn in the generation of righteously inflamed academics calling out ludicrously tone-deaf cultural appropriators.
These paintings are my field notes, visual essays, art serving to restart cross-cultural and multi-racial collaborative discussions after Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie’s chastening TED talk on The Danger of the Single Story, in which she points out the mistake of hapless liberals stumbling into the master narrative, that Africans are “an incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars and dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
Of all my work, I have selected one of these paintings, named Constraints, to exhibit on campus this month for your consideration.
Like all the work I do, it is detailed and hopeful.
It represents the activism I feel artists can wield, now more than ever as part of a team, standing outside safe studio spaces as builders, creating international bridges and insisting on inclusivity, of course replacing STEM with STEAM, and not just gratuitously.
This work in Africa has been humbling and challenging. Our non-profit team has not been taking humanitourism excursions. We have been returning to run field clinics in the same areas for 15 years. We’ve purchased land, and built a school where 277 orphans are clothed, fed, and educated, while their parents are also made literate, so they can help with homework. Victims of gender violence are sheltered and taught trades there. The bright schoolchildren of the Orphan Medical Network International School in Ndola are graduating 8th grade with a 100% pass rate compared to the 50% national average. The teachers are all Zambian and are proud that their community school has been honored as a national testing site. The children are fed, provided with sweaters and shoes and mosquito nets. They are becoming the leaders of the new, enfranchised Africa.
Working on this art, my African body of work, four ideas have concerned me.
One, a Business Question: Why IS it worth delivering compassion, medicine, humanitarian aid, and love from outside, half a world away, to places in the developing world which are making measurable social and economic progress on their own, but which still do suffer pockets of corruption, abject poverty, disease, and abbreviated life expectancy in part because of having been broken while colonized?
Answer: We are not one of the non-profits who pay their staff handsomely so that only a fraction of donations ever reaches the people who need them most. In my experience, to deliver in time, you must be on the ground, on site, in clinics like ours. With our translators, triage, doctors’ exams, gynecology tent, eyeglasses, lab testing, hospital transport, pharmacy, wound care, rice, salt, shoes, soap, and blankets, effective and efficient, we do make economic sense.
Two, a Territorial Question: Can I assist doctors and nurses who lance an HIV-positive rural Zambian woman’s painful cyst, or razor off two of a Zambian young man’s leprous, dead toes on his one remaining foot, without the subtext being a heroic white American woman assuaging her racial guilt?
And knowing that consent for representation is sacred and private, a question of power and asymmetry which is always part of the medical context, may I paint from photographs I take?
Answer: Yes. We don’t help our Zambian patients because they are black. We help them because they are poor and sick. And yes, we always ask if we may photograph, and the answer is always, “Please, please help people know what is happening. Perhaps then they will see the need.”
Three, a Correctness Question. If I do paint rural Africa, not the bustling Brooklyn vibes of restaurants, boutiques, and upscale offices in Jo’burg, Cape Town, or Nairobi, am I stereotyping Africa to shrink back into being the subjected, benighted continent?
No. Simultaneous conditions do exist. Glaring inequities always matter, in Africa as they do in America. And nowhere in the world does urbanity promise a panacea for the human condition.
Last, a Political Question: Shouldn’t art have the right to remain in the polite and comfortable realm of relaxed, perhaps floral beauty—and hey, I love flowers; my daughter’s name is Iris—rather than trudging around in the dirty network of Himalayan, African, Appalachian, and Rape-Culture trenches?
My paintings answer.
So let’s look together at the one of them which I’ve brought to campus.
In the top section of the painting, which is 4’ x 5’ oil on canvas, a ragged vulture is divided into mosaic fragments spanning North Africa as it attempts to transcend the concertina wire coils of its own drought circumstances.
Here, you also find Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, ancient Egypt's protector from dangers, and ibis-headed Thoth, god of knowledge, magic, meditation, and secrets. Both gods are exiled and pushed toward the West, where they are diminished into flat, commodified trinkets. A Coptic Christian cross is chained to the obscurity of its minority faith status.
Now look with me at the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where overuse of natural resources and other environmental degradations have resulted from colonialism and poverty.
And now, poverty diminishes sympathy.
For example, you see cold ferocity in the eyes of a child soldier, trained to rape, slaughter, and burn.
One such former child soldier, South Sudanese Emmanuel Jal, now international rap star who performed at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party, came to my home to pay tribute to these depictions.
We all want to see accurate details rendered, because accuracy begins remedy.
You see a female witch doctor in the deep bush, using a glass shard for a scalpel, performing a female genital mutilation. The patient’s screams are going to have to substitute for anesthesia.
Chains constrain a delirious villager, a man who has been poisoned by a jealous local because that man’s wife had had the temerity to purchase the biggest fish at the market. The afflicted man's medical care is to have been wrestled to the ground by his terrified family, bound, and left alone to sleep off his violent hallucinations in the dust of the road.
Animals are reduced to meals, zoo commodities, skins, tusks, horns, or bead-and-wire art, beautiful but fraught objects since their sale does not change hopeless conditions for the real animals.
In my painting, surrounding the shape of the continent, observe all these sacrifices in the crowded Ocean of Sorrows, the place of lost and discarded beings (and their liberated spirits, escaping and spritzing away), and the detritus of chemical waste, and of forgotten beauties: the majestic meanings of the old gods, and the deep social medicine found in traditional arts, the old trade beads and grass-skirted dancers. All sinking.
ARE THERE SOLUTIONS and hope, in the face of the terrible razor-wire tangle of such constraints?
Yes, there are! And I place them right in the center of the canvas, because these positive observations are the reason for my painting, and, I think, what makes my painting different from a war-zone photograph.
For me, only documenting suffering feels insufficient, incapacitating. Capturing and painting solutions capacitates.
My painting suggests nine vital solutions:
education—strong education becoming a genetic right for all children
universal access to clean water
healthy food, and a variety of healthy food
enlightened environmental stewardship
the re-ascendency of matrilineal wisdom and social standing
the renewal of respect for deep spiritual accomplishment
and the protection and care of each genetic snowflake, each precious child.
Against hate speech, turbulent politics, and the contagion of sexual predators around the world, I offer the reportage and the song of Constraints: rural Africa, not as objectification or fetishization of suffering beings, but as a hard look at the origins of suffering, so that we can renew our participation, remember our connections to what and to who may seem separate from us, and restore our promise to do the most good and the least damage we can, within the brief garden of our lifetime.
Last detail. Look with me at the familiar, brightly colored Animal Cracker box in my painting—just this year retired by Nabisco! Have you ever focused on the pitifully bent giraffe, trying to mother her incarcerated baby? Sadly, a timely image.
But I want you to see, too: the bars of that cage to which she has suffered and deformed to adapt—those bars are on ONE SIDE only.
My journeys affirm that when we are catalyzed by compassion, when we wield eloquent art as our activism, we create consequence, we invent a way out of hell, and we find a way even to melt cages.
What holds us back, what weighs on us, who wants us to fail and why: these are the dangers my painting conjures, not just for Zambians, so that we all remember—God help us remember—what we will be when we justly refuse perverse dominion, refuse, and work to remedy and abolish cruel constraints, and we are free.
I love you, William & Mary. Let’s visit more often.
Jane Lillian Vance