For years I’ve wanted to do some sort of legacy project that would allow me to explore and somehow acknowledge and maybe even come to terms with my family history. As many of you know, I come from a family of railroad workers. In fact, I’m the first and to my knowledge the only male in three generations of my family not to work for the railroad. At the beginning of 2019, I started laying the groundwork for a project that would not only allow me to lean into my family history but that I could also use as a starting point for something much bigger that could end up being the legacy project that I had been looking for. Unfortunately, COVID shut the world down and because the project really had to be done in person, most of the connections I made up to that point and permissions I had secured became moot. I got really upset about it because I loved the idea and it had taken me a long time to get there. But how I wanted to do it was completely disrupted and since at the time nobody had any idea how long the lockdown would last, I put the whole thing on hold, and it’s been there ever since.
Fast forward to earlier this week when we had some electricians in to do a heavy up, which I had never heard of until I moved to the East Coast. Basically, they replaced our original 1957 100-amp electrical panel with a brand new 200-amp panel, which means that our dining room lights no longer flicker when the AC kicks in and using the espresso machine doesn’t take power away from the microwave and the toaster. I’m sure there are a bunch of other benefits, not to mention the overall safety of not using 70-year-old breakers, but those were the two that we noticed straight away. Before they swapped the panel, they ran a new cable from where the service connects to the house down to the meter, and when I went outside to see how they were doing, I was impressed by the care and attention to detail they were taking in making sure that the cable was straight, level, and tucked neatly against the house and how the anchors holding it in place were evenly spaced. I even said something like, “Wow! That looks terrific,” to which the electrician responded, “If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it right. Wait until you see what I do with your panel.” It was at that moment that any doubts I had about whether or not we had hired the right people completely dissipated.
I tend to ask a lot of questions when people come to work on the house. We’ve had plumbers and contractors come in and each time I ask them whether they would mind me asking the occasional question about what they’re doing. Part of it is out of a genuine curiosity and a desire to learn, but the bigger picture is that I grew up around tradespeople and have a ton of respect for people who make a living with their hands. Before he worked for the railroad, my dad worked in a steel yard and according to my grandfather was always making things, even as a kid. He taught me to weld when I was probably 10 or 11, first with Arc, then Oxy-Acetylene, and finally MIG, which was by far my favorite. By the time I was in my teens, I was welding suspension parts on the single-seat dune buggies he and his partner Duane used to build as a side business. Seeing the value others put into working with their hands definitely made a mark on me as a child and has stayed with me my whole life, so seeing the care our electrician brought to his work, I couldn’t help but strike up a conversation.
Checking in with the electrician throughout the day allowed me to ask a few questions about some of the work he was doing, which was great, but it also made room for us just to chat a bit—swapping stories about our respective lives. When I mentioned the idea for the project I had put on hold, he responded by sharing a few stories about where he grew up and some of the things that happened there. I don’t want to go into too much detail just yet, but I will say that I went back upstairs and spent some time looking up and reading about a few of the things he mentioned and all of it fit perfectly with where I saw the project going from the very beginning. The wheels that had been basically dormant since 2019 were starting to creak back to life.
Spending the day bouncing between conversation and research as well as revisiting some of my original project notes re-inspired me to pick up the pieces of the project I thought I’d let go and really think about whether or not it could still happen. Obviously revisions and modifications to the original scope would have to be made to reflect where things are post-COVID, but I’ve always believed that the project had value and the stories that would make it up are stories that are worth recording and sharing. Separately, over the past several months another potential project around a different aspect of my family history has started to take shape, and it’s one that’s very different than what I shared with our electrician. Each of these projects would allow me to exercise what I think are the best parts of my skillset—certainly the skills I enjoy the most. And while they are very different from one another, I can see both projects existing side-by-side and actually complementing one another.
Once I came to grips with the uncertainty of how COVID was going to affect pretty much everything—at least for a while—I think I just let go of the notion of doing anything in person and instead shifted more of my creative energy into painting, which is where it’s been for the past couple of years. I’ve also leaned into making these Iterations more consistently in an effort to document where I’m at and what I’m working through, with the hope that sharing it may resonate with others. That said, having that day-long conversation with our electrician really jumpstarted the enthusiasm I had about this project pre-COVID, and I think helped set me back on the path of seeing it out in the world. It may end up looking different than how I originally planned it, but I think that may actually make it better, especially given some of the new things that I’ve been exposed to. How I’m starting to see the whole thing is tighter, more focused, and I think it will ultimately be a more personal and compelling project. There are still a lot of questions to answer before any of it sees the light of day, but the questions are where I tend to live.
One of the great things to come out of lockdown was a “home movie” version of The Princess Bride, which is one of my favorite movies. The project was put together by Jason Reitman to benefit World Central Kitchen and features way too many actors to mention here, including Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Adam Sandler, Javier Bardem, Zoe Saldana, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Garner, and of course Fred Savage. The whole thing was shot on cell phones using a variety of household items as props. Here’s a vertical cell-phone friendly version.
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I find it so interesting how covid impacted artist work - not as a subject but in direction. I had a similar experience that set me off on my current project, preserving family history through art making, specifically book objects. Can’t wait to see your project unfold as it makes its way into public view. Best of luck along the way!