"Emancipation" 55x55, Oil on Canvas
As a visual artist I struggle with how much to "say" about a painting and how much to leave to the viewer to interpret. When I first finished this painting I had some strong things to say in color and form but didn't feel it was necessary to write them out.
After I came back from Gettysburg I had a pivotal conversation with a Professor and Director of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College, Dr. Allen Guelzo. He has won the Lincoln Prize twice in his life and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize. He is also author of numerous books. The one I talked to him about was his bestselling narrative called, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. You can read more about him HERE.
He did not know me at all but graciously agreed to give me over an hour of his time one afternoon in July in his cozy office. We spoke briefly about his past as a Military brat and his interest in Jonathan Edwards (of which he had a picture of Edwards on his wall I asked him about). The main meat of our conversation having to do with Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. In his words: today we see what it didn't do whereas during it's day it WAS the greatest written document that Lincoln ever penned (and that includes the Gettysburg Address). Please watch Dr. Guelzo's talk HERE for deeper engagement.
I had two questions for Dr. Guelzo. One I won't share at this time. But the second one had to do with an obscure note that President Lincoln had written and stuffed into his desk. Apparently, he liked to work out problems in his mind by writing them down.
"The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present Civil War it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party. And yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do are of the best adaption to effect his purpose."
I started to quote it and Dr. Guelzo said, "I know that passage very well. I have been wrestling with it for a long time." I started to get very teary as I felt the Lord's presence very heavily in the room with us. Dr. Guelzo shared (as he was getting out Kleenex for me) that he believed Lincoln penned the note in 1862 when the South was winning battle after battle. Things were looking very bleak for the Union. Lincoln had made a promise "to his Maker" (even as he struggled with his faith and in fact, was not a professing Christian) that he would put forth the Emancipation Proclamation if Lee would move back south from Maryland after his invasion (what we know as the Battle of Antietam). The Battle was fought and although it is considered a "draw" by Civil War scholars Lee did move back south after the bloody battle. It was at this point that Lincoln met with his cabinet (and it was a cabinet made up of opposing views and politics. See the book Team of Rivals). They ALL opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was political suicide for the Union. They needed the border states to win the war (no slaves were freed in the border states in the Emancipation Proclamation yet it would make them such a small anomaly that it would be difficult to keep slavery in America) this would only make the abolitionists happy. Lincoln pressed his belief that now was the time. Basically saying, "We are doing this!"
When I asked Dr. Guelzo what was the spiritual purpose of the war (the only scholar I could actually ask that to) he said, "Freedom." And I saw tears in his own eyes as I was crying. Not because we didn't know that God wanted to free African Americans but because he wanted it done during precarious conditions when the odds were staked against it. To see how God threaded the needle of freedom was beautiful. I felt like I was seeing the beauty that God was making out of all the blood and death.
As I have sat with this painting I realize it's more than just the Emancipation Proclamation. It's not just one point in history that we can look at, debate and talk about with different American views. In a sense it became something more to me as I thought about the freeing of the slaves as the tree is broken, without leaves. This great tree that represents (to me) all that weariness of still trying to bring life out of something stripped. If you will notice the left side of the tree one of the limbs curls like a noose. I meant this to represent the Reconstruction and Jim Crow era that was to come after the War. According to the Tuskegee Institute there were 4,743 lynchings during the time 1882-1968. I believe all Americans should visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (just opened this year). I still have yet to see it with my own eyes but I believe I must. The names (by county) hang above the viewer's head as they were hung in trees for us to finally recognize. The tree I painted not only depicts the weariness of trying to keep going, keep hoping, keep reaching towards that illusive thing called freedom. It also speaks into the pain and death that was and is the legacy of America.
In another, more personal note. I found this image on my father's phone (as his screen saver) after he died in August of this year. He had struggled for many (over 20) years with cluster headaches that debilitated him and left him fighting depression and PTSD. He saw this tree as himself. A reflection of his continual struggle to keep going, even though broken. I share this to add that sometimes images go into places that you don't even dream about.
For these reasons I renamed the painting, "Emancipation" because it's more than one point in history. It is a prayer. A struggled prayer. One that doesn't see clearly but hopes that the light will bring sight to see what needs to be seen. In our time we still struggle with blood on our land. It is for us, the living, to not let that blood be spilled in vain. If God can thread this tiny needle that set to a pattern that hasn't been fully realized yet then let our time, our bit, make more of the quilt. This rich tapestry that shares His love.