The Disturbed

Sean and or Adlai Stevenson, United Nations, 1962

The books

My grandmother had a true talent for interesting stories about people in her family. They first came to Virginia in 1608 and, according to Grandma, did wonderful and horrible things. She had stories about her own life homesteading with her mother in Aspen. For example, for her 16th birthday, she asked the local cowboys to make a floor for their dirt floor cabin. She also had a family bible with notes on the side and in the margins. I took the information from this and other family books and attempted to make sense of it with a diagram family tree. It quickly became a tangle of fishing lines as the Virginia branch enjoyed marrying cousins. 

The 9 foot diagram


In my search for images of people in the chart, I found an image of President Chester Arthur's wife, Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur, and was amazed at the resemblance to my mother, 100 years later. This also happened with an image of my great-grandfather when he was 18. I compared the images in Photoshop to determine if the facial structure was similar, or I was nuts. This led to a disturbing hobby of replacing a relative with me. I have one rule; I can only use an image of a relative. This is an ongoing project with new additions periodically. I can’t explain the psychosis here, but I’m sure it points to some form of madness.

Below: The disturbing project

Below: the book version in process

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Looking Back and Humiliating Izabelle

Matoaka Pocahontas Powhatan, 1595-1617

Two years ago, my niece, Izabelle Adams, came to school for “Heritage Day” dressed as Pocahontas and brought an apple pie. Her teacher decided that Izabelle had not done the assignment correctly. She was supposed to have dressed in a European, Asian, or Hispanic outfit and brought food from her family’s native land. But Izabelle did do that. She had gone back 400 years to one of the earliest family members in North America. How far back did she need to go? Would it have worked if she came in a 16th-century English person’s garb? After this embarrassing and unwarranted humiliation, Izabelle was convinced we had invented her familial relationship to Pocahontas. I tried to show her the evidence in the form of the countless books that have been handed down generations. I’m convinced these exist purely to somehow make sure nobody could ever marry wrong. But these are written in obscure 19th century language, and impossible to decipher, especially if you’re 11.

Being a designer and a touch OCD, I drew her a chart. It got bigger and more complex. Who knew so much intermarrying was happening in Virginia before 1900? Along the way, I’ve found many cousins and wonderful stories that expand on my Virginia grandmother’s short, “Well she was a true character,” or, “Goodness, I do believe he may have been a drunkard.” And recently a cousin sent me a photo of my great-grandfather when he was 19 that oddly resembled my own high school graduation photo. The outcome is that Izabelle now believes me, but is unimpressed. And I am trapped in an OCD task, endlessly making connections and finding proof of the family stories I heard was when I was 11.


One of the oblique books passed down

The 9 foot OCD chart

OCD chart detail

Izabelle on one end of the chart

Pocahontas on the other side

How I keep track of all the pieces

The photo recently sent to me of my great-grandfather at 19

Sean at 19