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

Detail

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/Lynda.com 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.

Delusions of Grandeur

My grandmother was born in 1901. While she didn’t live in Virginia before the civil war, she told stories about her grandfather and his bucolic existence. In her world, everyone was kind, gentle, good, and came from good families.  When she talked about emancipation, she remained unmoved, telling us, “Well, after granddad freed his slaves, why they refused to leave. They loved him so dearly, they all cried, ‘oh, please let us stay.’” My brother, sister, and I tended to look at her and not know what to say. So we politely nodded with frozen, terrified smiles. It never occurred to her that they these people had been held in bondage for two hundred years, had little education, no prospects, or anywhere to go.

I’ve been reading a biography of another family member, Thomas Nelson Page. Like my grandmother, he seemed to live in a dream world. Page was a well-known author, who wrote books that promoted the idea of, once again, a romantic antebellum American south, filled with chivalry, fine ladies, and happy slaves. Page was 12 years old when the civil war ended. He was born at Oakland Plantation in Virginia. He was descended from two prominent families, Page and Nelson. Like most Virginia gentry, he was related in multiple ways to most of the other gentry.

I can understand how seeing life before the war as a child, and then facing the destruction and upheaval during and after the war could color his perception. He could not grasp the full ramifications of slavery. In other ways, Page saw the reality. Old Virginia was ruled by a small group of the aristocracy, and after the war replaced with a moneyed, capitalist class where family names had little value. His world and its benefits had collapsed. As it had for many others, including my grandmother. So they retreated into a past that was kind, and slavery was justified as a paternalistic obligation.

This is what I find difficult to understand: Page was enormously successful in the North. His book, Marse Chan (Master Channing), was a best seller, as well as other antebellum nostalgic novels, In Ole Virginia, Two Little Confederates, and The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock. The concept of a great broken civilization, and the lost cause, played out repeatedly in popular culture. This Moonlight and Magnolia style culminated in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. The lesson here, then, has something to do with self-delusion, or a way of ignoring all facts to embrace a preferred history.

Before my grandfather died, he called me over, “You see, Sean, there is something wrong with your grandmother in the head. She can’t understand that we are on a railroad journey.” In reality, they were at home, but my grandfather was convinced they were traveling by rail around the American west, and somehow the US Post always found them. He was sure his worldview was correct, and my grandmother was wrong. How many of our own perceptions are delusions? Maybe I’m not actually going to work each day, but sitting in a sanitarium somewhere.

Finding Robert E. Lee

When I went to Virginia last year for a series of speaking engagements, I spent half a day at the Virginia Historical Society. Half a day was far from enough time. I could have spent a week looking through documents and images. On one hand, walking through the exhibitions was exhilarating. On the other, it was incredibly frustrating. At each turn, I found an object or a painting of a family member or distant relative. That was the fun part. The downside was that I was alone, and it seemed odd to gasp, then grab a nearby person and say, “That thar, why that’s my great-grandpappy.” So I went about this incredible discovery with only the guards to keep me company.

I feel amazingly lucky to have so much of my family’s history intact and easy to access. I’m also glad to know that my grandmother wasn’t totally loony and making up stories. My great-great grandmother, Ocatvia Mildred White, was General Robert E. Lee’s first or second cousin. I’m not sure which since the intermarrying tended to create a tangled mess of fishing lines. My grandmother was quite proud that her Grandmama Octavia was General Lee's god-daughter. Now I won’t go into a lengthy historical review of General Lee’s biography, but he seemed to be rather an upstanding man. One of my favorite images from the VHS is this photograph of General Lee after the Civil War. It was taken in 1869, when Lee was president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. It’s an arresting and haunting image, with a composition that highlights a sense of isolation. It doesn’t feel heroic like other Lee images; it’s a quiet surrender.

Grandpappy Walker

Since it’s almost Independence Day, I decided to post about someone in my family who was involved with the revolution. Sure, there are the likely suspects: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. And, they are indeed family members on either my mother of father’s side. But we all know those stories. One of my favorite distant grandfathers wasn’t as well known as the these others. Dr. Thomas Walker was born in 1715. He was Thomas Jefferson’s guardian, the first white man to explore Kentucky, and did a whole batch of impressive things.

But I like him because he risked everything for the revolution. By 1776, Dr. Walker was 61 years old and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He wasn’t a destitute revolutionary; he was firmly set as a member of the gentry. It would be as if a comfortable CEO of a Fortune 500 company decided to join a revolution today. Typically comfortable old white guys don’t do this. 

In 1781, British Colonel Banastre Tarleton marched on Charlottesville with the intent to capture then Governor, Thomas Jefferson. When the British Army reached the family estate, Castle Hill, my distant grandmother and Dr. Walker delayed them by preparing a fine breakfast. Legend has it they also supplied liquor. This gave the patriot Jack Jouett time to warn Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislators of Tarleton's plan to capture them, and they escaped.

Just after the American Revolution, a traveling author visited Castle Hill and wrote an account of his interview with Dr. Thomas Walker:

"One day, in a chat, while each was delivering his sentiments of what would be the state of America a century hence, the old man [Walker], with great fire and spirit, declared his opinion that, 'The Americans would then reverence the resolution of their forefathers, and would eagerly impress an adequate idea of the sacred value of freedom in the minds of their children, that if, in any future ages they should be again called forth to revenge public injuries, to secure that freedom, they should adopt the same measures that secured it to their brave ancestors.'"

Thomas Anbury (Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, 1776-1781)

Castle Hill, Virginia

Castle Hill, Virginia

Hard Times Come Again No More

I recently read an article about two families that reunited; one side of the family was white, the other was black. Their connection was a farm in 19th century Virginia. Of course, they were slaveholders and slaves. The inspiring part of the story was that both sides, when reunited, talked about the issue head on. They didn’t skirt around the elephant in the room.

I recall talking with my good friend Dori Tunstall at a conference. Tunstall is a family name we share, and we joked about how we might be related. Believe me, I’ll take credit any day to have someone as accomplished and intelligent as Dori in my family. While we were telling stories, we veered into a discussion about slavery, The people around us began to have that awkward smile on their faces, as if we had told a really offensive joke. I guess I should add slavery to sex, politics, and religion as subjects one shouldn’t discuss at a party.

I recently found images from one of my favorite books as a child, The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs, Illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia in 1952. The site www.goldengems.blogspot.com is a treasure trove of fantastic imagery. Many of the images illustrate songs Stephen Foster wrote. Many of Foster’s songs have a romantic vision of the old south. The illustrations depict cavalier and chivalrous men, refined and delicate southern ladies, and happy slaves picking cotton. My mother is a true romantic, but when she read this book with me, she made it very plain that the reality was not as depicted.

Enjoying these images is a contradictory experience. They are light-hearted and well executed. But many of them are loaded with political baggage. We know the happy images are, in fact, portraying human beings in bondage. It would be easier to put the book away and pretend it doesn’t exist. I think it is better to look at these images, enjoy their technique, but understand them, and face the issue head on.

The Ghosts of Virginia

Last week, I traveled through North Carolina and Virginia. Part of this visit was for speaking engagements. I also wanted to do some family history scouting in Virginia. In the same way that people return to the county of their ancestors in Ireland, or the village in Italy, I wanted to visit my roots. The only experience I have of Virginia is either stories told by my grandmother, or history books. I expected that I would be a cousin to everyone I met on the street. Oddly, this wasn’t the case. As I was reminded, it’s not 1850. I was surprised to find many streets named after family members, and Colonial Williamsburg was like a family reunion. I had some of the best fried-chicken of my life. I met some remarkable people working incredibly hard for their community. And, I now know what Henrico and Albemarle counties look like.

My grandmother talked about Virginia in a poetic and tragic way. I assumed that it was because she was dramatic. But, I found myself feeling the same way. I felt a constant undercurrent of family history everywhere I went. I thought about the great achievements and terrible deeds committed. The entire time, I was aware that all of these people were gone, all of their accomplishments completed by the 18th century, and that the families had long ago dispersed. I definitely felt the ghosts of many of them at each stop. Whether it was Peter Meriwether Fry at the Jefferson Hotel, or Dr. Thomas Walker at Castle Hill, or Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, I could see their world through my eyes.

Robert Carter house

paint color detail, Colonial Williamsburg

There is more between the lines than leading

Today I’m in Richmond. I spent yesterday in Raleigh with the enormously generous and patient Denise Gonzales Crisp. I’m staying at The Jefferson Hotel. I was recommended to try another hotel that was less stodgy, but I’m, yes, stodgy. It suits me fine. I also decided to stay here because my grandmother’s Uncle Peter Meriwether Fry was the hotel’s long-time general manager from its opening in 1895.

Like most of the “official” information I have, there is no mention of anything salacious. In this instance, this could be true, as I never heard my grandmother say anything bad about her Uncle. And in Southern terms that would have been, “Well, I’d rather not say anything.” I have an old clipping from “Men of Mark in Virginia” published in 1908. It’s rather dry. But I like what is written between the lines.

The tone reads pleasantly and suggests a life of peace and harmony, but any of our lives could be rewritten in these terms. Clearly there was an issue of a lack of purpose, he tried agriculture and didn’t like that. He preferred to read about history, but was pressured to take on law, which was a common family profession. He dropped that and ended up in the family business as his father owned several resorts. It drives me mad that there is so little substance here. However, in the Jefferson’s little historical case, I found a nice portrait of his daughter at her Coming-Out party. Supposedly, he made a scrapbook at the Virginia Historical Society. That will be for my next visit.

The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia

FRY, PETER MERIWETHER, was born in Richmond, Virginia, March 21, 1856. His parents were Col. William H. Fry and Jane Margaret (Watson) Fry. His ancestry begins with Joshua Fry, who was educated at Oxford University and settled in Essex county, Virginia, between 1710 and 1720. He filled many public offices; was master of the grammar school at William and Mary college; professor of mathematics; member of the house of burgesses, and presiding justice and county lieutenant of Albemarle. With Peter Jefferson, the father of Thomas Jefferson he made a most interesting map of Virginia. In 1754 he was commissioned by Governor Dinwiddie as colonel and commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces with George Washington as major and next in command. He was stricken with fever at Fort Cumberland, and Washington and the whole army attended the funeral. On a large oak tree Washington cut the following inscription which can be read to this day: " Under this oak tree lies the body of the good, the just and the noble Fry."

Rev. Henry Fry was the second son of Col. Joshua Fry, and the latter was father of Joshua Fry, the great grandfather of the subject of this sketch. His grandfather was Hugh W. Fry, who was in business for years in Richmond, was president of Hollywood cemetery company, and of the old Dominion Iron and Nail works, and had a share in other business enterprises. His father, Colonel William H. Fry, was in business in Richmond for years, was captain of the Richmond light infantry blues and colonel of the 1st Virginia regiment, and during the latter part of the war was stationed in Richmond in charge of Camp Lee. He owned an interest in several summer resorts, and was one of the best known men in Virginia.

Peter Meriwether Fry, the subject of this sketch, spent his time in early boyhood partly in the city and partly in the country. While he had no regular tasks, he would assist on the farm during the summer with many things. He had a private tutor until he entered the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical institute, where he was graduated in agriculture in 1876. Mr. Fry read a great deal of history and literature and put much time upon the study of law, but never graduated or practiced the profession.

He began the active work of life as chief clerk at the Alleghany Springs during the season of 1876, representing his father's interest, liked the hotel business and determined to make the work his profession. From 1876 to 1895 he was chief clerk at the Alleghany Springs and the Greenbrier White Sulphur Springs, and since 1895 he has been employed at the Jefferson Hotel the finest hotel in the South first as chief clerk for one year and afterwards as manager.

Mr. Fry is a member of the Hermitage Golf club, and president of the Richmond Chapter of the V. P. I. Alumni association. He has always been fond of athletic sports, preferably

base ball, but he has little time for such things at present.

In politics Mr. Fry, is a Democrat, who has never swerved from his party allegiance. In religious preferences he is a member of the Episcopal church. His advice to young men is never to keep so busy as not to have a little time each day for exercise in the open air.

On June 15, 1897, he married Miss Irene Virginia Hancock, and they have had three children all of whom are now (1907) living.

His address is the Jefferson Hotel, Corner Franklin, Jefferson and Main Streets, Richmond, Virginia.

Carry Me Back to Old Virginny

This week, I’m traveling between North Carolina and Virginia to do a series of lectures. Since my mother’s side of the family is an old Virginia family, I’ll be posting this week about family stories. If this bores you to death, come back next week, we’ll be back to design. Otherwise, I’ve got courage, lies, death, murder, and love affairs to cover.

My grandmother, Janice Ann Booker Flint, was one tough cookie. On the surface, she couldn’t be more genteel. She spoke in a slow Virginia drawl, and was always reminding me that men should always seat a women facing out at a restaurant, or it was tasteless to monogram too many things, or a life without service was not a life. She dressed in pastels and liked large hats. This, however, was the same woman who, at 15, had homesteaded in Aspen with only her mother. For her entire life, she believed her father had died in an elevator accident in Chicago in 1914. After she died, we learned that he had actually simply walked out and lived the rest of his life in Florida.

She learned to shoot, and claimed she was the only woman in the valley to shoot a bear. She raised three daughters by herself, but never seemed to work. There was a rumor that she worked in a brassier factory for a week during the war, otherwise she wrote poetry. She wasn’t the type of grandmother who made cookies. In fact, I never saw her cook anything. Our great Aunt Weegie (a nickname) did all the cooking and cleaning and stayed with my grandmother from 1935 until she died in 1988.

My grandmother taught me that people were contradictory, and you could definitely follow your own path. I inherited her white and wavy hair, features, and hopefully graciousness.

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.

P1030399

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