Portfolio > Oil Paintings/Charcoal Drawings_Old Time Songs & Stories

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Gourd Banjo 2
Gourd Banjo 2
Charcoal on Paper
24" x 18"

In the two previous entries "Gourd Banjo 4" and "Gourd Banjo 3," I discuss the personal and spiritual meanings associated with playing the gourd banjo that I made. I'd like to say more about it's origins as it relates to the painting on the wall behind me in this drawing.

This painting behind me is a line drawing of a small watercolor painting called "The Old Plantation." The scholar Dr. Susan Shames figured out who made this painting: John Rose, an 18thc. enslaver who owned a rice plantation on the South Carolina coast. Dr. Shames wrote a book about this wonderful discovery, "The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed." Dr. Shames is a decorative arts librarian for the Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, VA, where this painting lives.

This painting is one of the earliest, visual documentations of the banjo, from the late 18thc. Unlike all the pejorative, mocking representations of blacks from around this time, especially blackface minstrelsy, this painting is a refreshingly disinterested depiction of black culture of its time. Although John Rose enslaved others, it seems that he was genuinely interested in observing and depicting objectively what the slaves did in their downtime--too bad he couldn't go one step more and free them!

Kristina Gaddy in her book "Well of Souls" discusses the banjo and the spiritual significance of the dancing/gathering in "The Old Plantation," by relating religious beliefs, ideas, and motifs held in-common among religions from West Africa, Suriname, and the Caribbean.

She talks about how the banjo might have been used in religious ceremonies to conjure ancestral spirits, encouraging these dead souls to enter the vessel-like form of the gourd banjo, so that they could commune and communicate with their living family members. She suggests that this is what's happening in "The Old Plantation." Kristina concludes that the banjo might have been a spiritual object of profound spiritual, religious significance, a well of souls.

In my painting "Communitas," I'm trying to conjure and commune with banjo players of yore. It seems like more than a coincidence that Kristina's book, which she published in 2022, seems to echo and inform what I was trying to do when I painted "Communitas" in 2016. A mere coincidence, synchronicity, or something more?