Secret history

Whitfield Lovell's installation at SAMA combines furniture and memorabilia with paintings to resurrect the forgotten residents of Quakertown, Texas.
Secret history

By Glynis Christine

Whitfield Lovell imbues the official history with everyday ghosts

Many folks believe that history is merely an objective retelling of events that have occurred chronologically, while storytelling is a personal account of those same events as they touched and inspired the narrator. Yet, one can also link history and storytelling and engage in "history-telling." If the storyteller personalizes the historical event by adding objects, sounds, and smells that he or she imagines or remembers being present when the event took place, it can help the viewer transcend time and space and step into the story. This takes us back to the original meaning of the word: HIStory.

Whispers from the Walls: The Art of Whitfield Lovell, currently on view in the San Antonio Museum of Art's Cowden Gallery, is an opportunity to visit the good people of Quakertown, an African-American community that was located in the center of Denton, Texas, from 1875 until it was forced to disperse in 1924.

Surrounded by the scattered and tattered clothes of its evicted residents stands a solitary house, an embodied ghost that offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of the anonymous Quakertown citizens. Inside, the house conveys the impression that the owners have stepped out only for a moment and will return shortly to show off their fresh-cut roses or offer you a sip from the flask of whiskey they were enjoying before being called away. No matter your background, some objects will produce a cherished memory of people who, like these

The artist explained to Danae Hall and Jacob Gutierrez that, no, his exhibit wasn't about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, but rather celebrated the lives of ordinary people. (Photo by Glynis Christine)
homeowners, will not come back: a grandmother, aunt, father, mother, or friend. As proof that these forgotten individuals were - and in a sense still are - there, Lovell has painted their images on the bare, wooden walls.

The only regret about the installation is that, while you are certain to be touched by what you see, hear, and feel, you are not allowed to touch. Also, with all there is to see and experience at this exhibit, you'll need time time to stroll through and reminisce.

This might prove especially difficult for the exhibit's younger viewers, such as 5-year-old Danae Hall and 9-year-old Jacob Gutierrez. Danae and Jacob were invited by the Current, along with their mothers, Gwen Sims and Monica Gutierrez, to see the exhibit that Danae said she'd heard about in school.

Jacob, who says he loves history, wondered why the exhibit was not about Martin Luther King, the figure in black history with whom he was most familiar. Because he, like many of us, has learned to consider history from the standpoint of exceptional people and events (he couldn't wait to visit the dinosaur exhibit in another part of the museum), he was convinced that the house belonged to King, and that the wall portrait of a couple in the house were King's parents.

Whispers From the Walls:
The Art of Whitfield Lovell

10am-8pm Tue, third Thu
10am-5pm Wed-Sat,
noon-6pm Sun,
Free for members,
children under 3;
$6 adult; $5 senior;
$4 student; $1.75 child
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W. Jones
As luck would have it, Jacob got the chance to ask Lovell (who happened to be visiting the museum at the time) if the two people were King's mom and dad. "No," was the unsympathetic reply. Lovell has said that he prefers to place ordinary people in a context of reverence usually reserved for famous people. This installation is his-story and he will tell it the way he wants.

Later, as further proof of his keen understanding of significant events and their interrelatedness, Jacob described one of the installation's oversized tableaux as looking "like that girl who didn't care if she was at the front of the bus. You know," he said, "she went to jail ... " He was talking about Rosa Parks and he came to this conclusion because the person was wearing a hat with a large feather and glasses. Good for you, Jacob, you've been paying attention. (And another "Good Job!" to his overworked teacher who is probably wondering if anything s/he is saying is being heard and remembered.)

"For me, making an installation is like creating a shrine or setting a dinner table, carefully putting all the components in place, with each object having its own meaning and purpose," Lovell says. "The objects to which I've always been most attracted tend to be things that feel worn and a bit rusty. I'm really interested in the fact that these are objects that have been held and used in daily rituals by people who may not be here anymore, but who somehow imbued those objects with their essence." •

By Glynis Christine


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