History is a river of memories that washes up on our lives bearing the debris of the past.
The river keeps rolling on, but we're stuck with the junk that snags in the underbrush along its banks - that terrible tangle of biography, circumstance and chance that makes up the stuff of our world.
This is the subject of The River, Maren Hassinger's moving installation about family history, memory and the American melting pot now on view at Baltimore's School 33 Art Center.
Hassinger's show is but one of several exceptionally powerful exhibitions affiliated this year with Artscape, the city's annual outdoor festival of the arts, which officially begins Friday. Their strength and diversity suggest festival organizers are succeeding in raising the visual arts at the event to new levels of excellence.
Nearly two dozen exhibitions, including The River, will be open during the week leading up to Artscape.
They'll be displayed in venues ranging from the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Contemporary Museum and the Maryland Institute College of Art to Highlandtown's Creative Alliance, School 33 Art Center in Federal Hill and the median strip along Mount Royal Avenue.
The artworks will include painting and sculpture, photography, installation and video as well as impressive displays of historical artifacts at the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture on Pratt Street (see box for more highlights).
The River, a ceiling-high video installation that includes dead branches, plastic garbage bags and long strands of newspaper woven together to resemble the drooping leaves of a willow tree, is a stark, confessional narrative about the tragic family history that preceded Hassinger's birth - and that continued to shape her life long afterward.
"The River is an allusion to the fact that our ancestors leave in their wake this incredible debris," says Hassinger, 58, who currently directs the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
"I felt like a victim of the debris my father's own parents and grandparents had left him in," she adds. "The problems that come down from past generations stay with us."
The installation, created in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Donna Conlon, a former student of Hassinger's at MICA, documents a revelatory meeting last year between Hassinger and her late father's 81-year-old brother, James Wolfe, a man whom she'd barely known previously.
After years of trying, Wolfe had finally managed to contact Hassinger through her half-brother in California, where the artist had grown up. In 2004, Hassinger and Conlon traveled to St. Louis, Mo., where Wolfe was living, and recorded 16 hours of harrowing oral history.
In the video, Wolfe, a genial but vivid storyteller with a lilting hint of a Louisiana accent, relates a Faulknerian tale of lynching, kidnapping, alcoholism, incest, mental illness and suicide that upended the artist's previously tidy conception of her family's past.
Hassinger grew up in Los Angeles an only child and believing that her own father was the only child of her widowed grandmother. She thought of hers as a perfectly ordinary, middle-class African-American family. Even after her parents divorced when she was 13, she remained close to both of them.
But after meeting Wolfe, Hassinger became convinced her family had darker secrets. For one thing, she rememberd as a child seeing Christmas cards from a mysterious "brother Cedric" that arrived from St. Louis every year. Yet whenever she or her mother asked about the letters, her father dismissed them as a prank.
"I believed James because he seemed sincere, and also because he had a lot of documents with the names of the family members as well as photographs of his parents and siblings at various ages," Hassinger recalls.
"I also met Fern Wolfe, the widow of my father's eldest brother, Cedric, whose name I recognized from those Christmas cards we got when I was a child," Hassinger adds. "She and I didn't have a long conversation, but it was clear that she knew my father, knew that he had been estranged from his siblings all these years, and she was actually quite happy to finally meet me."
Among Wolfe's startling revelations was the fact that Hassinger's father, Carey Jenkins, had been kidnapped as a child by his putative mother, Martha Jenkins, and spirited away to California, Hassinger says. Thus the woman whom Hassinger knew as her paternal grandmother was actually her father's abductor. (Although Martha Jenkins never legally adopted the boy, she gave him her surname, which he passed on to his daughter.)
Wolfe also told Hassinger that her father's biological mother, a troubled woman called "Puddin'," had been the mixed-race child of an incestuous relationship between a white Louisiana planter's daughter and her nephew, a man named Willie Wells. (Wells, it turned out, was the grandson of the same planter's out-of-wedlock son by the planter's American Indian mistress.)