When I browse our family albums, I skip quickly though the dressed-up holiday line-ups with carefully combed hairstyles, but stop to linger over the “good stuff.” For me, the good stuff are the candid shots that capture a slice of everyday life. Give me wrinkled clothes and tussled hair every time! Those are the shots that transport me to another time to glimpse the lives of my ancestors, revealing moments they thought were important enough to record on precious film.
Rarest among these slice-of-life photos are those that picture folks working. When I run into those shots, I zero in for a good, long look! Teams of horses pulling wagons, sawmills, tractors, yoked oxen, feeding chickens — bring them on! I love these images and never miss the chance to ask older relatives what they remember about these chores to reconstruct the story behind the photos with the help of my mother and brother, my co-conspirators in this genealogical quest.
Woman’s Work is Never Done
Among my favorite workaday photos are those showing women at work, driving tractors or oxen, feeding livestock, manning the telegraph, as well as more traditional household chores. How arrogant are we to proclaim the late 1900s as the era of the “Working Woman”! Women have always pitched in whenever there was work to be done.
A couple of years ago, I decided to use one of these photos as the basis of a painting for my mother for Christmas: my Great Aunt “Teen” in overalls riding a tractor in the 1920s. The tiny black-and-white snapshot was beat up and faded, so the first task was scanning and restoring the photo as well as I could. Then I gathered other photos of Teen, since her face in the tractor photo was heavily shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat.
At first I planned to do the painting in full color, thinking that would bring the scene back to life. But the color sketch just looked fake — I liked the black-and-white better. Maybe I could duplicate the illusion of faded color that I often experience when I look long enough at an old sepia photo print? I decided to try using Prismacolor’s three different hues of gray colored pencils — warm gray, cool gray, and French gray — to apply subtle coloration to a monochrome image. I loved the effect and, more importantly, I loved working on the painting, a kind of narrative portrait. My respect for Teen grew as I drew and learned more of her story of helping out the family during very difficult times.
Before I finished the painting, I already knew I wanted to honor the other women caught working in my family album in a series called (naturally!) “Woman’s Work is Never Done.” Next Christmas, I gave my mom the second in the series, a work portrait of her Aunt Hazel, a telegrapher in East Palestine, Ohio.
This past Christmas my mom’s gift was a painting of her mom, taking a break from washing diapers to mow the grass with a push mower. Just in case raising seven kids wasn’t enough work!
Women’s History Month
In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m unveiling these first paintings of what I hope are many in the “Woman’s Work is Never Done” series. This week, I’ll post the paintings, along with the stories behind the women and their work. I don’t know where this series is headed, but invite anyone who has intriguing photos and stories of their foremother’s labor to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do the paintings look like? Stay tuned!