August 11, 2015

Art and Shadows: A Fresh Perspective at Shadows on the Teche

For the last two decades, historic sites around the country have been engaged in a steady, thoughtful discussion about slavery and race. This conversation isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it happens consistently and it happens with the authenticity and veracity that can only happen in an old place, in a place where history happened and history is preserved, and history is connected to the present. This year the Preservation Leadership Forum blog a look at National Trust Historic Sites and how their interpretation of slavery has evolved and changed over the years.

The Shadows on the Teche opened to the public in 1961 as a National Trust Historic Site consisting of the 1834 mansion and 2 ½ acres of gardens designed in the 1930s by the last owner. Home to four generations of the Weeks family for 125 years, the rooms were full of family-owned objects, and, until recently tours were based on the Weeks family papers, a collection of more than 17,000 letters and documents relating to the sugar plantation on Weeks Island 15 miles distant from the Shadows.

A recent pilot project, involving two artists-in-residence, however, has helped to shed new light on the people who lived and worked at the plantation, leading to compelling new programming and events and a more inclusive site tour.

Lynda Frese and David Greely at Shadows on the Teche. | Credit National Trust for Historic Preservation

Early tours at the site concentrated on architecture and the collection. In the 1980s, tours provided more personalized history by focusing on individual members of the planter family, particularly the women, based on their letters. In the 1990s, the discovery of estate inventories led staff to re-read the family papers in an effort to present “a whole story” tour, but while we could talk about some individual slaves by name and knew a little about their families and work, the story was still told from the planter family’s perspective.

Building on a partnership with the area schools that began in the 1970s, our annual education programs evolved as well. We introduced a play about two enslaved children who grew up with the planter’s children in the 1840s, which was presented on site by and for students. While we have continued to strengthen our interpretation of slavery, budget tightening and the need to focus on fundraising, has meant that we have not spent as much time on research and program development as we would have liked.

In 2013 staff at National Trust headquarters asked if we would take part in a pilot project—creating two artist residencies from different disciplines to work together at a historic site. We agreed because it seemed like a natural fit—this area of Louisiana is home to a vibrant community of artists, and art is an important part of the Shadows history. The last owner brought artists and creative thinkers to the property including Cecil B. DeMille, Henry Miller, Abe Rattner, Elia Kazan, and Walt Disney.

"In the Big House" by Lynda Frese for Art and Shadows at The Shadows on the Teche. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Working with our colleagues, we applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for a grant to support this innovative arts program which we called Art and Shadows. The two artists—one a musician, and one a visual artist—would have full access to the house, collections and archives, and would be commissioned to create works inspired by the site’s history.

Art and Shadows received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and our jury selected two outstanding artists from the region. Lynda Frese, a collage artist and professor at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, and David Greely, a traditional French Louisiana fiddler and founding member of the Mamou Playboys, began their residencies in May 2014. They soon became immersed in the archives, searching through the extensive photograph collection and reading the Weeks family papers, getting to know the various people connected to the site during the 1830s-1950s.

Period furniture, portraits, and clothing presented, as Weeks Hall, the last private owner of the Shadows said, a “picture of the life,” but as the artists quickly realized, the life that was pictured was that of the planter family. Hall also said that his family home like all other great houses across the South had been built on “a living foundation…the labor of slaves.” This “living foundation” was less evident in the archives, but images of plantation workers from the 1870s and some photos of dilapidated outbuildings that had been removed in 1919 when Hall was designing his gardens, caught the artists’ attention and they began raising questions about the enslaved field hands and house servants whose lives and stories were not as visible as those of the Weeks family.

David Greely at The Shadows on the Teche. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Occasional references in the letters and estate inventories provided glimpses of individuals and families of enslaved workers on the sugar plantation and at the New Iberia property. One such reference in an 1855 letter captured Greely’s attention. “Last night Samson came in with his fiddle as he usually does when anyone comes here,… His music appeared to inspire Mrs. Hopkins as soon as it commenced she … danced for a half an hour in the real old style—.” Greely’s reading led him to other African-American personalities that inspired songs, ranging from Charlotte, an enslaved cook who escaped in the 1840s, to Bunk Johnson, who worked in the Shadows gardens in the 1940s when he wasn’t touring as a world renowned jazz trumpet player.

Frese spent hours up on the third floor going through textile storage boxes and photographing items of period clothing and scanning archival photographs. As she attempted to understand slavery at the Shadows, Frese began to compare the lives of the enslaved and the planter family by creating her own special thought-provoking collages from photos of historic images, period clothing, archaeological artifacts, and the southern Louisiana landscape.

Visitors from around the world have shown great interest in Greely and Frese’s work, and we have encouraged them to interact with the artists who help them to see, hear, and think in different ways beyond the traditional site tour. At the May preview, visitors viewed and discussed Frese’s 18 paintings exhibited at the Shadows, and listened (and danced) as Greely played his fiddle and talked about the people from Shadows history that had caught his attention and inspired him to write about them in song.

"House and Field" by Lynda Frese for Art and Shadows at The Shadows on the Teche. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Art and Shadows officially ends August 31. While not developed specifically to expand our interpretation of slavery, the program has succeeded in doing so in ways that will last beyond these residencies. We intend to build on the experience by combining documents and collection items with Frese’s images and Greely’s musical stories to encourage visitors to think about slavery, reconstruction and the early Civil Rights era, using personalities in the Shadows history and the surrounding community to discuss events and change over time. Projects in planning include a CD of Greely’s music, a new introductory exhibit and video and a more inclusive site tour.

Pat Kahle is the executive director at The Shadows on the Teche.

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By: Pat Kahle

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