Artists in Residence Find Inspiration at The Shadows
This past spring, National Trust Historic Site The Shadows in New Iberia, Louisiana, welcomed two artists in residence as part of the yearlong Art & Shadows program, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Visual artist Lynda Frese and fiddler David Greely were selected for the program and have been working at The Shadows to create new works within their respective mediums inspired by the site's history.
Completed in 1834 for owner David Weeks, the Classic Revival-style plantation estate on the Bayou Teche remained in the family for four generations prior to being acquired by the National Trust. The site's storied history is documented through archival photographs and letters, as well as preserved artifacts found in and around the estate.
We spoke with Lynda and David about finding inspiration at the Shadows and the projects they are working on for the remainder of the residency, which will culminate in April with a celebration melding art and music.
How has working at Shadows-on-the-Teche influenced you creatively?
Lynda Frese: Well, it’s a very gorgeous site and they have given me a studio in the main building that’s nestled inside the gardens, so you see all these old oak trees dripping with moss and the gardens that are really quite lovely.
I’ve had access to all the archives and objects of the collection here. I’ve been looking at the books, letters, textiles, clothing, all kinds of children’s clothing -- of the white planter family children and the slave children -- and I’ve also been looking at all the photographs in the collection too. They include some very early photographs of the site from the 1800s going up into the 1960s, I believe. So I’ve been using some of the photographs in my own work; I’m a collage artist and I take these images and combine ones that didn’t originally belong together. It creates a different, more complex kind of narrative.
For one of the collages, I photographed one of the children’s baptismal gowns -- so they were babies when that happened -- and it’s a very ornate gown. I placed that image floating over a panorama of the cane fields and it’s really evocative in the kinds of stories it could tell. So my work is very interpretative; I’m not a documentary artist so I’m not just laying out the facts, but I’m laying out these images that help us think about the memory of the place.
Have you been able to interact with visitors to the site?
LF: Some of my favorite exchanges have been with people who have been traveling through Louisiana and who are interested in the history, but not necessarily Americans. We get a lot of people from other countries that come and tour the plantations. There was a couple that came from Liverpool, and I didn’t realize Liverpool was a slave trading port. This couple had been visiting Africa, and they had come to the South to look at what they called the triangle of the slave trade.
What makes this project so important?
LF: I think one of the most important aspects of the project is the way that it helps us look at our own relationships with history and memory and the narrative of that history, and to look at it freshly. I think that’s so important for Americans to really think about our own culture, where we come from and where we’re going. There are a lot of parallels for what happened in the past to things that are happening in the present and so it helps us understand our own identities.
As a Louisiana native, what made you want to get involved in the Shadows project?
David Greely: It’s a dream job for me. I get to briefly set aside Creole and Cajun music, and have a look at some of the other things that might have gone on around here musically. That’s been a very fertile area to go into. I’ve written some stuff that has been spectacularly creative for me and I’m really surprised at what I was able to come up with. I really like being on the front gallery and just improvising because there are a few distractions and it keeps me a little bit unsettled.
What parts of the site served as inspiration for your project?
DG: The basis of my project is to use personalities that stand out to me in the 200-year-old history of the Shadows to create a kind of nuclei around which to congeal a song, a melody, some lyrics, an idea. I’m learning more about people like Mary Moore, for whom the house was built, and William Weeks, her son, who ran the plantations for so long.
There was also a slave named Samson who’s a terrific subject; he was a fiddler. We know more about him than most of the slaves here since there are a lot of clues about him and the relationship with the family in the letters. In 1855, William Weeks wrote his mother about a party that had happened the night before. Some relatives were in town and Samson came in with his fiddle, feeling incumbent upon himself to contribute to their entertainment. He had the guests dancing until 11 o’clock at night. So Samson was talented enough to inspire a party, a very memorable party, enough to make him go down in history for that one party.
Do you feel a personal connection to the site?
DG: Well, I was in high school for desegregation, surrounded by all of the long-term results of the plantation economy. To be able to go through it here and study it very carefully and put it under a microscope -- examine the attitudes, the assumptions, and everything -- has been very revealing to me. It explains a lot of what I’ve witnessed in my life, and I actually find it very encouraging because I think things are better now than they’ve ever been. There’s just been a lot more contact between people.
What can you tell us about the culmination of the project in the spring?
DG: Well, the thing that I’ve got on my mind more than anything is the recording project. I’m going to produce a CD of these pieces that I’m doing for the house, and I’m thinking about the most effective way of doing that. In order to have it out by the spring , which I would like to do, now is the time to let the finished projects begin to congeal.
Has anything surprised you in this experience?
DG: I’m still amazed when I walk up to the place by how beautiful it is. I’m getting pretty familiar with it, but it still kind of takes my breath away when I walk up. I still think about all the people that contributed to its existence, dozens, hundreds of people who built this thing, and time. These trees growing the way they have, the gardens, Weeks Hall’s vision for the place. It’s a beautiful place to go to work. Everybody’s jealous.