Wednesday, August 30, 2017




For a white artist to deal with race in his or her work these days can be problematic, to say the least. Dana Shutz and Sam Durant's recent difficulties with exhibiting their work at the Whitney and Walker respectively, points up an uneasiness and at times,  downright unwillingness on the part of institutions to allow for the discussion, other than to capitulate to ultra-PC academic forces. Durant's piece was burned (with his permission) and Shutz's Emmett Till painting came close. So when I started a narrative that would hopefully trace a Dutch/English family's roots going back three hundred and fifty years in America, I knew I was in for some reevaluations, not always pleasant, when it came to race. To not deal with this issue would be inexcusable, if not impossible. How can you write about, scalpings, kidnappings, slavery, hangings, lynchings, assassinations attempts, and the conquest of America, without dealing with racial issues? The one thing I have going for me at this point is I'm not showing in museums and (F)ancestor remains unfinished and unpublished. Obscurity has its perks.
   But what about if it does get published? I hear you- . "Never happen." And maybe you are right, but what if....? Not only have I discovered black Osterhout family branches, but many slaves and "freedmen" and women with the name Jennings. A friend caustically referred to this as the family "property line," as opposed to "bloodline." Cringe worthy as the term is, he's absolutely right. One of the many reasons we are in the shape we are in these days, post first African American President and drowning under the current administration is an unwillingness to face our past with clear eyes. Reading the Indian treaties, published by Benjamin Franklin in the 1750's, every treat was opened with both sides "ridding the path of briars, clearing throats to speak the truth, removing stones from ears, and wiping tears from the eyes...." so what was said could be assimilated, understood, and taken with the best of intentions. Congress should open every session with words to that effect.
    In my writing I've just witnessed John Wilkes Booth leap from the Presidential box at Ford's theater with the words according to court testimony,"I'm sick; send for Maginnis" or Sic temper Tyrannis! W.H. Seward was attacked and almost killed the same night. Reconstruction that had hopefully begun with the passage of the flawed 13th amendment would now be embraced as a three pronged approach, one of the dominant prongs being white supremacy. I'll leave you with a small item from J.P. Osterhout's Bellville Countryman a year later in 1866: ATTEMPTED OUTRAGE BY NEGRO ON A WHITE LADY- " a negro, the former property of Mrs Conyers, attempted to commit an outrage on the person of Miss Giune, a very respectable young lady....Miss Giune was fortunate enough to free herself from the grasp of the beastly ruffian..." This 18 year old former slave, who is never named was then captured and on his way to the jail was "seized by the Mr. Giune (the father) a rope put around his neck and swung from an adjacent tree. The whole thing was done without any excitement or confusion, few citizens being aware of it until the negro was dead." Reconstruction was in full swing. Trump and Charlottesville are that legacy.

Friday, August 25, 2017




"The combination of heavy rain, "life-threatening" storm surges, folding and strong winds could leave wide swaths of South Texas "uninhabitable for weeks or months."- National Weather Service

I don't know whether read and write about history or just watch it unfold and report back. The gulf coast of Texas where John P. Osterhout was stationed with the Confederate army near Galveston, is about to be hit with a hurricane, the likes of which we haven't seen since Katrina almost wiped out New Orleans on the same day in 2005.
    I'm deep in my Osterhout research, reading old copies of the J.P.'s Bellville Countryman, and letters to his wife Junia from the rebel encampment. "I am now leaning against a big tree...on my right my frying pan and sack...on my left my hat....The weather is favorable now....The Sgt. major and a negro went to the beach yesterday and got plenty of oysters...I wish you could be here to enjoy some with us. They say there are enough to load five hundred wagons and leave plenty for seed...Firing constantly in the direction of Galveston...I trust the Lord will be merciful to me and preserve you and my dear children in health and strength...when this miserable, cruel, wicked war is over."
   In the summer of 2016 Galveston Judge Mark Henry declared the Texas oyster industry in a state of disaster. "These oyster farmers endured Hurricane Ike, algae, red tide, drought and now an influx of fresh water from flooding." Although the judge does not mention global climate change as a contributing cause to the oyster crop's demise, the implications are clear. Up to three feet of rain is predicted to accompany Hurricane Harvey, expected to make land fall this afternoon. CNN quoted Corpus Christi mayor as saying "We never had anything like this." I feel for the oysters and people of Texas. In my research going back to the 1600's both the Indians and Moravian missionaries talked of climate change coinciding with the arrival of the European invasion. I hope the Trump Cafe in Bellville, Texas has a second story.

Sunday, August 20, 2017




"I'm a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the sate, and that's my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today's establishments."- Steve Bannon

In the wake of the Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Trump's responses vacillated between tacit condemnation and apologist approval, as he noted violence "on many sides, many sides." By the end of the week another in a long line of advisors, strategists, and spokesmen, Steve Bannon, had exited "government," and headed back to the comfort of Breitbart New, as editors declared "#war" on Hollywood, Democrats, the mainstream media and conservative Republicans. Who's left?
     More and more what I'm writing in (F)ancestor dovetails with reportage of what's happening the very day I'm writing it. I'd never even heard of Justice Roger B. Taney before this week and by the time I'd read the Dred Scott decision, his statue was literally being lifted off its pedestal in the middle of the night and trucked off to some unknown location in Baltimore.
   What the hell is going on here? Black Osterhouts, French semioticians, great photographers, racist newspaper editors, executed Jennings slaves and PhD. candidates lead me through a myriad of mazes and dark passageways as I read all I can get my hands on. My glaringly obvious inadequacies when I started this project have softened and are beginning to dissolve in the face of my aggressive compulsion.
    In this divided atmosphere of factional racist politics I turn 65, as the sun is blocked out by the moon. My birthday August 21st has come up so many times in the course of my research I can no longer keep track. On paper I'm a poor, white bachelor, collecting a small social security check, on Medicare and Medicaid, about to have an eye operation that will hopefully save my sight. What will a curious grad student think of me 100 years from now? A failed artist? An amateur historian? A crackpot cult leader? A cat lover? In looking back at this "family" history the one thing I can admit is how little we know and how much we are convinced of the opposite. Whatever happens tomorrow, some will see it as a sign.

Monday, August 14, 2017




   I know these farmers. They probably could've bought a nice old farm with cleared fields and pasture, but this being Sullivan County, they opted to do it the hard way. They cut timber, moved rocks, burned brush and cleared enough stone riddled property to raise pigs and chickens.  Down by the wood line, they put in a nice little apple orchard. They are a hardscrabble little family, two kids, a boy and a girl, sometimes clothed, ofttimes not, carving a place of love out of the woods, on a dead end road they, as Crane would put it, "battled with hordes of ignorant bushes on (their) way to knolls and solitary trees which invited (them)." It was a constant struggle, but they were young and foolish and when the townsfolk shook their heads and spit, they just smiled and did it their way.
    These farmers fought the weather- too wet- too dry, and the tax man, everything was skeeved and skewered with  post dated checks and strained credit lines, disaster always lurking just around the corner. I do what I can for them, poor souls. So when they came to me, yet with another complaint, I listened, shook my head but.....instead of spitting, I agreed to help. What melted my cold heart you ask? I'll let the farmer tell it:

"This one fucking deer had been getting in the orchard and stripping the new growth on those apple trees. You know how much 2500 apple trees cost? I can't afford to just let the deer rob me blind. Come on, man. What choice did I have? So the other day, I was going to work and I saw that doe. I went in and got my gun..." Let me stop the farmer there for a second. He does have a "gun" (old lever action .30-.30 with iron sights), that probably has never been sighted in.  "....and took a bead on her back and touched one off. The damn deer didn't even stop eating. I got a better rest, took my time and shot again. This time she raised her head, with half a branch in her mouth and then continued stripping the tree....."
    To make a very long (12 shots) story short, lets cut to shot number 12. "I got about 30 yards away and gut shot her. She fell but wasn't dead. Now I was out of fucking shells. So I went back to the house, got a shovel......" I'll spare you the bloody, Shakespearian tragedy from the doe's perspective. The community had unknowingly devoured the evidence the night before at a backstrap bbq, thinking it was pork.
    This story is what put me in a nice folding chair, behind two massive boulders, overlooking the apple orchard, scoped .30-06 laying on a steady rest, reading Stephen Crane's "Sullivan County Tales and Sketches" written in 1892, this afternoon. Sure, I'm doing it for my friends the farmers, not to mention it's a rather pleasant way to wile away an afternoon, but ultimately I'm doing it for the deer. Some are made to farm and some are made to hunt. I do not want to kill a deer in August. It's hot, buggy and the deer are unpredictable and still deep in the woods. I'll be lucky to catch one with an apple twig in it's mouth, but if I do, I'll be equipped to kill it quickly, gut it and hang it up ready to be butchered. Then, I'll say thanks  to the deer and for having such good friends and we'll all share the venison. I was there all afternoon and only saw one bunny rabbit. But it's only day one. The "ignorant bushes" be damned. How little things have changed since Crane.