Johnson City TN Suffrage Centennial Celebration

Darkness into the Light: From Negativity to Creativity - Watercolor by Ellen Elmes, January, 2021


This painting is a record of sorts of gradually envisioned responses invoked in me during the pendulum swing of emotionally charged events experienced from Jan. 6th through Jan. 20th–all of it against the dark backdrop of 400+ years of African American subjugation and the consequent ongoing fight for human rights. It’s one of those paintings that I sometimes experience in that it seemed to build upon itself –one idea/image led to another –and gradually a theme crystallized to guide my choice and rendering of symbolic imagery. As I delved deeper into the history of our national architectural and sculptural symbols and the courage of some of the creative icons of African American women who have sought to speak and sing the “truths we hold to be self-evident,” I thought about the power of hate to clutch us in darkness and the force of creative expression to bring us back into the light. We were, of course, all witnesses to Amanda Gorman’s wielding of that power as she released “The Hill We Climb” into the Inauguration Day air and into our expanded vision and pulsating hearts. And Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopezand GarthBrooks–all varied but equally passionate expressions of light, right? Expanding historically on other Black women who have stepped to the podium to evoke light out of darkness, my painting grew to include images of Maya Angelou reading “On the Pulse of the Morning”at President Clinton’s first inauguration; Mahalia Jackson singing at President Kennedy’s inauguration and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral (“Precious Lord”); Aretha Franklin singing“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s first inauguration; Toni Morrison,the first African American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature; and finally, Marion Anderson who met the DAR’s refusal to host her concert at Constitutional Hall by taking it to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As the Lincoln Memorial and Capitol Building are iconic architectural symbols of our democracy, I started the painting by depicting one of the many sculptures in and around Washington DC that also give visual voice to national experience.You may have seen in the media, as I did, after the mob attack on the capitol on the 6th, the view of the capitol dome in the distance with the Peace Monument at Penn. Ave. and 1stSt. in the foreground. I was so struck by the image, and so began the painting a few days later by depicting the figures at the top of the Peace Monument of Grief covering her face as she leans against History’s shoulder. Along the lower border of the painting I next added two violent insurrectionists to the right of the statue and Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue silhouetted as tumbling from its entrenched symbolic perch to the left lower corner. And behind the capitol dome image I added a depiction of the Statue of Freedom that stands atop the dome.The helmet with feathers atop the head of this statue has confused many to think she represents a Native American woman. But apparently that was never the intended image. When the sculptor Thomas Crawford submitted his design for the statue with Freedom wearing an historic “liberty cap” -symbolizing the style of hat that was given to freed men in the Roman Empire and later popularized by French and American revolutionaries celebrating freedom -then (pre-Civil War) Secretary of War Jefferson Davis overseeing the project would not allow the hat. He rejected it because “American Liberty is original and not the liberty of the free slave.” Guess in his mind “liberty of the free slave” was an oxymoron. So a helmet with stars and squashed eagle feathers ensued and remains confusing to on-the-ground observers today.So all this is probably much more than you wanted to read, but just wanted to share my painted perspective during this January from our mountaintop place of snow and ice for what it’s worth! - Ellen Elmes