Once upon a time in the Deep East Texas Pines

SFA Mast Arboretum and Sculpture Garden, photo by James Khattak

Deep East Texas is a place where you can not only walk where your ancestors walked, but the odds are that the people you are walking with are descendants of your ancestors’ companions as well. Standing on a sun-dappled clearing, church grounds, or even in your own yard, you could time travel back 100 years and it all would be very recognizable.

While I have been creating art around my community and family history for the past five months or so (and even longer in a less defined way,) it’s time to start adding more layers to the Pine Curtain Project.

With the help of a new subscription to ancestry.com and a stack of other research that I am slowly but surely making my way through, I am finding enough common threads for a few stories to focus on and follow. There is so much information, it’s easy to get overwhelmed! Especially since right now, it’s mostly names and dates in a database. By pulling on these threads, narrowing down the data, and combining it with my families’ oral and written histories, I can tell a bigger story in a bigger world.

The first thing I did was narrow down the time frame. Before the 1800s, most of my family was scattered across the south and east: Georgia, Tennessee and Connecticut. It was in the 1800s that they made their way to Angelina County to build their homes, meet each other, and eventually create me! Both sides of my family knew each other, going back generations. I was told that one side would build, toil and play by the rules and the other side would come ransack, steal and bend the game to their favor. I won’t say which was which, but if you know, then you know! (: So, I contain multitudes.

The 1800s was also a pivotal time for Homer, Huntington and Lufkin, the Deep East Texas towns where I come from. As I have mentioned before, Homer was a thriving town, then shrank to nearly nothing, and is now being built back up with new homes and services in a second wave that started about 15 years ago. I left after high school in 1994. With that in mind, I thought it made sense to end my research with Homer on the rise again but not completely changed, and when I (and many of my peers) left, breaking that generational tradition of staying close to home. So, the 1990s it will be.

For the next year, or the first year of what I plan to be a multi-year project, I want to focus my writing around these themes:

The evolution of Homer, Huntington and Lufkin around the timber industry, railroads and other opportunities for progress that did or maybe did not work out.

Interpersonal relationships within the Homer community, specifically a series of family feuds.

The role that evangelical religion has played in my father’s side of the family. The history of this side of the family seems to have two speeds: feuding and preaching, often within the same nuclear family unit. Since the 1900s, this side of the family have also preached independently, not necessarily affiliated with the larger denominations. This is an interesting contrast to me.

My great-great-great uncle’s (mom’s side) involvement with organized crime in the 1940s.

I am not putting many boundaries on my visual art, because so many of the photos are compelling without fitting into these buckets. But when they do, I will indicate that.

You may be wondering what started me down this path, chasing ghosts through a ghost town. All I can say, without sounding crazy, is that sometimes when you grow up in a ghost town, you are compelled to understand why it is haunted and which of its spirits just want to be known.

And thus begins the story.