On an East Texas Research Mission

As soon as my extended family, husband and I were vaccinated and past the CDC recommended waiting period, we said goodbye to the cats and headed to East Texas for the weekend. The Pine Curtain Project didn’t start in quarantine, but definitely gained speed, depth and focus over the past year when I had more time (for better or worse.) So, it was exciting to finally get to go home, not only to hear stories directly from surviving elders, but also to collect more research items and photographs, and to walk around outside around community landmarks before it gets too hot to do so.

Researching online is great and very productive, but there is so much value in being able to learn things first hand. Our large and busy community has dwindled over the years as older people pass away and ancestral land changes over to new community members or is sold to the new businesses that have been encroaching over the past few years. (A new twist on an age-old song: “They paved the horse pasture, put up a port-o-pot lot.”)

I’m lucky to still have two surviving grandparents: one on each side of my family. My grandfather is 86, and my grandmother is 91. They live within a mile or so of each other and my parents, so a lot of their stories overlap. They’re at various levels of mobility, but they are both very interested in family and community history in their own way. So, I was able to spend an hour or so with my grandmother going over her stash of collected family stories, notes and photos, then an afternoon riding around with my grandfather and walking around family cemeteries.

Both outings filled in some blanks for me, and helped me visualize the places I learn about. In many cases, I was able to add names, context, and detail to the stories I have heard over the years.

Over the weekend, a few people asked why I was interested in this history: why now, and what were my plans for it? Those are valid questions. I have always loved my family and community, but I couldn’t wait to leave it when I was 18, and like most young adults, I didn’t always fully appreciate it. I knew from my fashion magazines that big cities had the good shopping and at the time, Lufkin was no place for someone who desired exotic items like boot cut pants. (I can still hear my confused mother asking, “…like Poppa’s Wranglers?” No mom. Like Poppa’s Wrangler’s but way more expensive. Gah.)

Anyway, like any other place, it contains strengths and challenges, and it took a little while for those to balance out for me. But, better late than never, right? And, a real personal benefit of the project is that it has been a great opportunity to form stronger relationships with my family. We may not agree on everything, but we can all agree that some late-great ancestor sounded “crazier’n an outhouse rat,” haha.

I don’t have kids and at nearly 45, that ship has sailed. I am an only child, as well. In many ways, I see this project as a way for me to not only better understand some of the family, community and cultural dynamics that make me who I am, but also to leave a record so that it doesn’t disappear with me.

As I have mentioned before, the Pine Curtain Project is loosely themed around the idea of Ghost Towns and Ghost Stories: what happens in a place and what remains, and to the degree that anyone can know – why.

I have been gathering information over the past few months, and have made decent progress on documentation around the larger ideas on my roadmap for this year.

Images, names and dates are starting to turn into timelines and rough biographies. Over time, these will evolve into narratives. Maybe the project will remain a series of smaller stories, or merge into one big one; I don’t know the answer to that yet, or what form any of it might take beyond my visual art and this blog.

Anyway, I have a new stack of things to parse through this week, and plan to post more art and Curated Histories starting next week. In the meantime, enjoy these images that show just a few of the nearly pristine vintage treasures my cousin found cleaning out her late parents’ house this weekend. I didn’t come home with much of it, but the Barbie trunks are going to hold art supplies now. I REALLY want that Atari but their grandchild gets first refusal. As is appropriate for such a prized heirloom.

The Million & Loving box is an heirloom in itself. Million & Loving was a little neighborhood store, and back in the day had the best candy and served BBQ sandwiches from the back. It went through a few iterations, was sold to a corporation and was just razed to make room for an Exxon/fast food hybrid in Homer, conveniently located at the edge of my grandfather’s front yard.

Thoughts on the “Deep Nostalgia” App

As an artist, writer and researcher who works with historic and family photos, I have seen a lot of buzz around the MyHeritage “Deep Nostalgia” app. I had a strong aversion to it upon first reaction, but tried it out “just once” before passing judgment.

And…I am still uneasy with it. It is not for me. I uploaded a random photo to animate, and I won’t post the results here because honestly while the technology was great, I found the result to be creepy.

How to make creative projects around historical photos is something that I think about a lot; not just in terms of “what can I do that’s cool?” but also, “how can I do something cool that also honors the subject?” To me, it is a fine line to enhance what is in the photo and bring out the natural beauty and interest of a person or scene without editorializing too much or adding meaning or context that is wildly different. Especially when the subject is a private citizen vs. a public figure. If I haven’t failed at this already, I’m sure I will eventually. But, I do try. Also, the “Deep Nostalgia” gestures are pretty controlled, but where does it stop? Will the next “Deep Nostalgia” app include the ability to make someone’s beloved Nana do silly dances, make rude gestures or say things they would never say? Who knows?! And what about the artists and photographers whose work is changed by the app without their input or consent?

I’m sure the “Deep Nostalgia” functionality was built with the best of intentions and is in some ways even healing for those who are grieving or seeking connection to the past. But it is important to be careful and remember that a photograph isn’t a person, and even the best-quality animation of a photograph won’t give you that connection. What you seek lives in your heart, in memories, in the stories that are passed down from other family or community members. In A Grief Observed, CS Lewis cautions against “substitut(ing) for the real woman a mere doll.” I agree and feel that is a real emotional risk with technology like this.

I do wonder what innovations like these will mean for future historical projects and even estate planning, though. As an artist and writer, I’ll be designating someone to help make sure that if my work lives beyond me, that it is does so in a way that is in line with my values and wishes. I imagine that holograms, AI and other emerging tech will add another layer to that for more people who aren’t necessarily creative professionals, as more of our images and words are more likely to resurface over time.

This opinion was written from a creator’s point of view, but there are also data and privacy issues to consider, which I encourage you to research and draw your own conclusions on before using the app.

The app and buzz around it has me thinking about different and more authentic/ethical ways to use design or technological innovation for creative ancestry and history projects. I’ll think on this and share some options here or in next month’s newsletter. (Or both!)

East Texas Mule Skidder

vintage photo of logger with two mule team

This week, I am returning to archive photos from the Diboll History Center. This is just one comprehensive source that I use, and it does a great job organizing its images into historical sets, so it is easy find images from the same era, activity or theme and put them together to document and build larger stories.

This image is “Two Mule Skidders and a Man,” from the Southern Pine Lumber Company, in 1903. The last time I worked from a vintage photo of East Texas loggers, it was a team from the 1930s, if that tells you how long this area has been working with timber.

These photographs at the History Center were part of a larger project by American Lumberman, a weekly trade journal established in 1899.

“The American Lumberman photographs of the Southern Pine Lumber Company consist of 255 gelatin silver prints made by American Lumberman photographers during visits to Diboll in 1903 and 1907. They document the lumber company’s management, logging operations, Texas South-Eastern Railroad, timber, lumber camps, sawmills, commissary, and social life. The photographs provide insight into the early twentieth-century community life of a Texas sawmill company town and connected logging camps.” – American Lumberman Photographs of Southern Pine Lumber Company in The Portal to Texas History. University of North Texas Libraries.

I didn’t know what a “mule skidder” was until today, and when I Googled it, images came up for heavy machinery, not animals. But back when the animal was the machinery, a driver would position the cart over felled logs, where dangling tongs would then raise the end of the log off the ground. The mule, oxen or horse team pulled the tong forward, allowing the log to “skid” along between the rolling wheels.

The photo caption notes that the actual skidder is not shown here, so it looks like the guys in this photo were suiting up for a hard day’s work. Or maybe resting between tasks. Either way, all three were in the middle of a very important job.

Researching on a Snow Day

It’s a snow day week here, and my studio feels a bit daunting and too cold to relax in and get into the zone. So, I’m spending the day organizing some research I’ve found lately. I have been going through old Diboll Free Press newspapers. There are a bunch of them with a lot of good information – some historical but most of it in terms of “slices of life” as it published mostly unedited citizen reporter news from the surrounding counties. I’ll say more on that later on, but in the meantime, here are some fun vintage newspaper ads I’ve come across.

Art,Work and Cats on a Thursday

Desktop scene.

I’m always interested in how creative people structure their time, so I thought I’d share a little bit about how I work. Especially since what so many people see is just the finished product, and that is just the tip of the iceberg!

My artwork takes a long time to do. Not as long as, say, a photorealistic oil portrait, but it is very process heavy and needs a lot of protected time, as it is not work that I can start, stop and come back to. If the acrylic dries on the plate, it is unusable for my process, and if I try to rush through and end up with an off-center or flawed print, it’s back to the proverbial drawing board, or literal printing plate, to start over again.

So, printing the art itself is something I usually batch over one or two dedicated days of the week in my studio and in that time I can print roughly four pieces depending on the size and level of detail. (It also helps with cat control, as the kittens still aren’t allowed in there and I don’t like having to shut them out more than necessary. One, it makes me feel bad and two, they bang on the walls and rattle the door. I think the house panther is about three “aha” moments from unlatching the doorknob.)

An intelligent stinker.

When I’m not actively printing or hand-embellishing completed prints – either for my own work or commissions from others, I do a LOT of research. I would say that a typical week is 50 percent creating the art, 40 percent research, and ten percent admin/marketing/operations which includes things like invoicing, cleaning my work space, looking for and responding to promotional opportunities, updating digital platforms and responding to commission requests (not all of these tasks need to be done each week, thankfully.)

My days are structured like any other workday, usually getting started around 9-10 am and finishing around 6 pm for family and TV time with the kittens.

Bonnie loves TV. Here she is learning about culinary travel to Costa Rica.

I sometimes work over the weekends, and I’m always reading on my off-hours, and some of that is research time as well. On weekends I try to recharge and work around the house or go see shows by other artists for inspiration. But during the pandemic I have been mostly at home.

Because my work centers on the Pine Curtain Project, I am always on the hunt for compelling vintage images with compelling stories, ideally that contribute not only to my own family history, stories and memories, but also to the larger cultural history of East Texas. As I wrote in a previous post, I’m focusing on a few main topics this year, which is not to say that other images and themes aren’t included as well. But, I am finding so much information just on these topics, that I am very busy researching, reading, cataloging and analyzing information.

Combining my art so closely with writing and research complicates things in some ways, but in most ways, I feel that it leads to a more rewarding experience for me as the artist, and hopefully for the viewer as well. As a person who likes a little more structure in the day, I feel that this project lends itself well to providing that structure while still leaving plenty of room for the flexibility needed for the creative process to do its thing.

East Texas Loggers, 1930s

“Logging Team with HorsePower Engines,” by Stephanie Khattak. Acrylic monotype print. 20X26 on paper.

The early prosperity of East Texas started with trees, and the region had (and still has) plenty of those. There’s a reason I named my work “The Pine Curtain Project.” The part of East Texas where I am from is dense with pines – The Piney Woods. It is so much a part of the region’s identity that even today, the local university’s mascot is a Lumberjack, a popular local coffee shop is Java Jack’s, the best-known festival is the Forest Festival and the main drag in Lufkin is Timberland Drive. At the same time, the density of trees can either isolate or protect, depending on how you look at it. Like…a curtain. I imagine this “curtain effect” was even stronger before the timber industry moved in, cleared away and changed the physical, sociological and cultural landscape.

This image makes me think of the beginning of the end of an era, which I feel evolved over generations. It was a double-edged sword, or saw if you want a more thematically accurate metaphor. On one hand, clearing the trees made way for unprecedented economic and civic progress. On the other hand, once the curtain was pulled back, things would never be the same.

As I am more of an artist and less of an academic historian, please explore these links for citations and further reading:

Image Source: “Paul Durham, Sr. Hardwood Logging Crew,” The History Center.

The Texas Forestry Museum

Aldridge Sawmill“, Texas Beyond History.com

Lufkin Railroad

“Rail Town, Paper Town.” Acrylic Monoprint by Stephanie Khattak.
Based on “Railroad Gang,” a 1939 photograph by Russell Lee.

With pine trees come timber, with timber come sawmills. From sawmills come pulpwood and from pulpwood, paper is made, along with plywood, lumber, and other “forest products”. In the case of my part of East Texas, towns are made, too. Businesses, goods, and services that comprise an economy and an identity.

The Deep East Texas timber/sawmill/pulpwood boom started before this image, but nonetheless it captures important ripples of the timber wave. According to the Library of Congress, where I found the source photo, these men were building a railroad to service the Southland Paper Mill, where many years later, my father would work as did his father, his brother-in-law and many if not most other fathers, grandfathers and uncles I knew. The mill changed ownership many times since its construction and finally closed for good in 2007 as Abitibi Bowater. My father and most workers had been laid off a few years before. My father went on to have a happy “semi-retirement” and follow his dream of being a professional singer, achieving some notoriety and many dedicated social media fans. Many others were not so fortunate.

But at the time of this image until roughly the late-90s, timber was a stabilizing and driving force in the community that it had ultimately changed forever. This piece captures a time of hard work and hope for the future.

As I am more of an artist and less of an academic historian, please explore these links for citations and further reading:

Image Source: Lee, R., photographer. (1939) Railroad gang, Southern Paper Mill construction crew, Lufkin, Texas. United States Lufkin. Texas Lufkin, 1939. Apr. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Jonathan Gerland, “A Brief History of Temple Land Ownership and Management in East Texas, 1893-2007,” The Pine Bough (December 2007) via The History Center, Diboll, Texas.

Bob Bowman, “The History of Lufkin,” via City of Lufkin.

Bob Bowman, “The Pioneer Paper Machine,” via All Things Historical, Texas Escapes.

The source photo for this piece was taken by Russell Lee, a contemporary of Dorothea Lange, hired for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic documentation project of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. In 1973 this body of work was described as “the greatest documentary collection which has ever been assembled.” I’m so grateful to have Lee’s iconic images available to build on and inspire me today.

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.

Lufkin Rudolph

“Lufkin Rudolph” monotype print by Stephanie Khattak.

Each year for as long as I can remember, the holiday season in Lufkin has included “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit,” modified from oil equipment. It has evolved a little over the years and changed locations a few times, but he’s still pumping along!

This year, Rudolph will be lit on Dec. 5, in Downtown Lufkin. Long may he run, even if he doesn’t get very far!