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!)

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.