Speaking to History
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
A Monumental New 30 Foot Art Installation About a Vermont Station on the Underground Railroad
My husband Stephen is an artist, and I am a writer. For the last 25 years we’ve worked side-by-side, making our creations. The life of a creativeperson can be challenging, unpredictable, and pock-marked with self-doubt. We’ve learned to lean on one another for assistance in areas outside our expertise (him: words, me: technology), honest feedback (“Does this suck?”), and general moral support (“I love you, but if you abandon this project now, I will kill you.”) But it wasn’t until the beginning of this year that we had the bright idea to put our skills together and actually collaborate on a creation. “How could we not have done this sooner?” we wondered.
It all came together rather effortlessly on a recent project when Steve asked me if I would write some words on one of his works of art. Hand- write?! Directly on his artwork - the product of dozens of hours of his efforts? What if I made some horrible mistake, instantly ruining the whole thing?
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We entitled our new endeavor EveNSteve, because, well, when you and your spouse rhyme you might as well take advantage of it. We had only made a small handful of the new collaborative works when we were asked to make one featuring the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburg. If you are anything like me, this is just the kind of place you’ve driven past a hundred times in Vermont and thought idly, ”Huh. Wonder what that is?” Like so many places in this state, all you need is a halfway good reason to pull in and take a look around.
As we quickly found out in our research, Rokeby is a National Historic Landmark. This farm homestead was a site on the Underground Railroad. The Robinson family who lived here for four successive generations were devout, radical Quakers; and for them this also meant that they were impassioned abolitionists. Rowland T.Robinson, who was born at Rokeby in 1796, was one of the organizers of the Hundred Conventions, an abolitionist gathering that travelled throughout New England in 1843, spreading the message of anti-slavery. The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of the featured speakers, and when the tour came to Ferrisburg, he delivered a fiery anti-slavery speech that still rings with conviction for readers today.
In addition to being Quakers and abolitionists, the Robinsons were farmers, artists and authors. If anyone ever tells you creativity doesn’t run in families, you should point them to the example of the Robinsons. Rowland Evans Robinson, born in 1833, wrote more than a dozen books. Many of his Vermont folk tales embellished upon his memories of growing up in a house where runaway slaves were sheltered. His daughter, Rachel, grew up to become an important illustrator in New York City. His other daughter, Molly— in her teenage years— processed her own glass plate negatives to make photographs at a time when photography was a complicated and technical endeavor. She grew up to become a botanical illustrator.
Perhaps the aspect of Rokeby I found most fascinating of all is the lucky fact that the homestead went directly from the hands of the family to being a museum. As a result, the archives of Rokeby are phenomenal. They contain nearly 200 years of the Robinsons’ family life, including furniture, clothing, books, paintings, an incredible photographic archive, more than 15,000 letters, as well as nine different surviving buildings.
Under the leadership of visiting contemporary art curator Ric Kasini Kadour, the museum has recently embarked on a fascinating new project entitled Contemporary Art at Rokeby Museum. Artists are being invited to make artwork at or about the Rokeby, in conjunction with a series of related talks, exhibits and workshops. The first of these is Rokeby Through the Lens, an exhibit which combines photographs from the museum’s extensive archive with photographic artworks made by contemporary artists.
My husband and I ultimately created the largest artwork my husband has ever made: a monumental 30 feet! Lately, Steve has been using what are known as panning-lens cameras, in which the lens actually moves across the film plane during the exposure. The result is a 140 degree angle of view that mimics human vision. In addition, he employs an overlapping exposure technique that allows him to collage a series of images together, in-camera, as he goes, on film. This results in some pretty fantastic negatives: the negative for Rokeby spans the entire length of a 120 roll of film: 28 inches long. The image is made as a unique one-of-one print on my husband’s Da Vinci printer, the only one of its kind. Steve is fascinated by beautiful handmade papers from around the world - so much so that he invented a way to print on them. For the Rokeby piece he chose a stunning Japanese Haruki Unryu-shi, which translates to “cloud dragon paper.”
For my part, I spent time reading letters, diaries, writings from the Robinson family, texts from 19th century newspapers, abolitionist literature and speeches, and student teacher guides to the museum. After making selections of the key pieces of text I wanted to include, I spent the next few days kneeling on the concrete floor of Steve’s studio with a handful of archival pens, inscribing the words from over the course of Rokeby’s history into the piece. If I made a mistake, I crossed it out and continued, and in this way felt I had made myself a bit more visible as well.
In the resulting work one engages with it very differently depending on how far away one is standing. Entering the room, one sees an imaginary landscape, one that has been comprised of many different scenes of the homestead, reconfigured and reinterpreted. Upon closer inspection, the viewer comes to realize there are also handwritten words, and the process becomes one now of reading, as well as looking. The experience seems to me as if one were watching a silent film, only to have a soundtrack suddenly turn on. In the show catalogue, Kadour has this to say about the end result: “Monumental in scale, rich with detail, the photograph encourages the viewer to pause and look slowly and consider the past and what it means to the present. Great art demands that we slow down and look and ponder, three things contemporary life rarely allows us to do.”
At this scale, it is perhaps impossible to recreate the experience of the artwork, without being in front of it, in person. But perhaps that’s as it should be. Just like the site of Rokeby itself, if you want to get the full effect, it’s best if you just stop by and look around.
By Eve O. Schaub
Photo By Stephen Schaub
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