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The Role of our Ancestors




How do your ancestors show up in your life?

 

I have been both reflecting on this question and asking those closest to me. The answers have been varied and amazing; I have learned that our ancestors often play a large role in the professions we choose, the locations we live, and even the activities that fill our days. This has held true both for those who know exactly who their ancestors are and those who do not know much about their ancestry.

 

Living the first 20+ years of my life on the same Vermont farm that my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather farmed, I have always felt a deep personal connection to my ancestry on my paternal side. Though you might know me as an artist, I also have a career in agricultural policy, stemming from my love for the land that our family stewarded. My paternal ancestors are almost entirely to thank for my love of animals and the artwork that I create. I imagine my grandfather standing behind me every time I testify in front of the New York State Legislature in support of farmland protection, and I keep my Great-Grandfather’s original deed to the farm, signed in 1920, hanging in my art studio.


Oil painting of a Belgian horse in harness, with blue forget-me-not flowers overlaying the harness, over a black background.
La Joie De Noel, 2023, Oil on Hardbord; Painted in honor of my grandfather and his horse, both of whom I never met.

 But I didn’t know much about the ancestors in my maternal lineage. Almost entirely based in Rhode Island, there had been many early deaths, family feuds, and unfortunate circumstances that prevented family stories and knowledge from being passed down. I decided to test my DNA through Ancestry.com and was surprised to discover that I have a good amount of Irish ancestry on my mother’s side, an identity I had not yet realized. My younger brother spent an incredible amount of time researching our family tree, and through his work I learned about my Great, Great, Great, Great Grandmother, Margaret Flynn.

 

Margaret’s name caught my attention. My brother discovered that she had immigrated directly from Ireland in the 1860s with her three children and husband, Peter Lee, when they were about 30 years old. They moved from Ireland to Cranston, RI, and my family remained in Cranston until my mother moved to Vermont in the 1980s. I am not a genealogy expert, but I have learned that my family survived the Great Famine in Ireland, and that Peter Lee is from a small town near Galway City where his parents (my Great x 5 Grandparents) are both buried.

 

Immigration is the story for any American who cannot claim indigeneity to North America. Having left the farm where I believed I would live my entire life, I certainly understand how painful it is to separate from the land and communities that you love, which serve as the basis for generations of family history and ancestral wisdom. I decided to read more about the Great Famine (I highly recommend the historical fiction novel Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly, the famine was much more horrific than we are taught in the US), and then I knew that I need to see this country and land where seven generations ago, my ancestors made the difficult decision to board a ship in the hopes that their children would have a better life.

 

As an artist, ancestry plays a huge role in what I choose to paint. So, I am embarking on a two-week journey through Ireland to paint the land that was so important to my Great x4 Grandparents. Not only am I going to be painting “en plein air” every day (which just means painting outside), but I am offering spaces for “surprise paintings.” This means that folks who want to collect a piece of this special pilgrimage can select their favorite County in Ireland, or a day between July 1 - 14, and on that day I will paint a piece that will be revealed to its collector. Collectors will not only receive the original oil painting, but they will also receive notes and sketches from the location and a process video. To read more about the project, click here.

 

And now I have to know, how do your ancestors show up in your life? Let me know in the comments!

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