One House. That’s the name of a fascinating, participatory project that uses “the power of visual expression” to display democratic values such as inclusion, tolerance, and equality.
With the exception of Native Americans, our families all came to this country from somewhere else, voluntarily or involuntarily, yet we share a vision for our country that we are united as one people. That is the message of One House.
This project was conceived by a group called “Art Watch,” made up of DC-area artists. The rules of the project are simple. Anyone can participate, whether an artist or not, and regardless of when they or their ancestor arrived here. Each participant receives a twelve-inch plywood square and dedicates the square to an ancestor who came to America from elsewhere. Participants who are immigrants themselves can use the squares to tell their own story, and Native Americans can honor any of their ancestors. Participants can use text, images, or a combination of the two, to describe the journeys, homelands, and new lives related to immigrating to the U.S. The completed squares will become the siding for a structure of a house, graphically showing the rich diversity of our country.
So far, the project has about 140 participants, several of whom live right here in Anne Arundel County. Not everybody has finished their squares yet since the panels aren’t needed until September, but they all tell a story. Here are some of the stories.
Roxanne Weidele (Galesville) (featured photo) tells the story of her father, whose family immigrated from Russia when he was just a boy, in order to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms of the early 1900s. Her panel uses only words from their Russian passports and the English documents they received at Ellis Island. It features a photo of the family as they waited in Russia, to be sent for by her grandfather, who had preceded them to America. There’s another photo of her father at his bar mitzvah – showing that even in a new country, they maintained their traditions. The last photo is the Brooklyn Bridge, indicating where the family settled.
Karl Graham (Deale) can trace his family’s lineage in America all the way back to 1742 in St. Mary’s County. However, the first relative for whom he can find a photograph is his great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Medley, who was born in 1865 just after the Civil War and lived on a farm in Aquasco (Prince George’s County). For his twelve-inch square, Karl’s doing a pencil drawing of her face, based on a photograph, which was taken when she was 18-years-old. He also plans to add a family tree, since Elizabeth went on to have 16 children.
Although Raya Koren (Annapolis) is an immigrant herself, her panel is dedicated to her mother, who was born in the Free City of Danzig. This was a semi-autonomous city-state sandwiched between Germany and Poland. After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and declared Poles and Jews as subhuman, the family rushed to get the children out of Danzig. Raya’s mother, who was 18, was sent to England to work as a domestic. She endured the WWII bombings in England, but after the war, she moved to Israel. She got married and lived in Haifa, where she gave birth to Raya. However, during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Haifa was bombed. Rather than endure further war, the family moved to the U.S. Raya’s panel shows her mother’s journey, featuring the flags of the countries where she lived.
Lora Moran-Collins (Churchton) chose to honor her grandfather, William Mercelian Moran. He, like so many other Irish, immigrated to America from Ireland to escape the harsh conditions wrought by the Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. Just a young man at the time, he made the most of his opportunities, becoming a landlord of walk-up apartments for low-income immigrants like himself. Lora painted his portrait on her 12” x 12” panel, integrated with a map of Ireland in the 1800s.
Steve Schulman (Shady Side) dedicated his panel to his grandfather, who was born in Lithuania in 1887. He left his village to avoid conscription by the Russian Czar. At that time, Jews were conscripted to serve in the Russian army for 5-10 years, and many Jews feared a return to the previous requirement of 25 years of service. Steve’s grandfather immigrated here when he was only 14 years old, and moved to Philadelphia (where many Lithuanian Jews relocated) and became a photographer. On his square, Steve used a photo portrait of his grandfather, reflecting his lifelong interest in photography. Steve also incorporated a photo of his grandfather’s Lithuanian village on a busy market day and a map of Lithuania.
Cary Eure (Tracys Landing) didn’t know much about her family history, but thanks to the internet, was able to trace her maternal grandmother’s ancestors back to Scotland in the 1700s. Sarah Berry Lyons was born in Scotland in 1700, immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1720s and ultimately settled in North Carolina. Cary was very impressed by the courage it took for a young person in that era, and a woman at that, to pull up stakes and move alone to an unknown country. Cary did not have a picture of Sarah, so her panel, painted in gouache, portrays the turmoil of Sarah’s sea voyage to the new world.
Taken together with the histories of many other immigrants, these panels tell a story of the U.S. as a place where those facing prejudice, war, or economic hardship have come for a better life. Equally importantly, they illustrate the importance of tolerance and diversity and make a strong plea for a continuation of these values.
One House will be completed in November and displayed initially at the Touchstone Gallery in Washington, DC. In the meantime, it is not too late to participate. The project is scalable, and the House can be enlarged as the number of panels increases. If you are interested in participating, contact Jackie Hoysted, firstname.lastname@example.org. The ultimate objective is for the project to be replicated all over the country, by any group of people, artists or otherwise.
Vivikka Molldrem is a former foreign service officer with the Agency for International Development who enjoys batik, mosaics, politics, and wirting the occasional article.
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