Mat Gleason, publisher of Coagula, has curated a group show in Los Angeles which opens this week. The premise was simple. Each artist was given a $2 bill in US currency and encouraged to create an artistic interaction. My approach was historical. Thomas Jefferson graces the front of the two dollar bill. On the reverse is a depiction of Jefferson and the Continental Congress presenting the Declaration of Independence. I spent part of my childhood in Charlottesville, Virginia and as a kid loved to visit Jefferson's home at Monticello as well as the Jefferson designed campus at the University of Virginia. Before moving to Virginia my family had rendezvoused with my father in Paris as he returned from the Vietnam War. Jefferson's love of Paris and his influence on the French Revolution of 1789 was presented in detail on our tours. I was entranced with this complex figure. And also perplexed. How could a lover of liberty and the author of the Declaration of Independence justify owning slaves? I vaguely remember asking a docent this question on a tour of Monticello. In the 1960's, in the South especially, this question wasn't asked in public by adults much less a little kid. I am still trying to answer that question in my $2 artwork: How could a lover of liberty and the author of the Declaration of Independence justify owning slaves? And how could a lover of liberty and the author of the Declaration of Independence justify having sex and children with one of his slaves - Sally Hemings?
Notes: Seen through Sally’s eyes are the words from the $2 bill- “tender and private.”
To the right of and underneath the pink skinned man the name Hemings and the words “shadow man” are written in script.
Sally and the Shadow Man
Sumi-e, egg tempera, charcoal, conté, oil and gum arabic on $2 US currency 2008
Notes: The name Sally is written in a script derived from Thomas Jefferson’s own handwritten book which lists all of his slaves. The ghost of Tom Jefferson remains from John Trumball’s Declaration of Independence.
Joseph Ellis, a Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, (winner of the 1997 National Book Award), explains Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings in a recent interview in the program Frontline: Jefferson's Blood:
Frontline: For Jefferson, was race a double issue, in a sense? On one level, when he wanted to enjoy or be with Sally as a woman, he could see her as white, and fully human. But when he wanted to deny her human entitlements, he could see her as black. Was there a double convenience involved there?
Ellis: Yes, Jefferson's racial views do give him an ability to have his cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, he can control Sally Hemings, and doesn't have to worry about a relationship that's a truly equitable relationship, back and forth. And yet he can get his physical gratification and satisfactions at the same time.Jefferson is excellent at "having your cake and eating it, too." And he's excellent at then denying inside himself what he's doing. What's impossible to know is what Sally thinks and feels on her side of this relationship at this time.
Frontline: Madison (Sally and Thomas Jefferson’s son) does give some indication . . . about his experience serving in the house.
Ellis: Madison Hemings said that he felt that he was treated as one of the Hemings slaves, and that they were treated in more privileged ways than the other slaves. But he was treated as a slave. He was not treated as a member of Jefferson's family, or in the same way that Jefferson's own grandchildren were treated. And he resented that. He was the age of Jefferson's grandchildren. He's implicitly suggesting that, within the family, Jefferson never acknowledged his paternity.
From Thomas Jefferson's own account on the writing of the Declaration of Independence he explains how the passages banning slavery were deleted:
"The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."
Crane & Company has continually supplied the United States Treasury with its currency paper since 1879. The paper used for US currency is discussed on the website for NOVA: Secrets of Making Money:
"There are no wood fibers or starch in currency paper. Instead, like high quality stationery, currency paper is composed of a special blend of cotton and linen fibers. The strength comes from raw materials continuously refined until the special feel of the currency is achieved. People who handle money on a regular basis, such as bank tellers, can easily determine if a bill is counterfeit by this distinctive feel. The characteristic yellowish-green tint of U.S. currency is another distinctive feature which is, in fact, hard for color photocopiers to accurately match."
The $2 Show at i-5 GALLERY at THE BREWERY ART COLONY
2100 N. Main St., #A-9 (in the Atrium at The Brewery), Los Angeles, CA 90031
July 11 - Aug 23, 2008
Reception: Saturday, July 12th 7-10pm
Gallery hours: Fri.-Sat., 12-4pm; & by appointment.
100 artists were given a $2 Bill on which to make their masterpiece - each artwork is priced at $200 as a fundraiser for i-5 gallery. Featuring Ya Ya Chou, Anna Conti, Gregg Chadwick, Dale Dreiling, Carol Es, Mark Hix, Leora Lutz, Michael Salerno, Leigh Salgado, David Trulli, Paige Wery, An Xiao and others.
Crane & Company
NOVA: Secrets of Making Money
Jefferson's notes on the Declaration
Frontline: Jefferson's Blood
Frontline: Jefferson's Blood - Interview with Joseph Ellis
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson