06 May 2009
John Alden and Priscilla Mullins
JOHN ALDEN, 1621 and PRISCILLA MULLINS, 1621
Japanese woodblock (moku hanga)
Paper size: 8" x 6" (20.3 x 15.2 cm)
Image size: 6" x 4.75" (15.2 x 12 cm)
4 shina plywood blocks each
4 hand-rubbed impressions each
The 400-year time gap plus the paucity of information about these two individuals made depicting them as they might have actually looked practically impossible for me, so I decided to just let myself look at them from here -- from 21st century Northampton, Massachusetts, about 135 miles from where John and Priscilla found themselves in the spring of 1621.
For the portrait of 22-year-old John, I started with William Bradford's description of John as "a hopfull yong man, [who] was much desired." This plus a mention I found on the internet that John was tall made me postulate that he was a "hunk." I looked through dozens of fashion magazines and stock photos of handsome men trying to discern what male beauty looks like in 2009 -- bedroom eyes, metrosexual but still brawny, confident. I distilled features from a number of photographs to come up with a composite hunky anglo guy -- felt a little like a forensic artist (now there's a career idea!). Then I read that Alden did some hunting and trapping in Kennebec, Maine, and the idea of him wearing an LL Bean style hunting jacket got stuck in my mind. Knowing that Alden was not a Separatist himself makes it likely that he stayed in the new world hoping for financial gain, so I put the stars around his head. The stars reminded me of insects, and then I remembered reading that most of the people in that time period had lice and fleas, so the thought was completed. John Alden was a hunk but there were lice in his hair.
While constructing the portrait of 16-year-old Priscilla, I was again struck with how difficult the lives of women were in 17th century New England. Nearly 50% of the settlers in Plymouth died the first winter, and Priscilla was the only survivor of her family group. I chose to depict her in her private grief and again I applied 21st century notions of anglo female beauty to the picture -- she is thin, with delicate features and long lashes. I used "memento mori" imagery from colonial American sources to decorate the corners of the piece. I liked the cloud-like stripes behind her to compliment John's stars.
These are small prints. I may create printed "frames" for them eventually, and I expect there will be additional family portraits to come.