BELFAST— What started off as a personal project for artist Alice Parsons has unexpectedly turned into a multimedia exhibit, only up for another week at the Belfast Free Library’s Kramer Gallery.
For the month of June, the exhibit ‘Family’ features a series of black and white portraits of her grandparents and other relatives in their daily lives in rural Kentucky interwoven with their written stories. Each piece is its own story with combined elements of broken furniture, tools, metal, and fiber. The family history is unflinchingly told throughout the exhibit with themes of alcoholism, abuse, and steadfastness.
“This project revealed that the formative years for my sister and me were quite tumultuous, and it broke my heart when looking at photos of us again, realizing what we went through and better understanding why we both had issues as adults,” said Parsons. “This was at a time when my mother was divorcing and remarrying and being abused and we suffered as a result.”
Parsons’ mother saved everything, including all of the photos in this show. Parsons enlarged the photos of her grandparents to emphasize how important they were in her life. They were the first generation in the family to finish eighth grade. Her grandfather worked for the railroad and her grandmother was postmistress in the small river port town of Rock Haven. They were no-nonsense and displayed little emotion, but they were her bedrock growing up, her stabilizing force.
“I don’t remember ever being hugged by my mother or my grandmother, really, but my grandmother spent time with me and that was so precious,” she said.
“They had an unbelievable work ethic,” she continued. “As I state in one of the stories, if you weren’t working, you were worthless. My grandmother wouldn’t let anyone rest. But apart from that, they represented to me and my sister goodness, generosity and just this sense that you do what needs to be done.”
The exhibition has resonated with a lot of people who have wrestled with their own family dynamics. The very personal nature of the show combined with personal family heirlooms that are incorporated into the artwork, such as a hay rake that superimposes a photos of Lula, Parson’s grandmother in a hay field, are glimpses into not just another era, but also a time when many people kept their problems hidden.
Interspersed among the photographs, written histories and artwork are quilts that Parsons had designed and made herself.
“They weren’t originally intended to go specifically with this exhibition, but from my great great grandmother down, we women in this family have all made quilts, so those influences tied into the show,” she said.
Parsons, a part-time artist most of her adult life while working full-time, layered her non-traditional art education, including an associate’s degree from Prince George's Community College in Maryland, as well as additional courses at Ohio State University and the University of Maryland, with extensive travel in the United States and Europe.
She and her husband, Jerry, also an artist, retired and moved to Maine in 1995 where they live year-round.
To walk around and absorb the stories that go with the photos, one gets to know Alice and her sister as children and the strength of their grandparents, Lula and Casper.
“My grandparents saved my family,” she said. “More than once. You’ll see that clearly in the exhibit.”
The exhibit will come down next week. It is free to the public and can be found in the Kramer Gallery of the Belfast Free Library, 106 High Street. The gallery is located on the ground floor of the library and is open during library hours.
Photos by Kay Stephens
For more information visit: https://belfastlibrary.org
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org