“I can’t paint what I dream because I paint memorandum of my dreams…I have so many dreams about angels. I paint imitations of angels just as I imagined them. I do not paint an angel, because they come from the throne of God. We can get the imitation, but we can’t paint the real angel”
Minnie Evans: artist, from DRAW or DIE, Wilmington Star News, January 19th, 1969
Minnie Evans was an outsider artist who lived in Wilmington, NC (1892-1987). She told us that in the middle of sleeping, she was awoken by angels slapping the bottom of her feet – she was told to “draw or die”. The visitors required that she paint and sketch her the visions. Her first drawings were hastily completed on small index cards and Minnie told us that the two drawings were her first impressions of heaven. These two drawings occupy a world somewhere between an analytic floor plan & building section, and a simultaneous overlap of transparent film clips. The difficulty in reading these two drawings is perhaps the basis for their power. The lack of conceptual precision forces us to internally argue over the hidden narrative.
Even Minnie (take a look at the short video) tells us that she cannot believe that she was able to draw what she was seeing – but she had no choice, remember she was told “draw or die”. Essentially Minnie was forced into producing a visual expression of a series of simultaneous experiences.
So what does this have to do with public history, interpretation, and experience of our historic sites? I often hear from museum professionals that what is needed to better convey a complex historic narrative is a paring-down of the details, a simplification of the habitation layers, and eventually a script that clearly explains the results of this reductive process. However, in my experience, this type of process can cut away all the fragile, loose histories (conjectural and difficult-to-isolate aspects of a narrative) and unfortunately, can leave only with what is easily contained and clearly defined. Yet isn’t there often a kind of sublime beauty in that which is often the hardest to explain, describe, and define?
Imagine an interpretive process that, instead of paring away complexities, embraced them, and allowed them to contradict each other. Imagine an historic site that openly presented a VISION of history that, like Minnie Evans’ drawings, produced an expression of a series of simultaneous histories. I suggest that we trust the visitors’ ability to manage contradictory messages simultaneously. In doing this, we not only honor our guests’ intelligence, but also step closer to a more full expression of history.
In our book, Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, Deb Ryan and I suggest that what is lacking in most of our historic sites is what we have labeled POETIC PRESERVATION. Just like Minnie, we cannot paint the real thing, all we can honestly do is re-present a compilation of overlapping histories that result in a poetic experience. If we are lucky, this poetic experience touches something deeper than the analytic mind.
This short video of Bacon’s Art Studio (voiceover of Bacon himself describing his working experience) presents us with an entirely new way of seeing historic space. Not reductive in any way, the studio was archeologically documented and transferred to an art gallery. Bacon found the chaos of his studio a necessary type of order – one he required in order to do his work. This begs the question, how does one effectively present and represent the creative mind?
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