On the Search of Personal Histories: Interview with Artist Kija Lucas

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“While I was tying up loose ends getting ready to leave town for 6 weeks, I stopped to see Tom Harley at Sacred Rose Tattoo in Albany where he drew a picture of my childhood home 969 Lawrence Lane from a description from my memory. This house no longer exists outside of the minds of those who lived there or passed through for one reason or another. It is the only place I have lived for longer than three years and I left when I was 12.”–Kija Lucas

Ralph Vázquez-Concepción:  Considering the frontier science of neurobiology, and the advent of radical hypotheses regarding the concept of memory and remembering, tell me a little a little about your work, and how it addresses the nature of personal histories?

Kija Lucas:  I am not sure how much I understand neurobiology, but I have lost several loved ones to some sort of dementia/or Alzheimers in their old age. I am interested in how both through DNA and socialization, we learn things that feel like they are part of us. I think we remember things that happened generations back, not our own past lives, but the lives of the people we come from.

RVC:  You speak of the DNA double helix as a kind of memory storage device that connects us with our ancestors, and with our collective past histories, tell me more about this.

KL:  Maybe. I feel weird claiming to know the deepest part of this on a scientific level. I once had a roommate that was working on his PhD is something about DNA proteins and he was explaining to me how food, adrenaline, etc. can actually alter DNA, so I think yes. I also think that I use the idea of DNA incorrectly, or in a more metaphorical way. Kind of like saying that some of this stuff is in our bones. We may or may not know it. So many people have been denied access to family history or memory, and don’t know where certain qualities come from. I say a lot that I think an action several generations’ back can have a great impact on a person living now. We know this as a larger society, but I think it also applies to the family unit.

 RVC:  I like that, “some of this stuff is in our bones,” it reminds me about something that truly interests me about your work, which is that emphasis on substance. For the benefit of those who may not know your work and the philosophical underpinnings that operate within it, tell me a little bit more about this expression “in our bones.

KL:  I am using it to refer to something that you just know, and can feel it. Also, the things that are handed down, like the way that a person walks like a biological parent or might use the same gestures as a person who they are related to without having met that person. I guess the expression could possibly go to a dangerous place as well. One of the things that I think a lot about is what we think we know and how to unpack where that knowledge comes from. How did something that has “always been this way” become this way? I think we are natured and nurtured and that both of those things overlap and combine in ways that we might not understand. So much of what we think is natural is learned.

RVC:  You recently went on a sojourn through the South of the United States looking for your family roots, the place and the people, and you produced a body of work on the road. Tell me more about this, where does the motive reside? Does it stem out of your interests as a photographer or is it a more personal quest?

KL:  Yes, I actually traveled in the North and South, visiting sites and people relevant to my roots. For a long time, my work has been exploring questions about home and family and identity. I want to know where I come from. It wasn’t something that was obvious to me growing up. I was lucky enough to have grandmothers who were writers and to find an article written by my great grandfather about his father. All of their writing brought me on the trip. I wanted to do a number of things on this trip, one of them was to walk over the land where my progenitors walked. History didn’t end, it is constantly happening and being built on top of, those places still exist even if the buildings aren’t there or are falling apart. I think this was especially important to me because I come from a family whose several branches have for one reason or another not been able to hold on to their histories. Jewish Immigrants and African Slaves who were forced to give up names and languages, as well as a Midwesterner of English descent who had to forgo the family she was born into in order to raise her bi-racial son. That part is personal, but I tend to address my questions about why things are through my work, so I set out to do this work as an artist as well, I am not sure I can separate the two parts of myself.

RVC:  This acts as a way to build an empathic bridge with your audience, which may relate to this search and to yourself personally. Opening oneself to this type of connection is not an easy task, tell me a little bit about how you conceptualized and prepared for this journey and this production of work.

KL:  When I was an undergraduate student, I was given a reader with what I remember being one page of information on Carl Linnaeus. It talked about how during the enlightenment he created modern taxonomic systems of plants and animals… and then humans. This stuck with me. The way his descriptions of each “race” was so close to the stereotypes that people project onto one another toady, is really disturbing. Also, my father was a gardener, I would go to his jobs and pull weeds when I had days off from school.  How do you decide which plants are cultivated and which pulled? That combined with my interest in family history brought me closer to deciding to create the work. The actual prep involved fundraising, looking into census records for addresses, scouring through stories to find the names of plantation owners, contacting distant cousins who I had never met, contacting friends and acquaintances who live somewhere along the road, asking people close to me to hold my hand and help me breathe (too dramatic?). What it boils down to is the prep involved not only planning, but a lot of asking for help.

RVC:  Tell me about some of the things that happened to you during the trip, did you learn anything truly unexpected? Were there happy memories or just sad reminders of a horrific past when human beings on this land through racism were denied a soul? Were there any silver linings in that past which still to this day bears such much weight and stains our “democratic” history?

KL:  Unexpected: Yes! I did not realize how hard it would be in some places to connect with where I was, in fact in most places. I also had to work very differently than I am used to. I primarily work in the studio, which I feel is very forgiving. I can keep going back to something. When I was on the road and decided not to do something because I was second guessing myself, I sometimes changed my mind 600 miles later, and there was no going back. I decided when I left Virginia, that I had to do everything I thought of, even if it seemed silly at the time, just in case. I knew that being in my own head for long periods of time would be difficult. Some days I would question everything I was doing and wonder if I should just go home. Also, there was a lot of loneliness… am I allowed to say that?… I got to meet my second cousins and some of their children and grand children, that was pretty cool. I don’t have any first cousins, both of my parents are only children. I was really nervous about meeting them, but they were all so welcoming and really wanted me there and to share stories and memories and they wanted to learn more about my parents and my siblings and I. I am not sure if we got as deep as I would have liked to when discussing the difficult part of our family history. I am still getting to know them, and perhaps we can have those conversations in the future. Our country has a very tumultuous history and the present was built off of it. I don’t think we have healed from it and don’t know if/when we will. All of that being said, I think the thing I learned the most was about myself and how important the people in my life are and how lucky I feel to be able to have conversations with them about these issues.

RVC: Tell me a little about your family history, and the things you have discovered through your investigations.

KL: My family got to the US by various means. I will start with my mother’s family because that is where my trip started. My mother’s parents both descend from Eastern Europe, specifically Russia, Poland, and Moldova, though I am sure the borders have changed. Many of the records are difficult to find because names were changed upon entry, but most of them came through Ellis Island. My Grandfather was an engineer, I found out that his brothers dropped him off on the side of a highway in New Jersey and he hitchhiked his way to college in Michigan, he saved for several years to go to school for one year and ended up staying for his PhD. My Grandmother got her undergraduate degree in math when she was 19, she wanted to marry and engineer, and she did (she also did her best to convince me to do the same).

My Paternal Grandfather was the Chauffer for a very wealthy family in Minneapolis. He had a wife who was not my grandmother. His father was a baker, and his grandparents were born into slavery in Virginia. My Great Great Grandfather, Henry Lucas has a very interesting story that lead to him eventually buying his and his family’s way out of slavery and moving his family to Grinnell, IA.

My Paternal Grandmother was a writer and the daughter of a Midwestern doctor, She also finished her undergraduate degree at the age of 19, she married a German man in the late 1930’s and lived over there for a short period of time. When he was called to war, she moved back to the US never to see him again, but they wrote letters for a period of time and eventually divorced. My Paternal grandparents met and had an affair that resulted in my father. She moved herself and my father to California to raise him with his paternal aunts and uncles.

That was a lot of information, let me know if you were looking for something further back.

RVC: Can you talk to me a little about the work itself, how was it made? What are its moving parts if you will?

KL: So the work comes in a couple parts. I made photographs on the road and did additional research. The main focus of the work, however, are scans of horticultural materials and dirt. I brought my flatbed scanner on the road for 5,000+ miles to scan plants and dirt that were from places significant to my family history… there are a few rocks as well. I love using the scanner as a camera because of the image quality, not just the resolution, but the way the plant is up against the scanner glass really giving the viewer a sense of itself, and how the focus falls off at a fairly shallow depth of field. I was also interested in the scanner because I think of it as the most contemporary way of making a contact image. Anna Atkins made her botanical images with cyanotypes, a very early and simple way to make images. These contact images are calling back to her, to this early science.

RVC: What are your plans with this body of work you created in this sojourn?

KL: I will be showing the work at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) this spring and hopefully again in the fall. I would eventually like to make it into a book and who knows what else!

RVC: Well keep us posted here at Cranium, so we may continue to cover the development of this intriguing quest for your personal history, something I am sure is much more relatable than may appear a prima facie. You may share more than you know with your audience, especially us who are clearly the product of the generations of ethnic mixes in the New World.

For more information about the body of work produced by Lucas titled In Search for Home, click here.

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