Brian Mashburn’s “Origin Stories” Anecdotes

It’s the last week to see Brian Mashburn’s “Origin Stories” and in this exhibition, Brian gave us more insight into a few of his works. You can read the anecdotes below, but he highly encourage finding the time to see this exhibition in person as the internet just doesn’t serve the subtleties in Mashburn’s pieces justice.

“Over the past few years, I’ve had a growing interest in narrative history, folklore, and the influence of origin stories in general – how they shape identity and impact perceived experience. This was my jumping off point for the show. Some of the paintings are about my personal and family history. Other pieces address the wider theme through anecdote and archetype as well as some thoughts on temporal experience and ideology. While not by any means a comprehensive indexing, I thought it may be of interest to some viewers to have occasional supplemental information and commentary by way of notes such as this one. Thanks!” – Brian Mashburn

Walking Shadows

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more.
(Macbeth)

Macbeth notwithstanding, this piece is centered around the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of North Carolina and Virginia. I first visited the swamp in January of 2017 and it made a lasting impression. The Great Dismal Swamp has an incredible history. It was home to generations of maroon communities – societies of runaway slaves who made their home in the swamp or used it as a corridor along the underground railroad. Throughout the years a rich tradition of folklore, ghost stories, and cautionary tales have grown up around the swamp. In many instances, these stories were used as a deterrent to help maintain the secrecy of the swamp’s human inhabitants. The swamp’s namesake – dismal – doesn’t exactly encourage visitors.

In the painting, the domestic animals, the pig, and chicken are signifiers of an unseen, subsistent human presence. The others are representatives of various myths and legends from the swamp such as the great blue heron who is said to have served as the guardian of the western shore of Lake Drummond for decades.

Cataloochee

The Cataloochee Valley is located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, close to my home in Asheville. The picturesque valley is home to a number of historic buildings, homesteads, and a decent-sized population of elk.
Cataloochee has a rich, occasionally troubled history including anecdotes of early Scotch-Irish settlers on friendly terms with the native Cherokee. It is said that some early settlers aided the Cherokee in their attempts to avoid forced relocation during the Trail of Tears period. About a hundred years later the European-American settlers would also be forced to leave their homes when the land was turned over to the National Park System.

The word ‘cataloochee’ is derived from the Cherokee term ‘gadalutsi’ which means ‘fringe standing erect.” most likely in reference to the tall trees that flank the valley floor. In this painting the valley is flanked by various buildings and industrial sites – among them is the iconic Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of an altogether different racially-motivated march.

Origin Story

My mother was born in 1949 in Hong Kong. She was one of two girls born to a single mother who fled mainland China in the aftermath of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War and World War 2. My maternal grandmother made it to Hong Kong just before Mao closed the borders. Meanwhile, my paternal Grandfather was fighting the same war in Europe.

My mom would later immigrate to Los Angeles in the late 60’s where she met my father. Dad grew up in a small town in North Carolina called Troy. It’s hard to imagine two more disparate places; Troy, NC, population around 3,000, and Hong Kong. This painting is based on a multi-cultural origin story, with elements borrowed from the East and the West. At the time of my parents’ wedding the supreme court case, Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage was barely 5 years old. Growing up in the south in a mixed race household is another element that features prominently in my origin story.

On monuments…
Monuments and statues feature prominently in this work and many of the other paintings in this show. Often depicted are Civil War Confederate and Union monuments which are ubiquitous on the east coast, particularly in the south. Monuments can illustrate some of the problematic aspects of the origin story. A statue reduces a complex and complicated individual or event to a singular, albeit ambiguous, unary feature that is literally set in stone. There is no nuance but rather the form acts to solidify whatever projection the viewer ascribes to it. Incapable of historical accuracy, these monuments become ideological placeholders. Moreover, Union and Confederate statues are basically indistinguishable to the layperson – which in this context seems fitting.
There is something inherently sad and beautiful about a Civil War monument. They’re compelling, yet my intention is not to attempt to justify their existence or offer any excuse for the lost cause. In painting them my aim is to present them as malleable ornaments that elicit a more emotional response than one of understanding.

“Fog” series

This series of 7 small paintings depicting a total of 9 black cats (in reference to cats having 9 lives) was influenced by the Carl Sandburg poem, “Fog.” The poem reads:

The fog came
on little cat feet.

It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Kettle

This painting shows a landscape featuring a kettle of 31 broad-winged hawks. Here, a kettle refers to a group of hawks in a cylindrical formation riding a thermal updraft. Some of the largest of kettles can contain upwards of 10,000 birds. The hawks ascend in a circular pattern. As each bird reaches the top of the column they exit one at a time at a specific point whereafter they can glide for many miles, often down a ridgeline to the next updraft. Asheville, NC is in the path of a large hawk migration. There are a good many raptors year round but each fall the numbers increase significantly. This past year I was fortunate to see a couple small kettles from my backyard.

The hawk’s political namesake describes someone with a willingness to go to war – as opposed to a dove (which is referenced in the ‘Mourning Dove’ painting also in this show). I thought the image of the hawk kettle appropriate to represent my
Grandfather’s military service in World War 2, a prominent feature in my family’s history and by extension my own origin story. As best as we can figure, we being my father and me, he flew some 31 missions as a bombardier in the 8th Air Force beginning around D-day in 1944. He would have been 19 years old at the time. Being onboard a B-17 in Europe during WW2 was a ridiculously dangerous job, I can’t imagine what that does to a young person’s psyche going forward.

At this point, I should mention the haphazard, amateur nature of my historical research which extends basically to family lore and a cursory internet search. This is why I’m a painter and not an historian. I can’t confirm that the exact number of missions flown was 31; could be more, could be less, not really sure where that number came from in the first place. But that’s kind of the point here. Origin stories are as subjective as they are fluid, prone to embellishment and revision – like a generational game of telephone.

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