Turning a museum wall into a canvas for a family’s history

Craig Stockwell combines art and genealogy in new work at BMAC

BRATTLEBORO — Visual artist Craig Stockwell may be known primarily for abstract painting, but increasingly he has become interested in finding ways that storytelling and history can play a part in his artistic process.

Consequently, a genealogy of Stockwell's ancestors who have lived in and around Brattleboro for generations has proven to be an ideal subject for his new drawing commissioned by the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC).

“About a year ago, Mara Williams [the chief curator of BMAC] invited me to join a drawing show she was planning,” says Stockwell. “She brought me into the museum and pointed as she said, 'This is your wall,' a huge 35-foot space where I would make a drawing in place for the exhibit.”

“Craig's drawing is built from information he gathered while researching his family's 11-generation history in the Connecticut River Valley,” says Williams. “During those 11 generations, most of the Stockwells have lived in or near Brattleboro, including Craig, who has lived in Keene, N.H., since 1988.”

“11 Generations: A Wall Drawing at BMAC” is part of the museum's new show, Drawing On, In, Out, an exhibit showcasing the work in large-scale drawing. Complementing Stockwell, the five other artists in the show are Cristina de Gennaro, Terry Hauptman, Monique Luchetti, Jane Sutherland, and Scott Tulay.

“I love the experience of looking at drawings,” says Williams. “They have an immediacy that is often masked in paintings and sculptures. The hand of the artist is readily apparent in a drawing. The pressure of a graphite pencil biting into paper, the soft roughness of charcoal clinging to it, or the smoothness of ink gliding across it is often felt as much as seen."

In the Wolf Kahn & Emily Mason Gallery and the adjacent Ticket Gallery, Drawing On, In, Out remains on view through February 8, 2016. Williams and the six exhibiting artists will give a guided tour of the exhibit on Sunday, Dec. 6, at 2 p.m.

BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld says that viewers would be particularly interested to know the story behind artist Craig Stockwell's large wall drawing.

“His drawing is an artistic representation of 11 generations of Craig's family who have lived in the Connecticut River Valley,” says Lichtenfeld. “Craig's ancestor Quinton Stockwell arrived in Deerfield, Mass., in 1673 -he was a captive during the French and Indian Wars - and the family has been in the area ever since.”

Although his ancestors may go back to the 1600s in the Brattleboro area, Craig Stockwell himself was born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1952. He studied with glass artist Dale Chihuly at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he initially focused on glass in Minneapolis, Boulder, and Boston.

His work evolved into conceptually based sculptural installations, which were shown in New York. Stockwell's “Installation at PS 1” was included in a show of eight sculptors including Louise Bourgeois, Mark Di Suvero, Jackie Ferrara, and Alan Saret.

After many years in New York, Stockwell moved to Spain with his young family in 1986. In 1988, they settled in New Hampshire where Stockwell made “an intentional decision to confine his work to the restrictions of painting as a method of creating a sustainable daily practice,” as he writes at his website (

In New England, he has taught at Marlboro College, Union Institute and University, Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Keene State College. Now living in Keene, he is currently the director of the Visual Arts Program at the low-residency Master of Fine Arts at the New Hampshire Institute for Arts.

Stockwell's “11 Generations: A Wall Drawing at BMAC” is an abstract drawing in charcoal that combines stenciled words and lines to commemorate the genealogy of the Stockwell ancestry.

“Craig's prep for the drawing included not only genealogical research but literally retracing his ancestors' migrations in the area,” says Lichtenfeld.

Stockwell took long walks and bicycle rides throughout the area, so he really could understand the places where these people lived and thrived.

“There already was a book on my family's history [The Stockwell Family Adventures into the Past 1626-1982 by Irene Dixon Stockwell] that was written in the 1980s by a relative then living in Ohio, and I learned a lot from that,” says the artist.

Stockwell followed his trail back from father to father to father. Only a little way into the process did he realize, “Oh my, there were wives and mothers too!”

“So now, I listed fathers and spouses in the piece,” he says. “What I quickly discovered was that genealogy can be an endless endeavor once you go down that little rabbit hole. You need boundaries.”

Stockwell's earliest relative in America was Quinton Stockwell, who was shipped by Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s to New England for forced labor. After he did his time of servitude, he was given land, and later became one of the Deerfield Captives shipped off to Canada.

“The Rev. Increase Mather encouraged him to write down his recollections of his captivity, which he did,” says Stockwell. “Quinton's original documents can still be found in the Boston Library.

“His writings turned out to be a valuable report because the people captured were usually soldiers or Puritans, who were either taciturn or spoke of the events in terms of God's grace and will. Quinton, on the other hand, was a very matter-of-fact sort of man who gave very specific notes about the events and his treatment, such as the cold, hunger, and his deprivations.”

Quinton's son Abel Stockwell became the founder of Marlboro, Vt., in 1763.

“To do research, Craig and his daughter Willa walked from Brattleboro to Marlboro, just as one of his ancestors did, in order to try to gain a visceral sense of why that ancestor had chosen to move from town up into the mountains,” says Lichtenfeld.

“My daughter who was living in Brattleboro then, and we wanted to see what it would be like to haul things up the hill to Marlboro, and also to consider what made him stop there in the deep Vermont woods,” says Stockwell.

Craig really never found out any answers, but the questions incited his creativity.

In 1777, along with half of the small population of Marlboro, Abel Stockwell died of Black Fever and was buried in a cemetery in the Marlboro woods, far away from the residents who were afraid of the disease being contagious.

“When I was teaching at Marlboro College, I met someone who was able to locate the lost cemetery where Abel was buried,” says Stockwell. “While I was taken there, I used an application on my phone that charts a line to trace the direction to the site.”

However, when Craig later tried to go back, even using this set of directions, he had difficulty finding the site again. Stockwell roamed around the woods for seven miles until he finally succeeded in locating the cemetery.

But even if the lines of direction were not reliable map-making, they were good for the drawing. All made their way into Stockwell's rendering of his family tree.

“Craig's '11 Generations' is informed by the artist's research, but in the end it is more artwork than historical presentation, more feeling than fact,” says Williams.

“To tell you the truth, genealogy is not really my thing,” says Stockwell. “I did not want to glorify my family or indicate it was special in any way. It is just the portrait of one - it could be any - family and its history.”

He says he believes that his personal history investigation was merely a way to get engaged with an artistic subject.

“My research gave me a real push to think in the context of how abstraction can be complemented with storytelling to create a new layer of possibility,” says Stockwell. “Although history may have got me going, the piece ultimately had to live primarily as a drawing.”

Stockwell taught drawing for many years, and one thing he stressed to his students was the importance of line. “Lines vary: they can be black or gray, sharp or cloudy,” he explains.

Using watered-down white paint, he was able to manipulate in “11 Generations” the sharp and dim focus of lines, as well as set the charcoal, which can be messy.

“My daughter spent four hours stenciling the names of our ancestors on the wall,” Stockwell says. When in a process of revision, he happened to wipe the names out and she became very upset. Stockwell told her not to worry. And indeed, after spraying the drawing with water, the names reappeared.

“I told her it was not possible to make a mistake with this method,” says Stockwell. “You can lose information and then bring it back.”

As Stockwell worked on the piece, he wrote in pencil personal notes on the wall in which he expressed his feelings about what he was doing.

“Those notes became part of the work,” he says. “They don't scream at you, but they are in there.”

Because “11 Generations” is a drawing that was publicly composed on the wall of BMAC, it had a special set of challenges.

“We were given four days to put it up,” says Stockwell. “Although I had tested out everything technically in the studio earlier, there were unknowns in actually installing the work.

“It turned out to be arduous labor, and by the third day, with my back tired, I thought my body would give out. Yet on Day 4, everything all came together and the drawing was finished on time.”

Stockwell says he is happy with the result, but he thinks about his art a little differently than he did in the past.

“Like a lot of people a while ago, I used to be concerned with making the perfect work of art,” says Stockwell. “But I have changed. No longer do I solely ask for that kind of art. Rather I now enjoy engaging in projects of diversity, with both weighty and light aspects to them. I have discovered that this approach makes what I create these days freer and not so closed up.”

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