Harriet Tubman is one of my all-time heroes, from the time I was little and even more so now. She was called “Moses” in her time, as of course she lead her people to freedom, escaping from the slavery she was born into, and subsequently making at least 13 missions back to the perilous South to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, family and friends through the Underground Railroad. She later was a cook and nurse, and then an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the Civil War, and helped John Brown to recruit men for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, among many other acts of courage and daring to help others and to fight for freedom of all peoples. She was intensely spiritual, a devout Christian and, like Joan of Arc, had visions and vivid prophetic dreams and heard voices from God that helped to guide her and her actions in amazing and productive ways her whole life. She was able to survive beatings and severe injuries and violent subjugation with power, and gave to others incessantly at the cost of her own health and wealth. She was always poor, as she gave her money away to people who needed it most, and helped to free her parents and purchasing a home for them and care for them. She had to be admitted to a home for elderly African Americans in Auburn that she helped to establish in her name as she had been overcome with illness, where this picture was taken in 1911, before her death in 1913.
As I painted this, to get closer to my subject while trying to bring this famous black and white photo to life, I listened to African-American spirituals that she might have enjoyed, her contemporaneous biography by her friend and supporter Scenes of the Life of Harriet Tubman, and more, alternating this with the current news of racial strife and prejudice. It’s sadly amazing to me that we are still dealing with many of the same issues that Tubman fought and lived against her whole life–I guess so long ago–and the way Trump and his admiration gin up their base to bring out their racism and misogyny for their own political agenda is tragic. But for generations, Tubman has served as a model and an icon to speaking and acting in truth to power. How she lead her people out of slavery is just what we need to strive to do as a country to not only help our own, but also the demonized immigrants that Trump and his cronies so devilishly have used as scapegoats to drive the engine of their draconian political machine. I felt as if, at times, I was channeling her, in the very least how this maverick marvel and all she stood for still speaks for our times. In painting, I realized that behind her maybe cotton, but also, being a son of a psychoanalyst with a belief in how the subconscious can manifest itself in painting, that in the micromanaging of the exquisite abstraction of the background in this daguerreotype, that in thinking of all the souls she saved, perhaps the idea of their spirit is subconsciously embedded here, too. And the shawl and blanket, majestically making a humble throne out of her wheelchair, were probably also lovingly wove out of cotton, the material of which was cultivated by generations of her peoples. I hope this is a loving tribute to this Saint.