“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” -Samuel Clemens
As an author and artist with an affinity for history, I think a lot about the quote above. I surround myself with history whenever I can. As I type this statement, an Underwood Standard Typewriter sits in the background on my desk. This typewriter was rescued from a ship in Rotterdam by a family member. The lamp lighting my space is made from a factory bobbin that dates from the late 1800’s in England. I’m often pulled to items and inclined to dig into their history, to find out more about them and the world where they existed.
As a child I was raised to learn my history lessons and memorize names and dates by heart. Odd, that we used that word in particular, because to learn something by rote is not in any way to take it to heart. I did not enjoy my history classes. I wanted literature and stories. The endless catalogues of names, dates and battles did not inspire me.
That is, until I had a history teacher that told me stories.
He breathed life into history and surrounded every date and event with stories about people. Thus began a love with history and an affinity for places and things that held the memories of people long past. Samuel Clemens knew what he was talking about. We often dismiss things that have happened historically, thinking that we know better than to repeat them. And yet, we repeat them often. Why is that?
I believe it’s because historical events are rooted in the depth of human nature and that knee jerk reaction that is often ruled by the limbic system. What I need to know about history lies in the stories of the people that lived it. It is often a difficult task to find their voices, because some of the most marginalised and victimised were never allowed to tell their stories. Yet, I keep digging.
This collection of paintings purposely shows the backs of people from history. They invite us to come with them and look into the past. They pull away the soft filter of nostalgia and ask us to steep ourselves in a moment of memory. They ask us to remember that history is more than just dates and names or a timeline to be memorised. They ask us to remember the real people involved and to search ourselves for the ways in which we can learn from the past.
Forget Me Not
watercolour on paper
This is a portrait of Dorothy Good, the youngest person (at 4 years old), arrested for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. She wears homespun brown, which would have been a class indicator. As a holdover of English Sumptuary Laws, embellishments such as lace, Tiffany hoods and certain colours were illegal for the poor. Here Dorothy looks into the dark gloom of the distance. The forget-me-nots clutched in her hands stray from their Victorian romantic definition and instead ask the viewer to remember her story.
No Place for Her
watercolour on paper
The portrait of this unknown woman, dressed in her finery is a statement about the bondage of traditional gender roles. She is bound indoors by the weather and the dense forest beyond her window. In this way she can see the larger world, though her participation in it is restricted. Her rebellion is to dress as if she will leave, with her bonnet tied on, but even the bonnet is a form of oppression. In order for women to see/be seen when wearing these, they had to turn their entire head. Though this was considered a way of shielding and protection it had the similar effect to putting blinders on a horse.
More than Stone
watercolour on paper
The background of this painting is the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Many of the photos of this memorial are shown from afar and the concrete slabs look small. In person, these monuments loom large, as they should. Holocaust survivors are slowly dying and it is more important than ever that we hear their stories. The woman in this painting asks us to pause, to listen and to consider the people represented by these stone monuments stretching into the distance.
Juliette van der Molen is an author and artist living in Wales. Her work has appeared in several publications both online and in print. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of The Net. She is the author of four poetry books: Death Library, Mother, May I?, Anatomy of A Dress and Confess: The Untold Story of Dorothy Good (9 October 2020). She is the poetry editor & book reviewer for Mookychick Magazine. She has also been shortlisted for Best Reviewer in Literature (Saboteur Awards 2020). You can connect with her via Twitter @j_vandermolen, Instagram @juliette.writes or through her website at www.JulietteWrites.com