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Art, at its basic, objects with meanings
By Phil Hanna>
Quilts, Drawings, Old Letters, Photos, and a Sermon - A Walk Through Family History shared at the February 8, 2024 meeting of the Adair County Arts Council - "Art, at its basic, is objects with meanings!"
In 1995, almost 30 years ago, I received a letter from my Aunt Margallen in New York about an heirloom quilt that she had inherited from her mother, my grandmother. It was not in the best condition, so she planned to section it up for interested family members. She divided it up, stitched the edges, mailed them and this is what you hold in your hands.
From her 1995 letter: The Lemoyne Star quilt was made by Elizabeth Goodwin Lewis (1803-1837).
She was a daughter of Elizbeth Doswell Goodwin (1781-1849) and Littleton Goodwin (1776 - 1822) of Caroline County, Virginia, just north of Richmond, Virginia.
In a book, The Goodwin Family in America (1897), I found a description of her mother, Elizabeth Doswell Goodwin. She was known for her sweetness and generosity to her less fortunate family. Her black servants were disgusted when she would send food on a silver tray to her poorer relatives. I visited Caroline Count several ears ago and went to the crossroads where their farm and home had been, but did not see any historic buildings or homes.
Elizabeth Goodwin, the quilt maker, married twice: first, to William Catesby Woodford, who lived only a few years, passing in 1820. Nine years later, in 1829, she married Charles Augustine Lewis (1800 - 1860). He was a graduate of the University of Virginia, an educator and twice principal of Rapahannock Academy, a military school in Caroline County.
Sometime in her short 34 years of life, she made this quilt.
Just a few years ago, my Aunt Bette, now in her mid-90s, in Chicago, gave me these two framed portraits in two old garish wooden frames. At first, I thought they were Elizabeth Doswell Goodwin and her husband Littleton, but I sent a copy of to an antiquities dealer in Virginia and he identified the artist as an itinerant artist and doctor, Silon Amos Henkel (1813-1844). He wrote: Your portraits are not of 18th century vintage ... they were probably done in the 1830s and I would attribute them to the Virginia artist, Silon Amos Henkel. That dating tied it to the quilter, Elizabeth Goodwin Lewis and her husband, Charles Augustine Lewis, who are very likely the couple in the drawings.
I say that because the years of their marriage were close to the working years of Henkel, and because it has remained in the family for almost 200 years.
Elizabeth Lewis, the quilter, died in 1837 at age 34, leaving her daughter, Elizabeth Meriwether Lewis (1830 - 1908) motherless at age seven. Her father sent her to live with her grandmother, mentioned above, who died in 1849 when her Elizabeth would have been 19. Her father then became a preacher. Elizabeth Lewis kept the quilt and pictures as memories of her parents. I will now refer to her as Bettie Lewis. I do not know much about her life from 19 to 33 years of age, but somewhere in the early 1860s, she met, then married David Rodes Massie (1836-1902).
From old letters, we know that on September 10, 1863, at 6:30 am, at age 33, Bettie Lewis married David Rodes Massie, age 27, and he immediately went off to serve in the Civil War. I have some letters he wrote her and they are very eloquently written. One starts out, My Darling Bettie, and he describes a shared sunset having a mystic effulgence.
Rodes Massie taught modern languages at Washington College (Later Washington and Lee) and was secretary to Robert E. Lee, its president. He later taught at several other schools including the U. of Tennessee. He spent his final years in Lewisburg, WV, near his daughter, where my grandmother grew up and he would have known her as an infant.
His book, Exercises for Translating English into German can still be bought on Amazon. I have several letters of recommendation for him as he applied to other teaching position.
I also have a letter he wrote applying to be president of College of William and Mary.
Bettie Massie and Rodes Massie had three children, one of whom, Elizabeth Massie Bell, became my grandmother's mother. By family lore, as a young child, she was once wandering the campus of Washington College when Robert E. Lee rode up to her and said, "Little girl, where did you get your confederate shoes, meaning she was barefoot. He picked her up and put her on his horse, named Traveler, and took her to home to her parents. Family lore says that, later in her life, she hated Lincoln pennies and was a resentful confederate for many years after the war. She had a sister, Nannie Rodes Massie, who taught French at Agnes Scott College and a brother, Charles Augustine Lewis Massie (1867-1931) who was a patent attorney in New Jersey.
Elzabeth Massie Bell married Edwin Lewis Bell (1864-1942), a businessman and a leader in the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, Virginia. They had four children, one of whom was my grandmother, Margaret Bell, later Hanna.
In the accompanying picture from Lewisburg, WV, (c. 1800), seated is Bettie Massie with my grandmother on her lap; then, standing, her daughter, Elizabeth Bell, the wife of Edwin Lewis Bell. My grandmother was born in 1899 and lived to 1989.
So, the quilt, the two pencil drawings, photos, and the letters from Rodes Massie to his wife, became part of my grandmother's heritage and her link to the past.
Grandmother Hanna married the Rev. C. Morton Hanna, a pastor and later seminary professor. She was active in her church and wrote numerous letters to her family members, many of which I have. I knew her into my late 30s. She was witty and her blue eyes sparkled, even in her old age.
After grandmother's father died in 1942, she established the Edwin Lewis Bell Bible Award, at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, to honor his legacy as a leader in the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. In the photo, is grandmother as an infant, her paternal grandfather, Johnston E. Bell, and her father, Edwin Lewis Bell, who strongly resembles my father in face and personality. Dad wrote a sermon, On Being Children of God, about a life-altering event in the life of a young Edwin Lewis Bell, around the Bible text, I must be in my father's house. A copy of the sermon goes to each winner of the award.
And so, with this part of my family history: the quilt, Henkel's drawings, an old wooden frame, old photos, civil war era letters, and a sermon, all come to life - objects with meanings. And what is art at its basic but objects with meanings!
This story was posted on 2024-02-11 21:04:02
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