[Kate Blackman] Here is my story of working with my professor, falling into a bagful of family memorabilia, feeling just a bit like Indiana Jones, photocopying for hours and hours … and, through creating my family portrait, ultimately realizing how much I want to encourage other people to explore their roots in a meaningful way.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved sifting through people’s memories. I’ve always posed endless questions to family and friends about the past. Early signs of my obsession were manifested in the “museum of rocks” I created as a child, to which I invited visitors — and charged admission. Maybe these activities foretold my future as a graphic and information designer. I’ve never lost my fascination with capturing the stories of how people have lived.
An interactive timeline and historical archive created by Art Center students in 1997
I attended Art Center College of Design, where I happened upon a student multimedia project called “Beyond Glory: Stories of Mack and Jack Robinson.” It was a glorious (no pun intended) collection of interviews and historical memorabilia exploring the lives of two noted athletes. This weaving together of artifacts — storytelling outside the traditional “who, what, where and when” — was high-octane inspiration for a confessed history addict. It would lead me to an independent study with Allison Goodman, the professor who shepherded the Robinson project.
Photocopies, scans, transcriptions — and some new photographs — were my starting point.
Digging and discovering
Fast forward a few months to my discovery of what seemed like an installation of nondescript paper bags that had been stored in my great aunt’s attic and were now occupying a quiet corner of my grandmother’s living room. Inside were little bits of forgotten family mementos that had been hibernating for decades. When I pulled out a photo of a woman in late 19th-century dress seated in a rocking chair, something about the scale of the fireplace behind her seemed strange. I asked my grandmother who she was. “Oh,” she said, “that’s your Great-Great-Aunt Emily who was my favorite aunt, and,” — dramatic pause — “she was a dwarf.” I had never heard of Great-Great-Aunt Emily, and as I looked through more of the bags’ contents, I realized I had found my own little historical journey.
Great-Great-Aunt Emily (1867–1953) opened up a whole world for me.
I proceeded to dive into the life stories of people whom I had previously only seen named on family trees, if at all. I spent the next few days furiously copying hundreds of documents, including the daily weather and mood journal my great-great grandmother kept until she went blind … and a game, dated 1823, played via mail between a brother and sister who lived far apart. Also the deed to a Civil War-era ancestor’s grave site, which turned out to be in the same off-the-beaten-track cemetery where a 20th-century relative (my father) is buried. And 19th-century pictures of a family of unmarried sisters who founded a school for girls. Many of my discoveries were rounded out with family records from my grandmother’s files and with writings I found on a previously undocumented ancestor, a grave carver from the late 1700s.
An American Family Portrait: 139 pages follow the adventures of 11 generations from 1620–1912.
The book takes shape
Allison Goodman was a wonderful guide in helping me organize items into a book that would highlight humanity over chronology. An American Family Portrait is an account of the many contrasts of life — legend and fact, success and failure, adventure and obligation, cultural and historical change, human rights and relations — and an understanding that telling stories serves a bigger purpose than being great fodder for the cocktail hour. Getting to know a bit about how you link into the chain is an amazing gift. Learning about lives that led to my own serves to remind me that life is short and full of challenges. You never know what’s around the bend, so celebrate every day.
Handwritten captions and even tape discolorations became part of the story.
More than a decade later, the experience of discovering and documenting my family history has blossomed into a new purpose. My longtime friend and colleague Jamie Diersing and I have created Egg2Cake. Our company designs products that help people capture life’s moments. Working on my family book showed me that shifts in communication styles, particularly the emergence of photography as a primary tool for capturing memories, have shortchanged the documentation of life histories. With crazy schedules competing for time and families living far apart, people don’t take time to detail their recollections of personalities, places and experiences. Jamie and I now spend our days dreaming up ways for people to enrich their lives by celebrating all their seemingly disconnected facts. It’s a gift we hope can keep on giving — not just to those who do the tracking, but to the many generations yet to be born, who will get to do the discovering.