On 25 May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police. When something so brutal occurs we often hear it condemned as “un-American.” What does that mean? People flooded into the streets all summer to protest. Conspiracy theories coming from social media and the White House sowed confusion and made everything worse, including the pandemic. The effect was disorienting. I remember learning of one of Putin’s favorite mantras: “When nothing is true, everything is possible.” It felt like that.
As a still-life painter I wondered how I could engage with these events during my approaching sabbatical. I participated in a program offered remotely called Academics for Black Survival and Wellness. That experience helped me understand, better than I think I ever had before, how little I know. Their programming indicted as incomplete the history I was taught in my large public high school. It made me further question what I tell myself, and what my country claims as its American heritage.
After countless cribbage games during lockdown, I woke one morning thinking about standard playing cards—specifically the royal, Anglo face cards, arbitrarily awarded highest value, and often depicted with symbols of their authority and power. I found decks online that suggested a variety of European lineages—from Spain, Britain, Italy, France, Russia, and eastern Europe. I began to imagine the cards as surrogates for America’s earliest white immigrants—and myself. The resulting still-lifes were completed in 2021.
In Origin Story: Of Troubled Seeds, early Europeans delicately balance and reinforce one another in common cause. Their enterprise is supported beneath by a dense assembly of figures confined to a dark, cramped space. It is an idea for a society designed by those who planned to benefit from its arrangement. The two locations are inherently unequal in all aspects—light, space, and mobility. Seeds are also nestled among the figures beneath the white platform, planted by way of the young nation’s choices and unfolding history. They bear witness to the circumstance, and like all seeds, they will bear fruit.
When I tried to describe the force of whiteness directly, it felt elusive, formless. Like the wind, it was most visible when acting on other things. This thought led me to consider the space surrounding the figures in the cards. In The White Frame, I cut one free from her context, creating an independent form. She stands, unknowingly performing her whiteness while gazing at the field from which she came. She struggles to perceive her own likeness. It’s there, but its contours suggest a more monstrous condition. The painting touches also on standards of appearance—hence the paradox in the title.
The language of cards expanded to include games more generally. There are rules to games, arbitrary and written long ago by unknown authors. The dice imply the risk and capricious fortune that reward some, but not all. A walled divide separates the two communities. They are made of the little houses and larger hotels used to build generational wealth in a game of Monopoly. Light—embodying notions of access, advantage, and opportunity—falls across the neighborhoods unevenly. A red line reinforces a boundary that is not natural or permanent, but has been placed there and maintained with intention.
Image at top: Bevin Engman, Origin Story: Of Troubled Seeds, oil on panel, 24 x 24 in., 2021.