For Claudia Marchini, art provides an abstract language just right for research and investigation into the psychological theories that fascinate her.
“I don’t know why I make the connection but I do it; Something just grabs my mind and then I go and do it,” she explains.
That’s just what happened when the artist picked up a copy of Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies.
The 1977 collection was compiled and edited by John W. Blassingame, an historian and former chair of the African American Studies department at Yale University, from original letters, speeches, interviews and autobiographies by enslaved African Americans.
For Marchini, who is also a psychologist specializing in suicide prevention, the materials provided an intimate window into the experiences, emotions and perceptions of those caught in one of mankind’s cruelest power dynamics. For Marchini the artist, the emotional impact of the accounts made not responding to them impossible.
“I couldn’t just read it and put it in my shelf. It was something that I had to do something about. So, I decided to do a face to the letters. And they just started to come out.”
Claudia Cillóniz Marchini was born and raised in Peru and emigrated to the United States in the 1980s. Since 1990, Marchini and her family have made their home in Grants Pass.
“We fell in love with it. We fell in love with the community and with the landscape and the wildlife. I couldn’t ask for a nicer place to work,” she says.
The peace she finds in the wild beauty of southern Oregon allows Marchini to take deep artistic dives into a great variety of subject material. The results are often a series of artworks based on a single topic of investigation. For example, “Motion/Chance” visually investigates forces that impact human perception; “Green People” is a playful commentary on 21st century humans’ obsession with personal technology.
For “Homage to Slaves,” Marchini plunged into the first-hand narratives compiled in Blassingame’s Slave Testimony. The selections range from pleas from prison to eye-witness accounts of executions, to smoldering indictments of “Christian” hypocrisy, all from a perspective Blassingame was among the first to document. For each passage, Marchini imagined what the author or subject might look like and then painted a portrait of that “strong person from the past who wrote from his/her heart.”
In all, there are 56 portraits painted on marble with oil and Dorland wax. Each measures 12-inches square.
Marchini chose marble because of the stone’s transparency and multi-layered composition; a quality that suggests the passage of time embodied in one resilient form. These features also provided a potent analogy for the humans in the portraits – scarred by time and experience, arresting in their depth and beauty. The result is a haunting, visual dialogue between vulnerability and resilience.
“How these people that endured such horror and survived it is something to learn from,” Marchini struggles to explain, and not because English is her second language.
“They had the strength to survive this with a strong – I don’t know how to put into words,” she says, using her hands to indicate a link between the marble’s elegance and the enduring spirit of the subjects. Then, her hands fall into her lap. “There are no words.”
Instead, there are portraits.
When shown, “Homage to Slaves” presents each portrait alongside the narrative that inspired it, allowing the viewer to take in both forms.
The narrative content of the work is difficult, unvarnished and often gruesome. Why then would Marchini resurrect these experiences in “Homage to Slaves?”
“It’s a part of history that shouldn’t be forgotten,” she says.