Friday, November 6, 2009

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence Reminisces

My thanks to Denise for graciously giving me space to speak to all of you. I thought I’d give you a little insight into how I got to be Homestead’s first Artist-in-Residence this fall, and how I came up with the program I presented while I was there.

by Penny Musco

My family and I have vacationed at national park sites for years. In January, while visiting Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks in Florida, I was inspired to start a blog about our national parks and what I learn from them.

In the course of writing and research my posts, I happened across the National Park Service page on the Artist-in-Residence program. Hmmm… wouldn’t that be interesting, I thought. Next thing I knew, I got a call from Homestead saying my application had been accepted!

But what to do for my program? The germ of an idea came when I applied for the residency. As I searched the park’s website for information so I could write a coherent proposal, I found this article on the nineteenth-century exodus of freed slaves, who became known as Exodusters. An estimated 20,000-40,000 of them poured out of the South, most in 1879 and 1880. Kansas, with its abolitionist history, was the prime destination of these African-Americans.

This was one of the greatest migrations in American history, yet I had never heard of it. I asked many people, black and white, if they were familiar with this movement, and found only one person who was.

So naturally, I knew this HAD to be my subject!

How to present this information became my next focus. After some back and forth with the Homestead rangers, I settled on writing and performing a monologue about a white woman from New Jersey (me) telling the story of her move to Kansas with her family to become homesteaders, and how she befriends an Exoduster.        

Then I tackled the research. I must have read all or parts of around twenty books (some of them children’s books, which provide information simply and concisely), about the Homestead Act, blacks in the West, women in the West, and the Plains states in general. I took voracious notes, picking up little bits and pieces to use to give authenticity and flavor to the plot slowly evolving in my head (the tale of the 1874 grasshopper invasion I owe solely to Laura Ingalls Wilder!). The three books I relied on most were Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction by Nell Irvin Painter; In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990 by Quintard Taylor; and especially In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80 by Robert G. Athearn.

Finally, I began to write. I wrote so much than I ended up with 42 pages! If I’d kept it at that length, I’d have talked for two hours! I reminded myself that first and foremost I was telling a story, and even though the historical facts were important, the characters were what would make the narrative come alive. A few days of editing and revising yielded a much tighter, more manageable manuscript.

After that, it was just practice, practice, practice!

If I was blessed enough to have you in the audience when I performed Steal Away, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You calmed my biggest fear—that I would be boring—by giving me your full attention as I wove a nearly-forgotten piece of history through the fictional tale of an unlikely friendship. And when one of you said to me, “I’ll never look at a sunflower the same way again,” I uttered to myself the phrase every artist longs to be able to say: They got it!

Next year you will have a different Artist-in-Residence. Who knows if it will be a sculptor, painter, photographer or even another writer? My hope is that he or she will be as enriched as I am for having been at Homestead.

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