For his exhibition On the Black History of Kent County & Washington College, Patterson displayed the college archive’s 1790s painting commissioned by Simon Wilmer, one of the college benefactors. The painting depicts Wilmer, his family, Washington College, Chestertown, MD, and the people Wilmer enslaved.
LFA: When did you realize that specific connection with the Choptank River and Harriet Tubman?
JP: Well, when I knew I was coming here, I was like, oh, I think this is where Douglass and Tubman are from. And then we were driving here the first time—we were driving into Chestertown on 291 and there was a sign that said the highway is dedicated to Henry Highland Garnet. I knew who he was. I had already been planning on making work about him. But I did not know he was born in Kent County. The first thing I thought was, “Do the white people here know who Henry Highland Garnet is?” I mean, this man was a radical for his time, the Malcolm X of the nineteenth century. He encouraged enslaved people to kill their masters. And unlike Douglass and Tubman, there aren’t any sanitized narratives about him. And after being here for almost four years, the answer is “no.” Most people here do not really know who Henry Highland Garnet was.8
And getting back to the landscape of this region. The first year we were here, we actually lived in Wilmington, Delaware, and commuted fifty minutes. Sometimes I would take the country roads while I listened to a Harriet Tubman audiobook. And when I listened to the biography and drove through this landscape that she could have passed through, that was profound for me. It’s given me ideas on how to incorporate landscape into the work.
LFA: That’s hard not to look at the land and think about.
JP: Absolutely. I’ve done work on Isaac Mason, who published a slave narrative in the 1890s. He was born in Kent County and enslaved in Chestertown. The Kent Cultural Alliance is Kent County’s arts council, and the mansion Mason was enslaved in is now the kca’s headquarters. I’m on the kca board and the building my studio is in is right next door. In Mason’s narrative, he tells his story of escaping from this mansion and getting to Wilmington and eventually Philadelphia before he eventually settles in Massachusetts. Being so physically close to history like that is really new for me and quite inspiring. So, yes, I am really thinking about location and I really hope I can start incorporating work about, and of, this actual landscape into my practice.
LFA: So much of your work is about picturing the figure as a way of framing historical memory—likewise, the concept of land can be a kind of portrait, which can convey information about history. Y’all have a lot of plants around your house—that’s part of being in touch with, knowing, and understanding different kinds of life that have needs. Some urgent and some more relational, right?
While driving here I wondered, are these landscapes the same now as they were then? Not the same vista Tubman would’ve seen, yet thinking about proximity, that there is somehow a relationship over time and wondering what connections are possible to trace. More than just picturing a vista, it’s about experience and the facts of the soil and the many kinds of witnessing. I talked about the tree outside your window earlier, all those things seem really ripe or potent with meaning. You can flip a signal and tune into it.
JP: Yes, when I did my project at Washington College (which was a series of work on the Black history of Washington College and surrounding Kent County), one of the artifact artworks for the college’s archive that we used was this painting from the 1790s commissioned by Simon Wilmer. Wilmer was a wealthy landowner, enslaver, and benefactor to the college when it was founded in the 1780s. The painting depicts his land, his home, and Chestertown in the 1790s with the college in the background and Wilmer himself on horseback, but also the people he enslaved. In the image you can see landmarks that still exist. Although his house looks much different now from additions and renovations, the original eighteenth-century parts are still there. And I’m sure if I followed the landmarks of Chestertown in the painting that still exist today, I could find my street and where my house is now. There are still physical things here, and parts of the landscape, that connect us to that past.9
LFA: Like one of those kinds of fictional landscapes that’s an imaginary composite, intended to evoke domination.
JP: I don’t know what I would exactly make about the landscape just yet, but I still want to think about it and see what could come from that. I just started reading the historian Walter Johnson’s most recent book The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. Most of his work is on slavery and, to me, one of the most compelling things he’s written about is how the landscape architecture of plantations were designed for surveillance.10