Find Yourself In History
My love of learning (and really the start of my radicalization) started in 7th grade. Years ago, in a classroom on the second story of the Greenville middle school, the bell had just rung and I was seated smack dab in the middle of a sea of desks with not a familiar face in sight. What I remember as a very frightening time, I now see was also a big turning point for me. My love of history was ignited in that class. Texas history is something Texans are very fond of. Literally almost (if not everything) in the state is named after a prominent historical figure from it's creation and colonization. Learning about our state's history in middle school was a requirement, as it is in most states, but my family also traveled all over the state on various vacations, continuing to burn facts about its history into my brain. 7th grade was a whole new world, it was stressful to make that leap. I remember that year because of that one class. That class was the first time I felt smart and capable in a subject that wasn't art. Our teacher taught us more that just history - he taught us how to be better people. We were encouraged to look beyond the surface and see things from other peoples points of view.
My love of history never faded and before I know it, I’m applying to colleges that bear the names of the men I studied in seventh grade.
After college, I took a trip to Austin, Texas to visit some friends. I was getting ready to live out side of the state for the first time in my life, and I knew this would also be a good trip to learn more Texas history before I left. This time, I had a better idea of what I wanted to learn. My radicalization had grown quietly, and steadily over the years. I was on a mission to uncover new things - about myself and about Texas. My first stop was the capital building. I had been there before, but it was like I was saying farewell to it this time. It was hot, blazing hot, that summer. I was on my own and strolling along, not looking for anything in particular. I completely missed the marble statues of Stephen F Austin and Sam Houston. Being born and raised in Texas, then attending Sam Houston State University, you tend to glaze over things like that - and truthfully, I did not particularly care to admire the two men that day. I have learned enough history about men. It wasn't until a day or two later, I made my stop at a small museum and realized that admiring those statues is not just about the men, but also about the artist. A woman named Elisabet Ney.
Elisabet Ney took my breath away. She was a fellow Texan, a woman, an artist, and a feminist. My kindred spirit. Her museum was her former home and art studio. A beautiful white structure more castle than house. It stands out against it's green surroundings. It was there that she would carve the statues of the two Texas giants that now reside at the capital building. Elisabet Ney's work is beautiful and peaceful. Much like the land that surrounds her former studio. As the architects were building the space she would remind them that she needed to be “surrounded with as much beauty as possible” while working. That beauty reflects in her work and in her life. There is a secret shared between the subject and the artist captured in the marble, never to be spoken. Her work is incredibly detailed. I feel as if I learn something different looking at the carved marble that than I would if I were to meet the person in real life. Honestly, the whole space give me 2005 Pride and Prejudice vibes - particularly the scene when Elizabeth goes to Pemberley and there are all the white busts and statues and its so romantic and beautiful.
Ney immigrated to the US in 1870 from Prussia (now Germany) to escape the Franco-Prussian War. She had made quite a name for herself in Europe. She attended art school when she was a teenager and her reputation as a magnificent sculptor began to grow. Sculpting is intimate work - often the artist and subject alone for hours and her subjects often became close friends. Those friends eventually ranged from philosophers to some of Europe's highest political and military figures. Oh but what are kings and philosophers to Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston? After Ney and her husband came to the US, she helped support him and their son. In 1892 she bought land in Austin, Texas and named it Formosa (Portuguese for “beautiful”). At age 60, she picked up sculpting again. Leading her to her place in Texas history.
Ney would open her home to friends and family. Her and her husband would host salons - a popular style of party in Europe where the host would invite artists to showcase their work. This woman was about the arts! She understood it's importance and supported other artists as much as she could. The salons at her home would become legendary for the attendance of many talented and highly influential guests. Elisabet Ney was an influencer in her own time. She helped support the women's movement in Texas, often by hosting those salons! She was passionate about education and wickedly smart. Her and her husband were equals and he often credited her for helping with his work. Ney took a woman named Nannie Huddle as her student. Huddle and Ney would remain close friends until Ney's death in 1907. Her and her husband, Dr. Edmund Duncan Montgomery, are buried next to each other in a grove of live oak trees at Formosa. Those two trees are ones they themselves had planted almost 40 years earlier.
In a speech given to the State Council of Women, Ney stated, "Art, when faithful to its highest mission, is the endeavor to embody in sense-given material, the spiritual aspirations, the emotional longings of humanity...It remains with us to bring about this higher, truly vital renaissance."
My education is never done. I am always learning. Some how, I am just now learning as I write this, that by looking into the past, I was perhaps getting a glimpse of my future. I long to have what Elisabet had. To do art, host salons, cultivate friendships, and help make a change in my community. This trip was before I would move to Atlanta and actually attend, and then later host, a salon of my own. I think of Elisabet Ney often. One of her last works was a statue of Lady MacBeth during the sleepwalking scene from Shakespeare's play. There I was, getting ready to leave Texas and go into a Shakespeare Internship.
I think back to 7th grade history. If I was not taught the importance of knowing the past, I never would have sought to find out more on my own. I never would have looked for more museums off the beaten path. I never would have met Elisabet Ney and dreamed that my life could be like hers. My 7th grade Texas History teacher taught me perhaps the most important lesson; He taught me how to learn.
One day, I don't remember how we got on this subject, Mr. Teach started off on a tangent about the phrase, 'That's how I was raised.'
"That whole saying is bullshit," Mr. Teach said.
Though, I doubt he swore. I'm adding it in for dramatic effect. My memory recalls a kid saying something racist, Mr. Teach scolding them, and then they retort back with that classic phrase, 'Well, sir, that's just how I was raised.'
"That is bullshit. The whole 'that's just how I was raised' is an excuse used for not wanting to learn something new. Often used for not wanting to learn how to treat others with respect. I will tolerate none of it. Everyone is capable of learning. Everyone is capable of re-learning."
It is never too late to learn too be a better person. It is never too late to restart your education. You never know what you may learn about the past. You never know what you may learn about yourself.