The shadows cast by a majestic oak tree danced around the walls of her studio, as collage artist Lynda Frese gathered photographs depicting the lives of four generations of enslaved people and planter families who lived on the Shadows-on-the-Teche Plantation.
The tree is named after Judge John Moore, a Louisiana congressman in the antebellum South who once lived there, and is just one of the remarkable historical characters she is exposing through her latest artwork.
“I take pictures of things that aren’t normally found together to create a narrative of the history,” Frese said, as she delicately assembled a collage, like an archeologist piecing together an ancient artifact.
Frese, a Rhode Island native, has been a photography professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette since 1986. She received the Distinguished Professor Award in 2013.
“I made a decision to be an artist when I was young, and since then, I’ve fully dedicated myself to my art,” Frese said in a reflective voice just reaching above a whisper.
The egg tempera pigments Frese uses are as vibrant as her expression, as she talks about her experiences as an artist-in-residence in France, Italy and Costa Rica through the Rockefeller Bellagio Center, the American Academy in Rome and the Liguria Center for the Arts and Humanities.
“Through living in Assisi, Italy, one of my inspirations has become St. Francis,” Frese said. “He lived in the woods in Assisi and is known for his relationship with the natural world. I want to use my skills as an artist to help illuminate how we care for nature and the Earth.”
Frese’s project at Shadows-on-the-Teche requires her to examine the relationship between history and nature, as well as her personal requirement to honor the Earth through her work.
“A really important element is to make my art about our mysterious relationship with nature that cleans, feeds and nurtures us,” she said while working at her studio overlooking the plantation grounds.
Frese and composer David Greely are working separately on a yearlong pilot program, funded by the National Trust and the National Endowment of the Arts, which will be completed in June.
The program selected one visual artist and one musician to create a joint exhibit about the memory, history and relationships of Shadows-on-the-Teche, built from 1831-1834.
At the Art and Shadows Celebration on May 9, visitors will maneuver from room to room observing Frese’s artwork to the rhythm of Greely’s compositions.
The history of Shadows-on-the-Teche includes the 250 enslaved people who lived there.
“I’m moved by the story of the people who left no traces behind,” said Frese. “It’s a painful and wretched history. Sometimes, I just have to step back because I get too emotional about it.”
An adopted child, Frese embarked on a journey of her own to uncover her identity through connecting with her biological parents and her 12 biological siblings after her adopted mother’s death.
“Some people never find their birth parents, so I felt very lucky,” Frese said. “I thought that when I found my biological family I would discover some were artists, but no, it’s just me.”
One of the stories Frese tells of those who left few traces behind is of the four slave children whose father was their slave master.
William Weeks, a son of the plantation’s original owner and the husband of Rachel Hopkins, fathered four children with his slave mistress. In the family tree, you can see his children by Hopkins, but his children with his mistress aren’t recorded, Frese said, pointing at the family tree.
“There is this whole other story that is completely hidden,” she said. John Hathorn, a visual artist and professor in the department of visual arts at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, describes Frese as a “fiercely independent,” committed artist.
“Her work has been exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad, and in particular France and Italy,” Hathorn said in an email. “She is deeply committed to the role of the artist as a vehicle for social awareness.”
Frese invites all those interested in her project at Shadows-on-the-Teche to view her artwork at lyndafrese.com, or on Tuesdays and Saturdays while she’s creating in her studio on the first floor of the plantation house.