When I was sixteen I was baptized a Pentecostal. On that day, I emerged from the Severn River, ecstatically speaking in tongues. My arrival at this euphoric religious experience wasn’t a direct outcome of my upbringing. Neither of my parents were Pentecostal. But enthusiasms—especially enthusiasms for the experiential and the mystical—were a primary force in my family. Early in my parents’ dating relationship, my father, who was raised Jewish, was dragged by my mother to a tent meeting, where he was “slain in the spirit” and converted on the spot to evangelical Christianity. Believers who are slain in the spirit fall to the floor in a blinding moment of conversion likened to that of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. My father went from a secular Jewish history major to a seminary student in the American Baptist Church and was later ordained as a naval chaplain.
While our family identity was that of evangelical Christians and American patriots, my parents’ love of the experiential couldn’t be confined to the rather upright and traditional worlds of the church and the navy. It was the 1970s, and purifying the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit led many believers to the health food store. Throughout my childhood my parents became ardent followers of extreme purification regimens: they installed a huge distilled-water tank in our kitchen, issued handfuls of mega vitamins, and took my sister and me—ages eight and ten—for colonics.
My parents were restless in their search for meaning. On Sunday afternoons, after my dad’s sermons at the chapel, my parents would take us to other churches and denominations on a roving quest. I left home at sixteen and quickly found myself repeating this pattern, identifying first with the Pentecostal and then with a variety of fringe churches and denominations through my early twenties. Each of these sects shared a perception that it was set apart, the truer church, the closest to original faith. The sects tended to have specific and unusual restrictions. There were churches that identified themselves by a lack of musical instruments and others where women could not cut their hair or wear pants. The churches were rarely located in traditional church buildings; I found them in strip malls or metal-sided warehouses. Despite my wide-ranging search, I never regained the urgency of faith I experienced on the day of my baptism. The hapless hopefulness with which I approached each new experience seems particularly American to me.
In my work, I’m interested in people who fervently pursue ideals, only to have this pursuit end in disillusionment. Portraiture is an important part of this exploration. Utopians is a series of portraits whose subjects are American idealists, zealots, and visionaries. These individuals span history from early colonists to followers of spiritual movements and separatist sects in twentieth-century America. The portraits depict extremists who created new worlds; I think of them as being distant relations to one another. These are disciples and true believers who follow their convictions to the most extreme ends, often with disastrous results. The portraits show their emotional turbulence and the frustration of matching their ideals with the real.
In the Mayflower series, I draw from the perspective of the zealot. The pilgrims were a splinter group, the first of many American splinter churches, and I understand what it means to belong to one. In these drawings, I took on the perspective of a Pilgrim, looking out into darkness from the deck of the ship and seeing only sky and water. The point of overlap between the portraits and the Mayflower seascapes is Dorothy May Bradford (fig. 4), the wife of separatist leader William Bradford. She jumped to her death from the Mayflower into the shallow waters of the Province-town harbor. I imagined her in that last moment, looking out, unable to reconcile her vision of utopia with the wilderness of the American shore.