In faithful remembrance of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, and to the truth-loving people of North Carolina
This site-specific public art project on view from 2020 - 2021 at the Center for the Study of the American South intervenes throughout CSAS’ location in a historic home on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The installation encompasses sculptures that evoke the historic fire screens found in house museums from the antebellum era in the United States, as well as a wallpaper display that depicts an illusory excavation into the walls of the building.
CSAS’ offices are located in a renovated building that is the former home of Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Spencer is a well-known figure on UNC’s campus. She was a White woman who was active as an author and historian in the mid-to-late 19th century in Chapel Hill. Her copious writings evince White supremacist and patriarchal beliefs. Her influence on the university was intertwined with her political activism that advanced Lost Cause Confederate mythology in the postbellum era. Her segregationist beliefs initially helped close the University for a period. Her impact has had a strong presence on campus in the 20th century, with a campus dorm named for her.
Despite the repeated calls to remove Spencer from an honorific position in campus memory, a portrait of Spencer, along with reproductions of several of her botanical watercolors, hang in the main parlor of the CSAS offices. My project takes on the complex and troubling endowment of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, weaving together Spencer’s own words as irrefutable evidence in the persistent lineage of perpetual racism and sexism in the University’s official actions in our present day.
The painted sculptures are distributed throughout the Center for the Study of the American South’s building, in front of the 5 fireplaces extant today. Historic fire screens were domestic objects typically made of wood or metal that assist in regulating the warmth of a parlor fire for those seated nearby. Fire screens often feature precious paintings and embroidery, often by upper middle class young women, as a display of their technical skill and trained virtuosity. Pastoral scenes and decorative patterns were common visual themes, and the fire screens I made for ‘Imagining UNC’s Future with Art,’ recycle appropriations of Spencer’s own floral paintings (held in the Southern Historical Collection of Wilson Library at UNC) as backdrops for embroidered textsFull text and documentation can be found at: https://south.unc.edu/2020/12/21/reckoning-and-imagining/