Museum brings local history back home

FAISON — Like fingerprints etched in mortar, the brushstrokes visible beneath the layers of pigment offer a glimpse of the creator behind the image, of a young woman who recognized the raw dignity of faces and images all but invisible to many of her social and cultural contemporaries.

As the daughter of a plantation owner, Mary Lyde Hicks wasn’t expected to take notice of the field hands and laborers that populated the shacks and back roads of her hometown. Born in Faison in 1866 shortly after the close of the Civil War, the daughter of Isham Faison, owner of Faison Plantation, found herself drawn to the images of African-American plantation workers, tenant farmers and handy men of her hometown, many of whom were former slaves struggling to reestablish themselves after the devastation of the war.

Having developed an early interest in painting, Hicks studied under several well-known artists of the day, including F.G. Fisher of Washington D.C. Soon afterward, she embarked on a career as a portrait painter and achieved statewide recognition for her talent and unique subject matter. Today she is recognized as one of the south’s foremost portraitists. Twenty-eight of Hicks painting have survived and are currently on display at the Museum of Archives and History in Raleigh.

In addition to her art, Hicks was also active in the civic life of her community. She served as the state president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from 1912-1914, and was a member of the board of directors of the State Hospital at Raleigh. Four of her children served in World War II.

In an effort to return a part of the county’s history to its place of origin, Anne Taylor and Inga Flake, of the Faison Museum, recently inquired about purchasing Hicks’ paintings from the Museum of Archives and History. According to Taylor, the paintings, which were donated by Hicks’ son, B.F. Williams, were given to the museum under stipulations that prevent them from being sold. As a compromise, the museum offered Taylor and Flake 11×17, high-quality reproductions of the paintings, which are currently being housed at the Faison Museum. 

Though the reproductions are significantly smaller than the original paintings, Hicks’ formidable skill and respect for her subjects remains obvious. Her depictions of rural African-American life in the late 1800’s convey an emotional directness suggestive of the farm life portraits of contemporary painter Robert Roche, while her depictions of field workers picking strawberries, shucking corn and churning milk recall the stark mystery of famed Regionalist innovator Thomas Hart Benton’s finest work. In the end however, Hicks’ paintings resonate with an unselfconscious directness of expression uniquely her own.

Included with the paintings are handwritten biographical sketches provided by Hick’s son, B.F. Williams, her niece, Rachel Stroud, and her cousin, Francis Faison Johnson. In one such painting, Victoria Brown, who was known as “Aunt Vickie,” is pictured with her hands folded in the lap of her green skirt, her solemn eyes focused to the right of the frame. On her head, a red, flower-patterned scarf holds a cabbage leaf in place.  According to biographical information, the leaf was a common folk remedy that was thought to relieve headaches.

In a painting titled “Contentment” former slave Grannison Taylor is shown relaxing, pipe in hand. Notes on the painting, written by Hick’s son, state that Taylor was a ditch digger who arrived from Virginia and fell in love with a young woman from a neighboring plantation. They notes read, in part, “It seems she cast a spell upon Grannison, as he never could get her out of his mind.” According to the notes, Taylor left Faison but returned several years later and resumed his romance with the unnamed woman. They were eventually married.

“It’s very important we honor these people,”remarked Anne Taylor, who said she believes the paintings represent a significant link to the town’s past. Many of the surnames of the subjects represented in the paintings, such as Best, Bowden, Herring, Ashford, Tucker, and Brown, are still prominent in the area and throughout Duplin County. “These are their roots,” said Taylor, “and it’s a way for members of our African American community to learn about their ancestors.”

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