Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Crazy Nora

Title: Crazy Nora
Year: 1865
Material: Oil on canvas
Creator: William Winner
Collection: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Gift of A. Cuthbert Thomas, 1897

Growing up in a small college town in Western Pennsylvania, I didn't see too many homeless folks on the streets. Except for Crazy Jake. No one (in my age group) knew if Jake was actually homeless (I don't think he was), but there was general consensus that he was a bit off his rocker. Jake mumbled to himself, as he walked the streets in tattered clothing, often pushing grocery cart full of aluminum cans and glass bottles and hauling various plastic bags. To many, Jake was scary, mysterious character. Lore surrounded him. 

During my first years in Philadelphia, I became involved in a few organizations that work with the homeless community. I led art activities on the weekends, served soup and coffee at an overnight cafe, and delivered weekly bread donations from a local bakery to a soup kitchen. I learned more than just people's faces and names; they shared their stories, and I shared mine. 

This week's object reminds me both of the local gossip surrounding  Crazy Jake as a child in my hometown (I sure I had many misconceptions), and the realities of homelessness that I've grown to better understand. I introduce to you, "Crazy Nora." 

This painting is one of 25 that are displayed in Face to Facebook, an exhibition at the Philadelphia History Museum showcasing portraits of Philadelphians from the 17th through 21st centuries. Most images depict well-dressed individuals of higher social standing or historical “significance,” including George Washington, Charles Wilson Peale, and Abolitionist Harriet Lee Smith. Yet, wrapped in layers of tattered clothing, accompanied by her well-worn belongings, here also hangs homeless Honora, the center of local gossip. 

Throughout the gallery, questions and statements about identity invite visitors to consider how notions of personal identity have changed over time and other ways they remain the same. For instance, social media has impacted
the way people share information and present themselves—often creating bifurcations between who one is “online” verses “offline.” At the same time, people have coupled their identity to their occupations ("I am what I do"), and their relationships ("I am so and so’s wife") for centuries. It is suggested that these portraits explore how individuals see themselves, as most were commissioned by the subject. However, as the text panel (presented in a narrative museum voice) states, “Crazy Nora” was not a commissioned work. I wonder if she even consented to this painting, and if she saw the finished product, felt it was an accurate portrayal. Unlike most other subjects, Nora’s significance (in the eyes of the painter, and seemingly much of society) is rooted in her assumed mental instability and subversive behavior.

The text panel suggests that Honora was driven mad through her involvement in a rebellion against the teachings of the Catholic Church in the 1820s. She joined a group led by William Hogan, a priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on 4th Street, who argued against celibacy, created a renegade church and was excommunicated. More than simply a genre painting of Philadelphia street life, an opposing point of view might argue that this painting is Honora’s “Scarlet Letter.” She resisted the church, was besieged by her sin to the point of insanity, and was driven to a life on the street.

This object could be important to individuals interested in local history and lore, and genre paintings of Philadelphia street life. It would also appeal to those interested in the work of William Winner in particular, and portraiture more generally. Mental health advocates and those concerned with issues of poverty and homelessness may also view this painting as significant. 

One’s understanding of this object could be enriched by studying any of these topics. To delve more deeply into the history of Philadelphia streets and neighborhoods, check out PhilaPlace 
The Pie Man 1856
One could also explore (and support!) two amazing organizations that provide an array of services to Philadelphians in need of homes, employment, and health services: Project H.O.M.E. and The BethesdaProject

I took a look at some of Winner’s other paintings. While they also focus on a figure in the foreground, notice how these other streetscapes include a lot of background activity. Compare this to Nora, who stands in solitude. Perhaps Winner is intentionally alluding to her social ostracization?
Newsboy 1864

Individuals who are merely interested in portraits of Philadelphia’s literal and figurative "bigwigs" may not be interested in this object. It might also strike an unwelcome chord to those who have strong feelings (personal, religious or political) about homelessness, mental illness and religious dissidence. 

The accompanying text panel concludes with the question, “Do you think people should always have a say in how they are pictured?” This is a good way to start a conversation about privacy and censorship that easily relates back to modern day applications. However, I would wish to take the discussion in a slightly different direction and focus on the issue of homelessness. Recall, this painting was created ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO. As scholar Kenneth Kusmer writes in Down and Out on the Road: The homeless in American History, homelessness originates back to colonial America. There are many misconceptions about how and why people become homeless, and what can and should be done to address this social inequality. 

Knowing that the Philadelphia History Museum has found more success in weekday evening programs, I would plan a program in partnership with the aforementioned local organizations, Project H.O.M.E. and The Bethesda Project. In conjunction with these organizations, members of the homeless (and formerly homeless) community would be invited to create self-portraits in various artistic mediums, which would then be displayed at PHM. At the opening reception, one of my heroes (and founder of Project H.O.M.E.), Sister Mary Scullion, would speak, as well as a few of the participating artists. It’d be interesting to see how the images created compare to William Winner’s depiction of Honora Powers. By the way, isn’t that an incredible name? Honora Powers? Honor and Power—in some sense, that is exactly what individuals like Honora need and deserve—honor, or respect, and power, or resources. In the words of Sister Mary, “None of us are home until all of us are home.”

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Do you have any idea where we might find the original of Winner's Newsboy?