A Piece of Family

“Harriet Francis,” paper collage and ribbon, 17” x 15”

Mentors have been invaluable to me. My newest mentor is a woman I have never met. In fact, she is no longer living. She is my great- grandmother, Harriet Francis McMullen. I discovered Harriet 70 years after her death as I set out to prepare artwork for an exhibit in 2016.

Digging through boxes of old family heirlooms, searching for inspiration, I uncovered the essence of Harriet’s life — silver coffee and tea servers etched with the initials HF, a box of manuscript drafts, a portrait of her younger self, and an obituary. These were artifacts that Harriet unknowingly gifted to me. They inspired my collage, aptly titled “Harriet Francis,” and put me in deeper relationship with her.

Through making a story from the pieces of her life, I came to embrace Harriet as an unconventional sort of mentor. She was a woman from whom I was essentially crafted. A woman who pursued her dreams of writing, music, and volunteerism. And a woman who apparently encouraged her offspring to write. A writing desk gifted to Harriet’s daughter, my grandmother, on her ninth birthday in 1894 is a cherished family heirloom.

These roots have sprouted a deeper sense of self and a renewed determination to express my own creative gifts. I see pieces of Harriet’s creative talents in myself — writing, songwriting, singing, and volunteering. As a descendant, I imagine carrying her inspiration with me wherever I go.

That initial art exhibit in 2016, “Family in Pieces,” evolved into what is now a multidimensional exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum. Paper collage is the chosen medium for this project — it lets images of heirlooms tell people’s stories. “Harriet Francis” is one of 12 collages that illuminate parts of my family story beginning around 1849.

Debra George (she/her), Saint Paul multimedia artist and family historian, curated “Family in Pieces” at the Hennepin History Museum. The exhibit illuminates 19th-century life around Saint Anthony Falls and runs through spring 2023.