Drawing inspiration from found family photographs dating back to the 1950’s, the Jamestown Road series by Erin Breau-Barkley pays homage to the artist’s grandmother and the house she built as assurance and protection against the insecurity of early widowhood.
In creating the Jamestown Road series, the artist confronted competing narratives surrounding home ownership. Capitalism’s promotion of security and pride in private ownership stand in stark contrast to the artist’s own values and the widening gap created by the affordable housing crisis.
by Erin Breau-Barkley
When my grandfather, Bill, died suddenly in 1956, he left behind his wife, Anne, and their two boys, my father and uncle, aged 10 and 15. My grandfather was a beloved husband and father, an advertising executive and an avid and talented amateur photographer. He had much more passion for his art than for advertising. They were born and raised in Detroit, but by 1952 they had moved to the suburbs just before the exodus that would mark the downfall of the then thriving city. Anne eventually remarried, but before she met her second husband, her neighbours, Joy and Maurice, helped her purchase a lot on Jamestown Road in a suburb of Detroit (pictured in The Dining Room) where she built the house she lived in for 60 years. Her home is the subject of this body of work.
Bill’s legacy is told through the photographs he left behind and the photographic sensibilities he passed on to my father. My dad digitized a trove of family photographs following his mother’s passing in 2002. Thousands of images line my studio shelves, and each tells a particular story about a specific moment Bill considered important enough to load, frame, focus and shoot. Among them are dozens of 3×3 photos of Anne’s home on Jamestown Road which span decades. The photos of her home must have been taken by my father, because neither Anne nor my uncle shared Bill’s aptitude for photography. These small, faded and fragile photographs of their home sparked the creation of this body of work. Jamestown Road tells the story of Anne’s house and the life she built there with her sons. Anne’s story is one of resilience, perseverance and care. With this work, I hope to memorialize these small, delicate paper objects, using them to connect to my grandmother’s experience. These paintings have allowed me to explore my complicated feelings about ownership as an emblem of success and fortitude.
The photographs of Anne’s home on Jamestown Road were pridefully taken with precision and consideration and my work aims to mirror this attentiveness. The paintings use calm palettes and clean, minimal composition to convey a sense of quietness and order, which is how I experienced her home. I wanted to capture the simplicity of suburban living and used an intentional absence of figuration to emphasise the stillness in the photographs.
With its mid-century décor and plush cream carpets, Anne’s home was, for me, a luxury hotel in an entirely different world. Each room in her house had its own colour scheme: pink, red, yellow, beige and robin’s egg blue. Every part of the house was meticulously decorated, adorned with objects and relics that held histories. Anne passed this love of nostalgia down to me, and her sense of style greatly informs my own aesthetic sensibilities.
I was 22 when Anne died at the age of 93. As a child, I struggled to connect with her but was fascinated by the stark contrasts between our lives. Anne was a devout Roman Catholic and my father, her son and former seminary student, was gay and fled the U.S. as conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. We were her only Canadian relatives. She served Jell-O salads with dinner where table manners were always upheld. She had a travelling martini set for her vacations. She told wonderful stories. She shopped from the Saks Fifth Avenue sale racks. In contrast, I grew up in a blue-collar family with deeply rooted leftist values, working in non-profits, attending alternative schools and living in a co-op in Toronto. We spent most vacations in the woods. Despite our disparate lives, there was love which evolved from curiosity into mutual openness over time.
Although it seemed that my grandmother embodied all the things I wasn’t, I always appreciated Anne’s pride in her home. It has taken me two decades to understand why. From a young age, and through my grandmother’s lens, I understood that possessing something valuable and tangible like a car or home, was synonymous with success, security, and prosperity. As an adult and a Socialist, I grapple with conflicting values and the nuanced relationship between personal beliefs and societal expectations. My antagonism toward a system that glorifies ownership above all else is at odds with my longing for the perceived joy, relief, and security of home ownership.
While this series began as an homage to my grandmother and our shared affection for her home, it became a manifestation of my own housing insecurity. As I navigate life as a low-income artist parent in a prohibitively expensive city amidst a growing affordable housing crisis, I often think about Anne and her admiration for and attachment to her home. From this frame of reference, because she faithfully subscribed to the norms of capitalist society, my grandmother’s house was, for her, a kind of antidote for the insecurity of being a widowed single mother in the 1950’s. Through painting it however, I considered my own sense of despair and anger about capitalisms markers of success and society’s judgement and castigation of those who can’t (or won’t) achieve them.
Jamestown Road marks my return to painting after a decade-long hiatus. This series is my first complete body of work culminating in my inaugural solo exhibition. Much gratitude, fondness and appreciation for Holly Venable, Sam Higgs, Quincy Raby, Marina Dempster and the whole Lyceum community who have embraced me with encouragement and enthusiasm and filled my cup with their collective creativity and talent.