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Days Gone By

The potentially controversial work of Margaret May Dashiell is examined at three area venues.

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Decades before the Depression, Richmonder Margaret May Dashiell was obsessed with a similar, but in many ways different, project. As she moved through white society as an artist, writer and shop owner, she was fascinated by the omnipresence and activities of black working people in the homes of her friends, in marketplaces and on sidewalks. After sketching their day-to-day activities, Dashiell made notes of their dialects and later executed finished drawings and paintings — by the hundreds.

Dashiell's record provides a wistful but intriguing snapshot of one aspect of Richmond in the early decades of the last century. Her art and writings are examined in an exhibition at three venues simultaneously: "Street Opera: Reconsidering the Art and Writing of Margaret May Dashiell (1869-1958)" is at the Valentine Richmond History Center, the University of Richmond's Lora Robins Gallery of Design From Nature and UR's Boatwright Memorial Library through July 29.

In many ways this is a brave undertaking. In the early 1990s the Smithsonian presented an exhibition that included Depression-era photographs from the Historic American Buildings Survey titled "Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery." The show, deemed offensive and politically incorrect by some, closed and never toured. That experience posed questions about how scholars approach painful aspects of American history.

Aware that displaying Dashiell's seldom-seen works might raise eyebrows if not ignite controversy, co-curators Suzanne Savery, director of collections and interpretation at the Valentine, and Diana Thompson Vincelli, director of grant support at UR (who had done graduate work on Dashiell), proceeded cautiously. Wisely, they've posed a broad question with Dashiell's work: Was she reinforcing racial stereotypes or recording dispassionately individual personalities and a segment of Richmond's population that was undeniably picturesque and increasingly anachronistic?

The exhibition has served as the backdrop for two excellent, academically driven symposia on Dashiell's work. In February, "Perspectives on Race and Identity in Art and Writing of the American South" was presented at the University of Richmond. "Imaging an Old South in a New Century," a few days later, featured co-curator Savery and Elizabeth O'Leary, associate curator of American art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In her insightful talk, O'Leary stressed that Dashiell's closely cropped depictions of picturesque African-Americans and aged Confederate veterans played into the late-19th-century "Cult of the Lost Cause." This was a period when the Museum of the Confederacy was opened in the former White House and statues of Confederates began being placed on Monument Avenue. What Dashiell never pictured was Richmond during increasing industrialization, lively commercial life on Broad Street or activities of the emerging black middle class.

Instead, she depicted mostly blacks in subservient roles: domestics, laundresses or nursemaids with well-turned-out blond children in tow. Their white employers often considered them part of an extended family and addressed them as "Aunt" or "Uncle." No doubt these domestics were highly visible on Richmond streets — many still are today but are seen more infrequently in an air-conditioned world. And many of these domestic jobs are now filled by Latinos. But Dashiell was convinced that an era was passing. Examining her work is like looking at photos in an old National Geographic depicting some lost culture.

If Dashiell's works are "Street Opera," they are not sweeping sagas, but rather chamber pieces. Occasionally they offer passing glances of Richmond settings — aged Confederate veterans in front of Dr. Hunter McGuire's statue in Capitol Square, figures in Shockoe Cemetery (both at the Lora Robbins Gallery) or a fascinating interior of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Grace Street (at the Valentine). But mostly the illustrations are tightly cropped views focusing on personality. It's in this focus on the individual that Dashiell's intent is best revealed: Her subjects possess great dignity.

If one wants them to be, Dashiell's images are loaded racially. Conversely, they can be read as a sentimental record of a bygone era. But we are not naive. A newly released movie, "C.S.A." (produced by Spike Lee), presents a disturbing picture of what the nation and world would look like had the South won the Civil War. Or maybe we don't have to go there. Do we see a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix as a breakfast treat or the mammy stereotype personified? Does Uncle Ben's rice complement a meal or conjur Uncle Tom? Slavery, racism and the post-Civil War era present a complex legacy.

One thing is sure: Dashiell had a careful eye on her own legacy. When she died she distributed her works equally among leading cultural institutions: the Virginia Historical Society and VMFA in addition to the Valentine and UR.

Aesthetically, while Dashiell's graphic approach is often quick and sketchy, there are a number of pieces in which her line stroke is bold, fluid and assured. If one institution didn't embrace her work, another might. Ironically, a number of her beneficiaries have now joined forces to decipher her work. And they've done so intelligently. S

"Street Opera: Reconsidering the Art and Writing of Margaret May Dashiell (1869-1958)" runs concurrently at the Valentine Richmond History Center, University of Richmond's Boatwright Memorial Library and the Lora Robbins Gallery of Design From Nature, through July 29. On Friday, March 24, from 12:30 to 1:30, Lora Robins Gallery will host a brown bag lunch discussion of the exhibit.

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