Letter From The American Cousin
When I met with Celeste to interview her for Apple Pie, she told me that she would like to be Benjamin Franklin.
I have to say that turning someone who looks like this…
...into someone who looks like this seemed rather unlikely! How to make a pretty woman into a bald man? After making some unfortunate sketches of Celeste without hair, I did the only thing I knew to do: I started researching the multifaceted Franklin in the hopes of discovering a way to make the impossible more probable.
In the end, I happened upon some images of Franklin in a fur hat and learned that he had worn it when he was an ambassador to France. He did so in order to play into the stereotype of the wild, rustic American, and the French adored him for it.
I knew I wanted to paint Celeste as Benjamin on an envelope. Not only do I have an affinity for mail art, but Franklin had been an important reformer of the early postal service in the United States.
Besides, mail used to be the only means of communication between immigrants and their families back in their countries of origin.
And it’s that connection with another nation that ultimately makes immigrants so American.
Beyond the fur hat and the postal service references, I knew that the one attribute that would help make Celeste into Benjamin above all others was the key tied to the kite in the lightning storm. Like Nixon’s gesture, Franklin’s experiment with electricity is uniquely linked to him.
I was a bit torn when it came to putting Franklin’s glasses on Celeste…
...and I painted them out a few times, before eventually…
...deciding to keep them in the painting.
I struggled to include some of the deep yellow of the Manila envelope in my composition. At this point, I hadn’t figured out how I was going to display the piece and I was concerned about it reading as an envelope.
The Liberty Bell Forever stamps seemed a fitting addition to this remake of one of the most famous Philadelphians.
I had to put something inside Letter From The American Cousin in order to keep it looking like an envelope, and it seemed a waste to enclose a blank piece of board in an envelope. So I quoted Franklin’s essay “Information For Those Who Would Remove To America” which had been translated into several languages in the 1780s and widely circulated in Europe with the goal of attracting immigrants.
“It is unwise for anyone to go to America who has no other quality to recommend him but his Birth. In Europe it has indeed its Value; but it is a Commodity that cannot be carried to a worse market than that of America, where people do not inquire concerning a stranger, WHAT IS HE? but, WHAT CAN HE DO? If he has any useful Art, he is welcome; and if he exercises it, and behaves well, he will be respected.”
I suspect that, even at the time of publication, there was an element of propaganda to Franklin’s essay, but the sentiment is, on the whole, true. The United States was a very different animal than any other nation yet seen.