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New Grebel exhibit features artistic Mennonite family trees

Photo: Daniel and Maria (Suter) Steiner family tree by Sam Geiger, 1906 (detail)

Historical art pieces with a universal theme are now on display at Conrad Grebel University College.

The exhibit, called Growing Family: Design and Desire in Mennonite Genealogy, showcases 15 different stations of painted family trees, hand-drawn charts and other ways Mennonites have visually remembered family.

The Mennonite Archives of Ontario’s Laureen Harder-Gissing says the inspiration for the exhibit came to her after observing reactions to a large, hand-drawn family tree that was displayed outside her office for several years. She found many people were captivated by the work.

“I think it interests people on a number of levels,” said Harder-Gissing. “Some people are very fascinated by the logic of it; it’s almost like looking at a puzzle, figuring out who’s who, and how they’re connected, even though you don’t know the family.

“Then, imagination can sort of take over. You think ‘Oh, here’s someone whose branch ends. I guess they never married, or maybe this was a child who died young’ or ‘Look at this family, they had a massive family. What was that like?’ So I think even if you don’t know the family, it’s the logic on the one side and the imagination on the other that people just get fascinated with.”

She combed through the archives to find family trees to display and was struck by the complexity of the pieces. Family trees of many different Mennonite faiths are represented, including Amish and Russian Mennonite.

There are a variety of works that used different mediums including but not limited to pen and ink and acrylic. For example, one was painted on a window blind in the 1940s; another is a photograph of a Bible page from the 1500s. The types of work are just as diverse as the artists.

“The youngest artist was 14 when she created hers, all the way up to people nearing the end of their lives who wanted to make sure the family was visualized in some way,” said Harder-Gissing.

The exhibit runs for two years, from May 2019 to May 2021 at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario at Conrad Grebel University College, with free admission. Harder-Gissing said it would appeal to people of all ages.

“There’s something very universal about family trees. Everyone has some family story, and maybe it’ll help you think about ‘How would I represent my family if I had the chance to sit down with a pen and paper or a paintbrush? What would I do?’ And I think maybe that will lead to some creativity, I’m hoping.”

Tours are self-guided, with guided tours and additional programming available upon request in advance to the archivist. More information and images from the exhibit are available at www.uwaterloo.ca/grebel/growingfamily.

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