Self-Evident (for Sally Hemings)
Self Evident (for Sally Hemings) explores American family diversity through a dress. The skirt of 18th century garment holds the family tree of Sally Hemings, her half-sister Martha Wayles Skelton and Sally’s master and father of her children, President Thomas Jefferson. The family tree shows Sally Hemings and Martha Wayles Skelton had the same white father, Captain John Wayles. Martha married Jefferson and Sally became a slave in the President’s household. Martha, dying after childbirth, made her husband promise not to remarry to spare their children her experience of a cruel stepmother. A widower, Jefferson went to Paris to negotiate on behalf of the United States taking Sally as his enslaved nanny. Their intimacy produced a pregnancy in France, where slavery was illegal and Sally could have been a free woman. Hemings returned to America after making Jefferson promise their children would be free at age 21. They had several children born in the United States.
Some Hemings/Jefferson descendants became famous writers, musicians, war heroes and politicians. Descendant Frederick Madison Roberts was elected California’s first black Assemblyman. Both Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson worked for a better life for their offspring, using methods available to them at the time.
Through Self Evident Ellison explores how actions in the household and statehouse intersect to affect lives and liberty. The bronze, cast at the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington State, is made from a plaster mold based on the artist’s extended studies in the costume collections in Jefferson’s Monticello, Virginia estate. The sculpture was inspired by Monticello Wakes, an opera about Sally Hemings created by Garrett Fisher and Tim Appello with set and costume design by Ellison. Monticello Wakes premiered at Loyola Marymount University with the school’s professional choir performing in Inglewood’s lecture hall in October 2015. Inglewood City Council proclaimed April 16, 2016 as Sally Hemings Day to honor the sculpture dedication and a great American leader.