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Spirit of Oconee

Ashley Esposito

Acrylic on canvas

Spirit of Oconee

The Spirit of Oconee is bringing stories I know in my family about our Afro-Indigenous history in South Carolina. Sometimes I dream about what my ancestors looked like and how they lived. Did their hair look like mine? What did they do for fun? What did the land look like? I imagine present-day Oconee County through my ancestors' eyes, navigating through the woods relying on trail trees and memory. Trail trees are old trees intentionally bent at an angle to mark a vital trail or site. They are distinct; some projects document these trees, and some still exist. One of these tree projects was part of my matching up our oral history with the actual history of the land.

I come from a long line of talented, strong, crafty, and resilient people. On the journey to document my family's heritage, I found connections through Tsalagi (Cherokee) and Mende (Sierra Leone) people through their love of basket weaving, agriculture, and even their superstitions around owls. I have always gravitated to the great horned owl because I've had some interesting sightings that terrified and excited me! The painting is special to me because it's my dream of my ancestor seeing an owl on a trail in Oconee. One of the documents I found showed we also had a knack for healing and medicine, so I wanted to include some of my favorite healing plants (sweet grass, indigo, and sage). I also included a rice plant that has significance to my Mende heritage. The Mende were skilled rice farmers, which, unfortunately is why they ended up in South Carolina.

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