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The War at Home

The Lady Irwin, Defiant
18" x 24", oil on wood panel, 2014, private collection

Quaker Barn Burning
16" x 20", oil on canvas, 2014

The Quakers have had a strong presence in Prince Edward County since the late 1700s, building communities throughout the county and prospering. By the time World War One came around, their status as peaceful conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the war became well known, but not gladly accepted by everyone, namely the Ku Klux Klan who, believe it or not, had a faction in PEC and Quinte area. Before the KKK were outed as the horrific bigots they really were and eventually driven out, they were simply seen as just another Christian group (their white robes and hoods are, in fact, based on Catholic ceremonial outfits).

According to one report, the KKK had already burned down at least one Quaker barn out of anger at the Quakers not wanting to fight in the war, and they were on their way to destroy another barn in Ameliasburgh when they were stopped by the neighbour, Mrs. Irwin, who was also raised a Quaker but, in her own words, "didn't exactly follow their peaceful ways." The story she relates of the incident involve her using her .22 calibre rifle to put a few rounds in the Model T the Klan members arrived in, and when that didn't deter them, she shot a hole through their leader's tall hood, prompting them to get back in their car and drive off, leaving the neighbour's barn alone.

These paintings are in the War at Home section of my WWI painting project, and that sentiment couldn't be more apt here; while local County boys were overseas fighting an enemy they had no personal quarrel with, folks back home were also confronted with an enemy, the only quarrel being the one instigated by the local KKK. When I came upon this information early on in my research, I enjoyed Irwin's tale (however embellished it may have been), but I struggled with the idea of including an explicit scene of a barn burning because who, apart from a Klan member or other such bigot, would want that image in their dining room? Weeks went by until I finally decided that this project had to include images that were not only not likely to sell, but ones that may unsettle me deeply –and no painting in this group gave me more discomfort than the barn burning. But I'm glad I did it as it's historical and important to the overall story/point of view I'm conveying. Plus, it's happily balanced by the humour of Mrs. Irwin's feisty defiance in the other painting.

Note: the red circle on the KKK guy is actually meant to be their symbol, but I rendered it so loosely that some people think it's supposed to be a poppy. That's not my intent, and poppies didn't become common symbols of remembrance until the 20s, but I don't mind (and don't discourage) that accidental interpretation as it lends the painting a touch of surreal irony.


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