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Giving face to a legend

Philadelphia artist paints portrait of former slave and Christ Church member

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[Episcopal Life] When visitors come to Philadelphia's historic Christ Church -- and more than 250,000 of them did last year, according to parish Tourism Director Anne McLaughlin -- many want to sit in the pew where George Washington worshiped or visit the Colonialand Revolutionary-era graveyard, the final resting place for many early American leaders, including seven signers of the Declaration of Independence and five who signed the U.S. Constitution.

Others just want to sit quietly in what is known as the "nation's church," founded in 1695 as the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania and later the birthplace of the American Episcopal Church.

Now there is yet another reason to visit: to see a portrait of Alice of Dunk's Ferry displayed in the reception area of Neighborhood House, the adjacent parish hall.

Artist Al Gury, professor and chair of the painting program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, said he was inspired to paint Alice when he and his students heard her story. Christ Church guides now discuss Alice and other slaves in order to follow a mandate to all churches from the last General Convention to "give a full, faithful and informed accounting" of the Episcopal Church's history with slavery.

A remarkable subject
According to historians, Alice of Dunk's Ferry was the daughter of slaves brought from Barbados on the Isabella, the first slave ship to dock in Philadelphia.

Alice spent her life gathering stories about the city and its people and became known in her time as an oral historian. At Christ Church, 25 percent of Philadelphia's free and enslaved Africans were baptized, a school was created to educate slaves and the first black priest, Absalom Jones, was ordained.

Alice, Christ Church's longest-lived parishioner to date, was a remarkable woman, said Rector Timothy Safford. "According to historical accounts, Alice was 116 years old when she died, still telling stories from Philadelphia's early days. We are proud to honor her through this powerful artistic rendering."

Gury takes his art history students from the Academy and Cabrini College on field trips to galleries in Philadelphia's Old City. "We often stop at Christ Church and other historic sites to introduce them to the history of the city and its cultural roots," he said. "Neil Ronk [senior guide/historian] gives wonderful stories about the early women, members of the community, at that time. His story of Alice struck me as sad because there was no real image of her, considering that she was thought to be such a vibrant character in early Christ Church history."

Gury, who paints portraits and is familiar with 17th- and 18th-century painting techniques, decided to do a rendering of Alice. "My goal was to make a vibrant, lively portrait of this personality as I understood her to be. There wasn't much to go on, just a few snippets about Alice that I read in historic accounts. I went with the inspiration from Neil's stories and my personal feeling of the importance of the role of African-American women in our history and how it's unsung.

"It was touching to me that Alice had no last name. I envisioned her as strong, steady and hardworking, intelligent in a way that wasn't recognized in her time."

Gury, a Roman Catholic and neighbor of Christ Church who often stops to "sit quietly and meditate," said the only extant visual image of Alice was an engraving of a toothless, ancient woman.

"I wanted to paint the woman in the peak of her life," he said. He researched what a working woman of the 18th century would have worn and chose a model at the academy, Susan Robinson, who, he said, exhibited qualities of intelligence, grace and humor that would represent Alice very well.

"What we want to do is to explain the more difficult aspects of an institution's history as honestly as we can," said McLaughlin. "That's where the portrait of Alice comes in. She lived in an era in which her story can easily get lost in the midst of great work, yet her story is in some ways as dramatic as the founding fathers.

"To lose that would be a historical tragedy and a tragedy for the parish. She is one of our people, a member of our church community. Alice has an amazingly compelling story, one that the visitors pick up on."

The finished work is a marvelous portrait, said Ronk, a tour guide for 18 years. "When we first saw it, it took my breath away. It fleshes out a woman who is an important part of our history and, by extension, a whole class of people.

"Whether the portrait is spot-on accurate is irrelevant to me," Ronk said. "It is a loving attempt to give a woman, who was anonymous for much of her life, a face to her own congregation. We all have a footprint in the sand ... we wanted Alice to have a physical footprint both to students and to members of Christ Church. Here is a woman who thought of Christ Church as her beloved church, who rode on horseback at the age of 95 to attend services here.

"How could we not celebrate that?"

-- Jerry Hames is past editor of Episcopal Life.

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