“In Search of Home”—an ongoing project of photographer Kija Lucas—is created from plant clippings, rocks, and dirt collected (and then scanned) while Kija traces her ancestors’ paths from the moment they entered the United States to the present. Her tree is Eastern-European Jewish, African American, and English, with each branch entering the United States through vastly different circumstances and experiencing racial inequality from different perspectives. Driving across the country with stops along the East Coast, South and Midwest, Kija has visited 11 sites where her ancestors were brought, migrated through, or settled. In the intervening years some of the sites have been redeveloped many times over, but in every case the construction, renovation, or cultivation was wrought on land her ancestors walked, lived, and worked on.
In addition to sharing a selection of her images with Proximity, Lucas discussed her work with editor Maggie Messitt:
MM: What brought you to the familial and geographic journey that has become “In Search of Home”?
KL: My father was a gardener and, when I was growing up, he would bring us to jobsites with him on days off from school and put us to work. I remember discovering a tiny orange flower that was unassuming and beautiful. He told me it was a weed and it needed to be pulled. But, I didn’t understand why this flower was a weed to be discarded and others were seen as beautiful and taken care of.
A few years before this project began, I started looking into my ancestry, reading family stories, and exploring the meaning of home. I wanted to visit the places where my ancestors had lived since their entries into the United States. I wanted to stand on the land where they once stood and into which they once sweat and bled. I knew that I wanted to document this, but I wasn’t sure what form that documentation would take. As a person of Eastern European, African, and English descent, I am interested in the way that actions and experiences are passed down through generations and their origins are soon forgotten. When I began to learn more about my ancestry, I began to think of my experience and the lens through which I see the world as an amalgamation of generations of experiences. All of these disparate stories are somehow my own.
I am also interested in taxonomy and categorization. When I was testing the scanner as a camera, I was using plant matter and considering the work of artist Anna Atkins; she made the first photographic book using cyanotypes to make images of botanicals. Her work was made with a contact print process and mine with a more contemporary process that still requires contact with the object. Atkins’s work used the scientific name for each botanical specimen she documented. The systems of taxonomy we use today come from the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus; he is also known for creating a taxonomy of man, an incredibly racist hierarchical pseudo-scientific way of categorizing human beings based on stereotypes that are still referenced today.
MM: As a photographer, what is it that you’re seeking through your photographs, personally and for someone who gazes at and experiences these images on a gallery wall?
KL: As an artist, it is my job ask questions and to communicate. I tend to ask questions that require ongoing exploration.
I want the work to be accessible on a few different levels. The image itself—I want it to be beautiful and draw the viewer in. It is wonderful to see someone walk up to an image and get lost in its detail. Taxonomy—I want the viewer to think about what is useful and what is damaging about categorization. I make images of native, introduced, and cultivated plants and weeds. I find something beautiful and interesting about all of them, and I find the language we use when speaking about plants to be similar to the way people speak about other groups of people. My family history—I am the descendant of people from disparate backgrounds who have experienced this country in vastly different ways. I want the viewer to think about what history has handed down to them and how it influences their experiences and the way they see the world.
MM: Where exactly have you been on this journey and what tools do you bring with you into the field and in your mobile studio? How are you collecting, containing, and eventually storing the items you bring back from each place?
KL: I have traveled to locations in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, and around the San Francisco Bay area. I have eaten yogurt with za’atar in the park across the street from a one-bedroom apartment where my grandmother’s family lived in Brooklyn. I have snuck onto the property where my maternal great great grandparents ran a vacation farm for Jews in Connecticut, and toured a house on the plantation where my paternal great great grandparents were born into slavery. As I walked, dirt from the dug-up foundation stuck to my shoes—I couldn’t help but wonder if this was dirt from their time, the same dirt that might have gotten stuck on their feet. I have seen the Mississippi River from several places, including Helena, Arkansas, where they bought their freedom. I have gone to Iowa City to see my paternal grandmother’s Masters thesis in the university’s special collections, and drove through the prairies of South Dakota where that same woman spent much of her youth and where her parents’ parents were homesteaders. I have spent several weeks in Grinnell, Iowa, to see where my ancestors lived three generations after they were free. Recently, I was able to spend time in Grinnell with my cousins Edith and Alice who live in Chicago. Edith, who is 101 years old and grew up in Grinnell, was able to show me where my great-great grandfather worked, and tell me stories about my grandfather who she remembers from her youth.
I have met cousins who were only discovered through this process and connected with others I had never met due to proximity or estrangement. I don’t have any first cousins, so I feel like my family has expanded quite a bit over the past several years. And, as a person—setting my artist-self to the side—it has been really great.
All of these things make me feel incredibly lucky.
I bring with me a flat bed scanner, laptop computer, external hard drive, leather gloves, and pruning shears. When I go into the field, I collect the plant material, and other artifacts that catch my eye, and bring them back to the studio with me. Sometimes the studio is an actual art studio, and sometimes it is a motel room or a friend’s living room next to their air mattress. I usually make the scans at night, though I have been experimenting with scanning in the daytime. I collect and store the plant material only as images. Some of the other things I have found, I have packaged and stored in a garage in California.
Something funny—I have often woken up with swollen sinuses due to having plant material in a makeshift studio that is also my bedroom. I try now to make sure to finish scanning and put plant materials outside if I am sleeping in the same room where I work.
MM: If you don’t collect these objects permanently, how do you collect them outside and transport them back to your makeshift studio? When they’re in the room with you, are they contained or sitting open? And, what is it that you have packaged in California?
KL: I usually bring a box or a container of some sort with me to hold the botanicals. Sometimes I forget, or they don’t fit, so I put them on the seat of the car or carry them in my hands. This is where leather gloves come in handy, especially if I collect a thistle or something with barbs. If I am lucky enough to have a proper art studio while I am working, the shelves and table tops are usually covered with botanicals. I tend to keep them for quite a while after they are scanned. Sometimes wonderful things happen, like a table being covered in pollen. That is how I ended up making the pieces with all of the pollen, the clipping had been sitting on top of a bookcase for a few days, and massive amounts of pollen started coming out. Luckily it was on a newspaper so it could all be easily transported back to the scanner.
When I am leaving a place, or if I am sleeping in the same place that I am making my work, I return the clippings to the ground.
I have packed away a couple of bricks, some rusty metal, a broken piece of a plate, and an animal bone. These artifacts are things that I have collected along the way. I am unsure of their age and they are documented in the same way as the botanicals.
MM: While this is an exploration of identity and family and home, how do you also see this as an act of bringing the past forward, creating your family tree’s alternative obituary?
KL: I see the obituary as a way to tell a story – it is one way we acknowledge life was lived.
I feel that the work I’m doing is an acknowledgement and a respect paid to my ancestors. It is re-contextualizing their lives with each other’s and with mine—someone they never knew and never expected, and someone who could not exist without them.
KIJA LUCAS is an artist and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She uses photography to explore ideas of home, heritage, and inheritance. She is interested in how ideas are passed down and seemingly inconsequential moments create changes that last generations. Lucas holds an MFA in Studio Arts from Mills College. Lucas has a compulsion toward making puns and probably thinks your dad is funny.