Catherine Bancroft

Ellis Island Series



It began for me with a book in the Bala Library vestibule – old black and white photographs of Ellis Island. Why was I so haunted by the pictures? Scrawled in black ink over a head: Magyar. Typed over a large family: Admitted to go to Kuln, N.D. Occasionally names. Mostly the record silent. Their faces, their gestures, their clothes speak. Studying the pictures, looking at them over and over, I put down in conte crayon and acrylic-- expressions, eyes. Staring out at me from the dark of those rooms. Or by the steps of the large castle-like building. The benevolent gaze of a white-bearded man. A Roumanian man darkened with sun and dirt. I see wariness, splendor, tenderness, fatigue, the desire to hide, the desire to display. I see Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist, feminist and writer, photographed on the eve of her deportation. I see families huddled together, curious and afraid.








Perched halfway between the old and the new, in the strange limbo of this processing station, they have not yet set foot on the continent that will change them, swallow their children, absorb all they know. An older sister stands by the bag that holds the family’s clothes. The mother’s arm cradles the youngest. The world they left is miles and weeks behind. We are privileged to glimpse them in the brief moment before transformation begins. Could I leave family and birthplace, career and friends, -- all the known --to stake everything on a new land? Tracing what I see, exploring the shapes of their expressions, their body language, I’m seeking to draw their courage into myself. Each new stage of life is a risk that requires us to leave the known behind. Each time we go after a dream, we risk failure, put everything on the line, become more ourselves even as we enter alien territory. Each necessary risk requires us to be more daring and more free.








The freedom that the United States offered nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrants was a clarion call. It said you have the chance to make a new life. To give your children what they otherwise could not have. Like immigrants today, they arrived to find no guarantees. They risked being turned away at Ellis Island. They risked being unable to make a living in the new land. They risked having their children turn against them and reject the language and culture and even religion they had brought with them. It seems to me that ageing is not unlike being an immigrant. Your language, your gestures belong to another place, another time. You don’t fit in. The place you worked so hard to make for yourself is irrelevant now – you have to make yourself under new conditions, sometimes hostile. People can resent you. Is this part of why these faces haunt me?








The wide land they came to was beautiful and terrible. The cities were crowded, working conditions often cruel. Yet they persisted. They wanted more than anything to have the chance to live as free people. I don’t have photographs of my ancestors who came to the United States to find freedom to practice their religion or to make a new start. I can’t study their faces, so I study these, and find in them the way it looks to love freedom. And to bring with you in your clothes, your stance, how you hold your child and do your hair, a forgotten/sacrificed world.








What do we carry of our forebears?
Of the world they brought with them?
What risks do we take?
In these faces vanished worlds for a moment come alive.

                Catherine Bancroft



















Ellis Island opened in 1892. By the time it closed for good in 1954 it had seen more than 12 million people pass through its doors. The greatest number came during the early years of the 20th century -- a flood that slowed with the coming of the 1st World War, and later the anti-immigration legislation of 1924. The book found in the Bala Library vestibule was Wilton Tifft and Thomas Dunne, Ellis Island (NY: WW Norton & Co Inc, 1971). The photographs that inspired these paintings come from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Department of Immigration and Naturalization, and the National Park Service.








November 2016: Ellis Island Revisited
                  Click Here
To See More Paintings in the Series


                About the Artist


Catherine Bancroft, artist and writer, has shown at Muse Gallery, Third Street Gallery, Off the Wall Gallery, The Plastic Club, The Sketch Club, and The Main Line Art Center. She works in collage, altered books, acrylic, and mixed media. Her current Ellis Island Series in conte crayon and acrylic was inspired by photographs of early 20th century immigrants. She has written book reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer, co-written two children’s books – Felix’s Hat and That’s Philomena (Simon & Schuster) – and has read her poetry at Green Line Café, the 2011 Philadelphia Poetry Festival, the Last Word Bookshop, and other venues. You can reach her at cbancroft@cullina.com.





                Key to Paintings


White Bearded Man (sold)              Woman from Lapland              Romanian Man with Fur Collar     
 
Man in Hat              Emma Goldman (sold)              Romanian Man in Fur Hat     
 
Woman from Guadaloupe (sold)              Child (sold)              Black Bearded Man     
 
Magyar Woman              Man from Scotland              Woman from Ruthenia     
 
Just Arrived (sold)              Examination Room              Family Group in Kerchiefs (sold)     
 
Couple (sold)              Family with Nametags              Two Sisters     
 
Waiting Room (sold)              English Brother and Sister              Boy (sold)