On Re-Examining: Bare Feet, Pomegranate Seeds, and Paintings

Another year is done. A new decade begun and, in the work of a second, one year hands its heft and weight to the next. At the stroke of midnight my family strip off our socks, put on our most outrageous coats, and together we run around our house. As our bare feet scrape across the snow, shouts and swearing and the pain of our cold toes give meaning to the first few seconds of this new year.

And these first seconds accumulate into minutes and hours and days until the next year shows its face, reminding me that we are constantly building on the past, on time, on dirt, and on history. And with words and science, art and mythology, we are constantly trying to make sense of what we’ve built.

The Ancient Greek myth of Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, and her daughter Persephone, Goddess of Springtime and the Underworld, tells the story of how women’s grief created the seasons.

In classicist Edith Hamilton’s (1) rendition of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (2), Persephone (daughter) is kidnapped and raped —with Zeus’ (father) approval— by Hades (uncle) and taken to the underworld (death). Above-ground (life) Demeter (mother) mourns daughter’s fate, and the harvest stops, people starve “Nothing grew; no seed sprang up”(3). Father sees his mistake, sending a messenger to bring daughter back from the dead. But as daughter leaves death, uncle forces her to eat a single pomegranate seed, for if daughter eats food of the underworld she is sentenced to “return to him.” (4)

And so, over and over, springtime arrives as mother celebrates daughter’s return to life, winter follows as mother mourns daughter’s return to death. Out of this cycle of women’s grief, the seasons are born. And out of the seasons, a myth takes shape.

Out of the seasons and seconds and days and years, our lives take shape and find their paths. And as a new year dawns, as the snow sticks to the barren ground, forward motion means looking, first, at the past. I remember walking though the galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts (5), pale faces in the classical paintings loomed down telling stories of power, darkening the rooms. Turning a corner, I found Kehinde Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars (6) and could feel the weight of history staring back at me. In those brushstrokes, Théodore Géricault’s 1812 work (7) and history and mythologies crash into the present, leaving complicated truth roiling within the subject’s eyes and dark face.

Wiley, Kehinde. Officer of the Hussars. 2007. Detroit Institute of Arts.

As does all of Wiley’s work, whether Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (8), the presidential portrait President Barack Obama (9), Three Girls in a Wood (10), and countless other paintings. Each laborious work (11) holds history’s mirror up to the present that resides within the eyes of each subject, inviting us to take a closer look. As Wiley said in an interview (12) about his St. Louis exhibition (13),

“The great heroic, often white, male hero dominates the picture plane and becomes larger than life, historic and significant […]That great historic storytelling of myth-making or propaganda is something we inherit as artists. I wanted to be able to weaponize and translate it into a means of celebrating female presence.”

Otto Mueller. Three Women in a Wood. 1920. Saint Louis Art Museum.
Wiley, Kehinde. Three Girls in a Wood. 2018. Saint Louis Art Museum.

In art and myth alike, history’s perspectives remind us that without the past, us humans wouldn’t be equipped to reinvent the future. And this reinvention begins with education, looking into the word’s past, educate comes from the Latin “educere” meaning “to lead out(14). Within higher education, the challenge is to bring education back to its roots, as education innovator Cathy N. Davidson writes in The New Education (15),

“Whereas the research university puts its institutional reputation first, community college prioritizes student growth. Rather than beginning from a fixed standard of what counts as expertise […] community college takes any student at any level in order to help that student reach their goal.”

Community college has the ability to recreate the atmosphere of education, making knowledge and growth more accessible. Using the example of a community college’s (16) innovative programming, in quoting Dean John Mogulescu Davidson explores how education can use the past to its advantage by, “trying new ideas, comparing the new with the old, building on what worked.”(17)

In the face of this new year, this new decade, —in the 20s, I will pursue higher education—every second is a time to run barefoot through the snow and eat pomegranate seeds; every second is a time to question and imagine, to “lead out” what is folded within history so that with every second, we can move into the future.


Endnotes and Resources*:

1. Hamilton Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heros, Mentor Book. The New American Library, 1963. P. 49-54
2. Nagy, Gregory. Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University. Accessed January 2020. 
3. Reference endnote 1
4. Reference endnote 1
5. Detroit Institute of Arts website. Accessed January 2020.
6. Wiley, Kehinde. Officer of the Hussars. 2007. Detroit Institute of Arts.
7. Géricault, Théodore. Officer of the Hussars or The Officer Chasseurs Commanding a Charge. 2812. Musée du Louvre
8. Dr. Clemans, Gayle. “Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” SmartHistory. December 1016, Accessed January 2020.
9. Wiley, Kehinde. President Barack Obama. 2018. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
10. Wiley, Kehinde. Three Girls in a Wood. 2018. Saint Louis Art Museum.
11. 51:08. “Civilizations” episode “How Do We Look,”. 2018. From PBS.
12. Sayej, Nadja. “Kehinde Wiley: ‘When I first started painting black women, it was a return home’”. The Guardian. January 2019. Accessed January 2020.
13. Art Exhibition. Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis October 19, 2018–February 10, 2019. Saint Louis Art Museum.
14. Definition of “educate”. From Lexico powered by Oxford. Accessed January 2020.
15. Davidson, Cathy N. The New Education. Basic Books New York. 2017. Page 49.
16. City University of New York’s Stella and Charles Guttman Community College
17. Davidson, Cathy N. The New Education. Basic Books New York. 2017. Page 66.

People, Works, Terms Mentioned:
Ancient Greek Myth / Demeter / Persephone / Edith Hamilton / Kehinde Wiley / Cathy N. Davidson

*All references and resources have been thoroughly researched prior to use.