Daniel Tisdale was a participant in the 4-month project “Colonial House,” which aired on PBS television stations in 2004. (Didn’t watch Colonial House? Read more about it here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/ . The premise of the show was to transport a group of people back 400 years to a fledging colony in Maine in the year 1628 to see if they could create a viable colony.) Danny was “cast” as the head of the freeman’s household. I spoke with Danny to find out his insights on the project, its impact on his art, and his magazine, Harlem World.
How did you become interested in art?
Early on, I was very gifted with a father who introduced us all (I’m the youngest of two older brothers and one super sweet sister), to the arts (paint, pencils, etc).
What is your favorite medium and how did you choose it?
When I was younger I loved, loved, loved graphite drawings. Today, I’m a conceptualist: I have an idea then I find the medium.
Do you have a website for your art? What galleries are you currently showing in?
I represent myself at Tisdale studio. I’m a small business man, who happens to be an artist. Currently, my “Disaster Series,” (an homage to Warhol), is in a traveling show for the next two years. The show is titled, “Only Skin Deep,” it was just at ICP (International Center of Photography) in New York earlier this year.
Describe a moment in your life that significantly impacted your creativity.
I think moving to New York and working at Warhol Studio with Andy before he died was significant in a creative sense. It showed me the endless possibilities.
What’s next on the horizon for you as an artist?
Well, I’m working on a bunch of new work. A new traditional b/w photo series “Harlem,” (I know, original title . Another photo-based work “Human Logos” (which takes illustrative images from product boxes and turns them into life size portraits-Little Debbie, Blue Bonnet Butter lady, etc).
What do you believe are some important things that people need to do in order to stimulate interest in the arts in their communities?
Realize that it’s around you wherever you are and wherever you go. There is an exercise I have my students do “The Art Challenge,” to get them to realize the importance of the arts. I ask them to close their eyes, and say this is a world without art. When I ask them to open their eyes, I say this is a world with art. Everything you see has been created by an artist. The chair, the desk, the door, the shoes you use, the art on the walls, they have all been created by an artist.
As artists we have to talk about the great work that we do in and out of the communities where we work and live. Everyone has had some positive connection to the arts, so we have a big fan club out there. We just have to tell our stories, no one else can do it, and we do it better then most people. I always think of the words of Bobby Kennedy when I think of the work we do as artists: “Some people see things as they are and say why, we see things as they never were and say why not.”
How did you come up with the idea for Harlem World magazine (HWM)? Describe the birth of the magazine.
The idea germinated from working downtown in publishing and living in Harlem. I wanted to work where I lived. Second, it’s a Warhol template. He created Interview Magazine (where I worked for years) and I thought it made sense to create HWM for the same reasons he did.
If someone has an idea for a magazine, what will they need to do in order to pursue their dream?
Work, work, work hard at it. I don’t think anything beats good old fashioned hard work. It’s the same as creating a body of artwork for a show. Imagine it, research it, and then create it.
Why did you decide to become a participant on the PBS show Colonial House? How were you selected to be on the show?
I love history, and I especially love the history of America. When I watched Frontier House in 2002, they gave viewers an opportunity to go on-line and fill-out an application to participate on another upcoming house series show (Colonial House). This house show theme was “community” and that excited me even more, since I love community. I filled out the application and got a call a month later. From 15,000 people, they selected 13 and I was one of those 13.
How much did you know about 1628 before you entered the project? Did you do research other than what they provided?
I knew quite a bit. I had the research by PBS, Plymouth Plantation, and my own research to prep for the experience. Yet, there was always someone who knew more history that informed us. After speaking to Ms. Peters (a native Indian), it enhanced my perspective enormously. She reminded me of my grandmother from Louisiana.
How were you able to “take off” 4 months from your life to accommodate living in 1628?
The Harlem World staff took care of the magazine, an intern and I prepped all outgoing for Tisdale Studio, and I took a two month sabbatical from my teaching job.
Did they pay you a stipend for participating?
Not enough, but yes.
The show really didn’t focus on your boat journey over there. What was it like?
The boat ride was hellish. No food cooked, the water sloshed over the side while we slept, no place to use the toilet, and it was freezing cold. No one knew what to expect, we all had this intense sense of anticipation!
What is a freeman?
Freemen were men who were not indentured servants and in our case owned shares in the colony stock.
During or after the project, did you find you appreciated your life in the 21st century more?
Big time! From the lowest to the highest degree: from a Pepsi or chocolate every now and then, to the simple weekly phone call to my family on the west coast.
What did you miss the most or least?
As I mentioned above, I missed the conversation with my family the most (which was historically accurate). I missed the noise of New York City the least (sirens, yelling, cars, etc.). On the show when you slept at night, you could hear conversations in houses next door (not that we listened), the trickle of water in the pond, etc.
As a black man, did you feel understood by the others in the project? Why or why not?
I don’t think 16th century people were that much different from 21st century people. If I expect folks who don’t know me to understand me, I’m barking up the wrong tree. I’m not one to look for people to understand me, I just want them to give me the benefit of the doubt and treat me as an equal, just like I’ll treat them.
The show didn’t seem to focus on you for much of the first 4 hours, though you were one of the ones fortunate enough to get a brief description of your 21st century life. Was it because they knew you were leaving, your comments were edited out, or you didn’t have a lot to say?
It was unfortunate that my comments were edited. That morning before I left, we spent over 2 hours discussing in detail my reason for leaving to Louisiana (where my mother was born). I don’t think they understood it. The question of race is a discussion some still have trouble discussing in our great country. I was surprised, since PBS has a great reputation for taking the high ground.
You seem to be absent as a participant during the group activities during free time (for example: the bonfire, dancing, playing games). Were you involved?
I participated every time there were events. Yet, I was very, very, very aware of the camera and how I would be edited for 100 million viewing eyes around the world. As we’ve discussed, I was not secure in their editing process, since most of the producers were not from the USA and did not know and/or weren’t comfortable with the history of race.
How important was it to you that you be totally absorbed into the project?
Completely. I always use the example of becoming an artist: after I graduated from college, I thought I had to make a commitment to be an artist. Either I should put my money where my mouth is or don’t become an artist. My way of making this commitment was to drive my ’63 Chevy Nova 3,000 miles to New York after graduating from college. My commitment to the Colonial House show was the same. Bouncing back and forth between the 21st and 16th century was not a good mental or physical place to be; it was too easy to be homesick. Once I made the commitment it was a lot easier, yet my 21st century self was always with me. With the work that needed to be done one could never go through the motions and as a member of the governor’s council I had to lead by example.
Did you find a kindred spirit among the group?
The kindred connections for me were with Paul Hunt and Jonathan Allen (the servants), Amy Kristina-Herbert (the widow), Jeff Wyers (the governor). They were passionate and clear about who they were.
What was the most memorable moment from the show that was not included in the final cut?
Good question, that’s the first time that has been asked. Of course the best moments happened when the cameras weren’t around. I would say the best moment, was when the entire village got together to help the Freemen move the chicken house next door to the pigs. The chickens smelled so bad, and made so much noise (and strange noises), they had to be moved after almost a month of their madness. We rolled the 1,000 lb house, side-by-side down main street and down the hills to get it to it’s final home (we attached a diary camera inside the house, but it didn’t make the final cut). It was a great small accomplishment, but it was times like those that bonded us together.
Why did you leave without saying goodbye to the other colonists besides the governor?
Good question. The colony had a meeting early regarding our relationship with our native Indian neighbors. We were very aware of the failings of American history. As not to divide the community, we took a vote and agreed that we would make “individual” statements regarding the matter. For me, that was important. I knew whatever issues I had to deal with were going to be my own personal issues and not the community’s. For over 4-5 weeks I had been mulling over and over in my head what I was going to do with the issue of slavery. The bio of my character that PBS wrote mentioned I had visited Virginia before coming to Maine in 1628, so I must have seen the slavery that started in the 1600s in VA. I knew as a colony we were surrounded by slavery in all directions and that historically within a few years it would visit our colony. I especially knew it was coming to this colony because we were short-handed of men and women who could do all the work that needed to be done. I knew that if men and women were brought to our shoreline as inexpensive labor it would be a tough decision for the community to make. Most colonies were established with over 100 people; we had 13 at that time! I did not want to put them in a situation of having to explain my actions, and I thought I would see my explanation on camera, but it wasn’t.
What do you think would have been necessary for the colonists to do in order to ensure slavery would not develop as a result of colonization?
Colonists would have had to bring as many men and women as possible with them when they made the journey to the New World, or partner with native tribes (like 1628 version of NAFTA). These trips from England to the New World were about making money; the more people, the more hands, the more money to be made. They may have purchased African, Indian, or Irish slaves no matter what. The more intent they were on making money, the more intent they may have been on how they made their money.
What was the first thing you did when you got back to “civilization?”
Shower, shave, toilet, and food!
What did you learn from your experience on the show? Was there anything you were surprised to learn that you didn’t know before?
I learned that we have not changed from our earliest yearnings as people to better our conditions: to “make way” for other places and people for a better life for ourselves or our children, or children’s children. It’s the slave narrative, it’s the American story. We make sacrifices today, for a better life tomorrow. I feel my great, great grandmother Tulip Tisdale made the biggest sacrifice, dying as a slave for me to be here today and to take advantage of all the opportunities that she helped create as an American of African descent. That’s all of our red blood in the flag, with the blue sky of opportunity and the great white stars that we each can be.
Having watched the rest of the show, do you wish you had stayed?
There are many moments when I did wish I’d stayed. When I left, I was leaving family, people who cared for me and I for them, every minute, hour, day, and week of the project. It was emotionally and physically very, very tough.
Were you surprised at how the show turned out?
No, not really.
Do you feel the series gave an accurate portrayal of your involvement? Why or why not?
I don’t think the show gave an accurate portrayal of anyone on the show. The show could have easily been double the 8 hours it was. I think everyone was a bit abbreviated in their portrayals.
Do you keep in touch with any of the other colonists now?
Yes. We have a “participant only” chat line, dinners, and other get-togethers. We’re still making a community!
Did you do any artwork while you were there?
I redrew maps and worked on pen and ink drawings of the new house that was built for the new colonists.
Towards the end of the project, some of the colonists were allowed to explore more creative aspects of being there. What do you think you would have done?
Hard to say. I think there would have been too much work to be done to stop and become artistically creative, unless it was creatively making the colony more successful.
How did your artwork change as a result of participating in the show?
I’m thinking of a new performance work titled “Tisdale 2005: Harlem City Councilman.” What’s a better way to build community, then to run for public office as a public servant (not indentured)? One of the first battles during the American Revolution in 1775, was the Battle of Harlem Heights with George Washington, when he lived in the Morris-Jumel Mansion that still exists on 162nd Street and Edgecombe in Harlem.
On the Colonial House website it mentions that you are a teacher at a high school. How did (or do you) plan to integrate your experiences on the show into your classroom?
Yes, I teach the Visual Art and Publishing at the Community School for Social Justice (CSSJ), a New Visions School part of the new Charter School Initiative in New York. I have created my own lesson plan from the experience and I am using the lesson plan from the show to teach.
Oprah Winfrey and her friend Gayle visited the project near the end. Oprah kept wondering what black people would have been doing during that time in that colony. What would you have told her about the black experience in the colony?
I’ve always been curious why she didn’t ask Amy or me. I would discuss with her much of what we have discussed in this interview. Colonial House is the story of America, with all the complexities and brilliance that makes our country what it is today. I would mention the fact that we made the same mistakes in the project as we did in the beginning of this New World. I would say that my ancestors’ (Tulip Tisdale) blood runs deep and long in the soil of this land and they died for the same reason that those in England came to the New World for: a better life! We live today because they died, so that we can make this life better for our future generations.
My final words would be: I would love to know the ancestors’ response to what we’ve done!
Source copyright Gregory Huff