Bobby Fouther has a favorite family photo, a keepsake he has held onto for a long time. It is a photo of his grandmother who died of sickle cell anemia before he was born. Not a posed portrait, but a candid shot of her visiting relatives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“There were a bunch of them on this big ol’ rock in the middle of the river, they all have on their swimsuits and they are just out there,” Fouther said.
The idyllic photo along with many others gave Fouther a peek into the lives of relatives who left the United States to start the first Black settlement in Saskatchewan. His ancestors, the Mayes family, along with the rest of their church community from Edna, Oklahoma, sold everything they owned to pay to cross the border into Canada in 1910.
Those pictures make him feel a profound connection to his relatives and joy knowing this branch of his family left behind racial violence in the South. His family left 10 years before the Tulsa race riots when Black Wall Street was destroyed by white supremacist mobs.
The photos “literally showed lifestyle,” he said. “There was no cotton-picking in it. There were no jail stripes. They moved away from this horrible place. They went to a place of their own, [and] built what they wanted to build.”
Fouther, a visual and performing artist born in Portland, had long wanted to do something with his family photos. But he didn’t get clarity about what to do until he received a stipend from Art Saved My Life.
Now Fouther and his sister Liz Fouther-Branch are digging into their past and making an art piece that will share their heritage. They will feature a collage of seven paintings with family pictures at the base of their work.
“We'll know it's our family's pictures, but we'll alter them, so that just about anyone could be a part of that family that you see in front of you,” he said.
The siblings, both former teachers, will create lessons to go along with the paintings. They plan to create a zine and videos as well. They would like to share their family history with homeless youth, foster and adopted children – anyone who needs a family with whom to connect.
Fouther and his sister know that feeling. They grew up in a vibrant artist community through their dancer mother Ellen Wood and musician stepfather "Sweet Baby" James Benton.
Every day local jazz musicians would come over to their house to socialize and play music. Benton transformed the garage next to house into a performance theatre - complete with a stage, piano, theatre-style seats and a projection booth for showing movies.
But Fouther felt something was missing from his life, particularly without any extended family nearby. He found the missing piece when he found those family photos in a cousin’s suitcase.
“Just being able to return to my roots... That's where the healing part came from,” Fouther said.