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The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes Through the Eyes of Venture Smith

June 3, 2006 - March 25, 2007


By the time I was thirty-six I had been sold
three times. I had spun money out of sweat.
I'd been cheated and beaten. I had paid an enormous sum
for my freedom. And ten years farther on I've come
out here to my garden at the first faint hint of light
to inventory the riches I now hold.
Excerpt from "Farm Garden" by Marilyn Nelson


The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut presents an exhibition entitled The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes Through the Eyes of Venture Smith from June 3, 2006 through March 25, 2007. The installation features poems by Connecticut's Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson that were inspired by the life of Venture Smith (c. 1729-1805), a former slave who purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children. The poems are paired with paintings from the Museum's collection to help visitors imagine the landscapes in which Venture traveled, toiled, and eventually triumphed. By using the very personal media of art and poetry, the exhibition offers an intimate approach to a complex period in Connecticut and American history. The exhibition is organized by the Florence Griswold Museum in association with Soul Mountain Retreat of East Haddam, Connecticut.


An Introduction to Venture Smith

Venture Smith was born Broteer Furro, the first son of a king, in the 1720s in what today is Ghana. He was about eight years old when black slave traders captured his community. After seeing his father tortured to death, Broteer was sold to a steward aboard a Rhode Island slaveship. His name was changed to Venture. For the next three decades, Venture, who was legendary for his size, strength and endurance, worked on farms in New England and on Fisher's Island, off the coast of Long Island. Eventually Venture would buy his own freedom, as well as that of his wife, two sons, and daughter. Then, intending to set them free, he purchased three other men. Around the time of the American Revolution, Venture and his wife Meg moved from Long Island to Haddam Neck. They owned 100 acres on the Connecticut River, and Venture became prosperous. He farmed, fished, shipped lumber and other goods, and owned 20 boats. (right: Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), A Farmer's Garden in Simsbury, 1875, oil on canvas, 15 x 9 5/8 inches. Florence Griswold Museum. Gift of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company)

In the late 1790s, Venture dictated his life story to Elisha Niles, a former Revolutionary War soldier and schoolteacher. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa: But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself, which was published in New London, Connecticut in 1798, is considered one of the most important surviving records of an enslaved man in colonial America. A first edition copy, lent by the New London County Historical Society, is included in the exhibition. Venture died in 1805.

Nelson used Smith's vivid narrative to retell the story of his life in Connecticut in thirteen poems. She reviewed hundreds of paintings in the Museum's collection to help inform and propel her writing. The pairings are arranged by the chronology of the events retold in the poems. Devoid of people for the most part, but not of human influence, the chosen landscapes provide intimate and sometimes idealized settings for the very real episodes that make up the Venture Smith story. In a few instances paintings were selected because they resembled elements in the narrative, as in Bruce Crane's The Red Barn, 1920, where a fiery glow through a farmhouse window is evocative of the flame that burns his master's whip: "I seized that whip and hurled it on the fire. / It sizzled like a slave-owner's soul in hell." ("Fat on the Fire"). The other painted places, from a snowy bend in a country road to neatly tended farm fields, were chosen for their subtle allusions to more specific locales.

Anne Farrow, co-author of the acclaimed publication Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, reflects upon the significance of the exhibition, "The museum's paintings and the poems they inspired are a chance to re-imagine Venture's life, a life of still-great importance as we measure the legacy of slavery in America."


Publication and Special Programming

The Florence Griswold Museum is publishing a limited edition book to accompany the exhibition that will juxtapose Marilyn Nelson's poems with American paintings from the Museum's collection. It includes essays by David Rau, the Museum's Director of Education and Anne Farrow, co-author of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery (Ballantine Books, 2005). The 40 page book, The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes through the Eyes of Venture Smith, contains 15 color illustrations and will be sold in the Museum's gift shop. A list of programs and activities held in conjunction with the exhibition can be found at the Museum's website.


About Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson was appointed State Poet Laureate by the Connecticut Commission on the Arts in 2001 and currently sits on the Board of Trustees at the Florence Griswold Museum. She is the founder of Soul Mountain Retreat, located in her home in East Haddam, Connecticut, and a Professor of English at University of Connecticut at Storrs. (right: Marilyn Nelson photo by Doug Anderson)

Her publication Carver: A Life in Poems (2001) won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, a Newbery Honor Award, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Working with the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, she wrote Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (2004), a tale about the bones of a slave that ended up in that museum's collection. This book won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award and The Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. Nelson is a three-time National Book Award Finalist and has won the Annisfield-Wolf Award and the 1999 Poets' Prize. She has also been a finalist for the Winship/PEN Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She has received two Pushcart Prizes, two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, a Fulbright Teaching


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