Route 29 stretches from Pensacola, Florida, to the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland.
In Virginia, where parts of it are named the Lee Highway (for General Robert E. Lee), it travels alongside rolling hayfields, farmhouses, and vineyards; the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Shenandoah National Park looming in the background. Namesakes aside, it is a beautiful stretch of road.
For me, the region is also an opportunity to escape the Washington D.C. bubble and get a quick sense of rural America. Less than a hundred miles away, with its share of confederate flags and Trump signs.
In the sticky hot summer of 2020, my wife and I drove down Route 29 to stay at an AirBnB in Shelby, an unincorporated community in Madison County where Trump received over 65% of the 8,100 votes cast that November.
On these kinds of trips, in addition to a few hikes, we enjoy popping into random antique shops. Which, in rural Virginia, typically include old wooden furniture, Americana kitsch, white folks farming, war memorabilia and, occasionally, local arts and crafts.
Rarely do you find anything depicting communities of color. Much less immigrant communities.
On an afternoon of booming thunderstorms, we arrived at an antique store just south of Shelby, but right on the highway. Two floors, a handful of rooms. A collection a bit more contemporary than elsewhere.
On the second floor, among a collection of furniture and dusty clothes, high on the wall and in a far corner, the colors jumped off a canvas in a beat-up wooden frame.
In a bright yellow dress, a Black woman stood above two Black men, crouching. All the figures looked to be swaying or dancing. In the foreground were a pole, candle, small fire pit and a drum. A green serpent rose just in front of the drum.
Deciding not to ask if I could take the painting off the wall, I carried it downstairs and asked for a price. The woman at the front desk, amused by my enthusiasm, called the owner.
I realized how light the painting was and looked at the back of the canvas. You could just make out a blue logo with “Pillsbury’s” curving along the top. And below, in white letters against the blue, “Patent XXXX Flour.”
“It’s painted on a flour sack,” the woman told me as we waited for the owner to call back with a price.
The owner figured she might have something valuable. So, she wasn’t ready to sell. She asked for my number and said she would call after the painting was appraised.
Over the next year, I would lob a call into the store every month or so. Asking about the painting. Always told it still needed to be appraised.
A year and a half later, we were back on Route 29. This time it was winter. The fields were covered in snow, the air crisp and clear. After a slippery morning hike and a warming early afternoon vineyard, we checked out a couple of antique stores. And found ourselves on the same stretch.
“Let’s drop by and see if the painting is still there,” I asked my wife as I pulled over. She nodded with a deep understanding of my odd obsessions and decided to wait in the warm car with our dog.
There wasn’t anyone at the front, so I turned to head upstairs and surprised a woman exiting the back room at the foot of the stairs. Startled, she said, “Didn’t hear the door! Can I help you find something?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “I was here a year or two ago and saw a Haitian painting on a flour sack.”
Setting terrible terms for a negotiation, “I loved that painting and wondered if it might still be here.”
Much to my surprise, she said, “I think it is back here,” turning to the storage room. “This is the only Haitian piece we have.” Flipping it over, “And it is on a flour sack.”
Another call to the owner.
I waited and gazed at the Haitian Vodou painting on a Pillsbury’s flour sack.
“Vodou isn’t solely a religion or an art or a culture,” The Guardian’s Kim Wall and Caterina Clerici explained. “It’s all three and more: a mixture of African religion, Catholicism, Freemasonry and other influences expressed in art, dramatic ritual and culture in its native Haiti.”
In the National Geographic, Sharon Guynup wrote, “Voodoo, meaning ‘spirit,’ may be one of the world’s oldest ancestral, nature-honoring traditions” with some estimates taking the practice back to Benin, West Africa, 6,000 years ago.
I like to collect art from places I visit. In this case, though, I felt like the art was visiting us.
A tradition that began thousands of miles away, brought to Haiti in the 1700’s by slaves whose lives and culture meant nothing to those who owned them. In fact, according to Guynup, the West Africans were baptized as Roman Catholics when they arrived in the West Indies. Their traditional African religious practices were forbidden and practitioners “were imprisoned, whipped, or hung.”
But the tradition continued in secret, “What emerged was a religion that the colonialists thought was Catholicism—but they were outfoxed.”
Generations later — on a flour sack — someone captured a culture that had crossed borders and survived slavery to make its way to rural America.
And, now, after the owner said, “I’m in the mood to sell it today only,” even without an appraisal, that painting hangs on our wall.
Sometimes the story of a painting goes beyond the painting.