family history

Auschwitz was hell on Earth. Bald, skeleton thin men in prison garbs took us off the train, roughly herded us to places, took away all our belongings. Then we stood in line before a German officer (later I found that it was Mengele) who separated people as they came before him. I was holding my little brother’s hand, my grandmother held his other hand. Mengele asked me: “Mutter?” and I answered the truth without having any idea what this will mean: “Nein, Schwester.” They were sent to the left, I was sent to the right and I never saw them again. How many times I wished afterwards that I said Mutter.
—  my grandmother, speaking about her arrival at Auschwitz after being deported from Gyor, Hungary

This is heartbreaking. It’s a photo of Angelina Jolie Pitt’s “Bertrand” family on her mothers side. The circles indicate the members that passed away from cancer . Her great grandmother - not pictured- also lost her life to cancer. 

Credit: Photo posted on fan forum by grace perry (not taking credit for this photo) 

“Merida from Brave has encouraged me to be more confident in myself, independence, and heritage. My family history traces back to celtic tribes similar to her kingdom. I have even picked up archery to get in tune with my ancestors and gain inner strength. This movie has taken me so far and means the world to me. I know I’m strong enough to write my own story, follow my heart, and find love in my own time. “

I Googled My Mother’s Maiden Name and Discovered My Family’s Violent Secret

I blame Who Do You Think You Are? Before that show existed, I was perfectly content not knowing a damn thing about my family history. But then Jim Parsons found out he was related to a famous French architect who served Louis XIV and Sarah Jessica Parker found out one of her ancestors was tried as a witch in Salem, and then suddenly I was like, “OMIGOD I BETCHA I’M RELATED TO CLEOPATRA OR SOMETHING.”

I thought the most logical place to start was with my great-grandfather, a man who had died 20 years before I was born. His name was Michael Zarbatany and he emigrated to Montreal from Damascus in 1906. In Syria he had sold shirts on the market, but in Montreal, he was a different man altogether. He started the first Arabic newspaper in Canada, called Ash-Shehab ("The Brilliant Star”), and also founded St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, which still exists to this day on Rue de Castelnau in Montreal. So last month, I visited the church, which I hadn’t seen since I was baptized. I spoke to the current priest, and also to members of the congregation, but no one could tell me anything I didn’t already know. Yes, he was a good man, and a kind man, and an honest man, and blah blah fucking blah. What a horribly pedantic episode of Who Do You Think You Are? this would be.



Life in Appalachia

Vintage photographs taken by my grandmother, Georgia Chappell, from the 1940s through the 60s. She never sought public recognition for her talents, but rather took photos of what she knew and loved simply for the adoration of the craft. There is no truer definition of an artist.  

‘A sun beam from the world has vanished’

Josie, the girl this marker commemorates, was the younger sister of my great-grandmother. Both Josie and my great-grandmother died suddenly during the 1919 Spanish Flu epidemic when it hit this area of Appalachia. Josie was only 13 when she passed and one of the youngest in the large family which explains the particularly poignant inscription. And, to add to the tragic nature of the time, my great-grandmother succumbed to the flu only a week after giving birth to my grandmother, her first and only child.

I’m lucky to know so much about my family’s history. In turn, I feel that it’s important to share these stories when we do know them in order to honor the ancestors that made our lives possible. 

Vines, 2014 | by Kendyll Hillegas |  18 x 24, Gouache, watercolor pencil, soft core pencil and paint pen on hot pressed

This piece is inspired by my grandmothers, Margaret and Dixie. Like most people, I spend time thinking about family, and stories and the experiences that make us who we are. Recently after the death of my maternal grandmother I’ve had these things on my mind more than usual and wanted to explore a few of these ideas in a painting. There are a number of specific connections to my grandmothers - the floral pattern is taken from a wallpaper in Dixie’s home; the dress the figure is wearing was Dixie’s; the white butterfly above the left shoulder is a pin that belonged to Margaret; and the face of the figure is a stylized/idealized amalgamation of my features, and their features. 

While I’m happy with some elements, I still don’t feel like I have a good sense of my style/voice when it comes to figures. I feel like I’m caught between wanting to paint what’s there on the one hand, and wanting to make it feel magical and singular on the other. Maybe that conflict is owing to my complicated relationship with the human body, but who knows. Overall, I think I just need to spend so much more time painting people and sort out the contradictions along the way.


“I have received some papers from the solicitors so we are now house owners” Dave Fisher wrote to his wife, whilst on a ship working with the Merchant navy on the 20th Feb 1957 “Or at least should be by the end of the year”.

Here we merge the past, when the houses and gardens wasn’t even finished, with the present, 57 years later. A life worth lived and a building full to the brim with stories. Like the fact the house was set on fire in the 1970s and had to partly rebuilt, or the numerous street parties they had in the street. I really wanted to create what I see when I look at old photos, a sneak peek into the past.