Keith Peterson

The Tin Man


In the 19th century and before, when a tribal member died, the Native Americans would build an elaborate platform for the body and place special objects beside the deceased for his journey into the afterlife: his war shirt, his medicine bag, even food. The Egyptians had buried their dead in much the same way. In the Middle Ages, a large marble tomb that had been built for a member of the moneyed classes would often be decorated with a likeness, of effigy, of that person, which would then be complemented by an array of objects meant to represent either various personal attributes, or to signify certain events, or refer to their status in life.

In my work, the tin man acts as a funerary effigy in a way quite similar to this, but with a slightly different spin: I present the tin man as a primitive would create a symbol for "Man" or "a man" and use it again and again, as a sort of recurring form or template. I've also placed objects on the tin man's shoulders in the same spirit as those above mentioned examples. Since I've been involved in researching my family's history for the past 10 years, I've heard many stories about my ancestors. I've attempted to personify these individuals by placing objects on the tin man's shoulders that would represent their personal attributes. These objects also could be things the person used, things pertaining to specific events or references to the way they died. In some cases, I've borrowed from the 16th-17th century Dutch vanities tradition of still life painting, in that the objects represented refer to the transient nature of life itself ("momento mori").

My preference for a frontal presentation of the figure comes from several sources. I've always been interested in roman portrait sculpture, particularly the torsos of the emperors in military dress. These pieces had been full figures, but in the passage of time, have lost their limbs and, in some cases, their heads: this enhances the intricate decorative activity on the military breastplates...

When I was a child, I found a stack of old photo albums in a cabinet; no one had looked at them for years. I pestered everyone for information about theses images from past generations: who were these people and how were they related to me, what did they do in life and how did they die. When I was well into this information-gathering process, it struck me that I could use the tin man as a funerary effigy by doing tombstone rubbings on the chest (a perfect field for an inscription) and incorporate those into paintings. I'd been photographing ancestral tombstones all across the Midwestern and Southern United States for reference, so now, in addition to that, I'd rub the tombstones as well. As I began making these pieces, all the above mentioned art historical concerns appeared in the work, reinforcing my idea to visually realize this personal history.

In essence, as I recreate my past, I build my discoveries into the work simultaneously. I also realize that the discoveries I'm making about my own family are about all families as well. And, being about families, the work is also about the singular lives of individuals, with regard to the pieces themselves, the treatment of surface and the inclusion of certain referential objects endeavors to reflect the impact of both larger events and smaller everyday occurrences on the lives of these individuals and, in turn, on our own lives. The work, as it unfolds, is a sort of road map, or puzzle, of the human condition."