Some people simply talk about their family tree. Artist Valerie Atkisson of Manhattan, New York, created one of her own, a nine-foot hanging sculpture representing her ancestry. She used hundreds of triangles of folded rice paper, each bearing the name of one ancestor.
“I was interested in seeing, in a tangible, visible way, the dense and organic grouping of people from whom I am descended,” says Sister Atkisson. “While working on this sculpture, I thought a great deal about the victories and tragedies within the life of each person. My ancestors not only passed down their physical traits to me and their other descendants but also their beliefs, hopes, dreams, and fears. As I reflected on the human family, I realized we are all connected, all one family.”
Sister Atkisson began her sculpture with one triangle. On it she wrote her name, birth date, and birthplace. To that top triangle, she added two triangles: one for her mother and one for her father. She wrote the appropriate name, date, and place on each. Then she added two triangles to each parent’s triangle, and two to each grandparent’s triangle, and so on—each generation doubling the number of ancestors.
She continued back in time for 2,000 years. The names of ancestors born during the 20th century make up the top portion of the sculpture. The next section of triangles contains the names of northern European and Scandinavian immigrants from 1900—their ancestors intermixed with descendants of early American colonists reaching back to the 1600s.
The middle portion of the sculpture names ancestors from various western and eastern European countries. At this point, however, the sculpture maintains the same width for several hundred years worth of names because Sister Atkisson encountered common ancestry as she moved back further in time. Rather than duplicate names on her pedigree, she listed her common ancestors only once—on her central patriarchal line.
Eventually some ancestral lines simply ended because information ended. The lower portion of the sculpture diminishes to a few family lines from England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, and France from A.D. 500 to A.D. 6.
The sculpture, of course, is not a complete representation of all the artist’s ancestors, but it graphically shows the information Sister Atkisson found with reasonable research in the Manhattan FamilySearch• Center in New York City. (The same information on our ancestors is available to many of us in FamilySearch Centers around the world or on the Internet at familysearch.org.)
Sister Atkisson’s sculpture hung in the window of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, reminding those who saw it that we are all connected to our past and that together we are one family.