The Yolk of the Coal Apple

The Macular Degeneration of History

The Macular Degeneration of History by Sarah McRae Morton

This week I’m in Pennsylvania, home for my sister’s annual solo show at the Red Raven Art Company in Lancaster, Pa. This year’s show, entitled “The Yolk of the Coal Apple”, is inspired by our family legends:

The first man killed by Billy the Kid; the Dame who defended her family’s castle against Cromwell’s army; the early American settler who lived as a captive of Native Americans for 5 years; the orphaned boy who survived the Civil War by hunting robins; the athletic director who was speared in the neck by a javelin, and walked to a hospital to have it extracted; the girl who learned to fly a plane at age 16, and later became the first woman president of a YMCA. The girl who was a golf champion at age 12 in 1932, and later, in the 1940’s worked on the secretive Manhattan project as a mathematician and who had to give up that dream when she went deaf.
Red Raven

Red Raven on Prince Street in Lancaster, Pa

What all these people have in common is me, my sister writes. The paintings are about individuals from whom I am descended both biologically and artistically. There are references in the paintings to the  place and time of each remarkable life (or brush with premature death). Every painting has an optimal viewing distance; the same is true for history, perspective clarifies some facts, and renders blurry the details we wish not to see.
The Telling Owls of Kingston Lacey

The Telling Owls of Kingston Lacey

The “Apple” in the title stands for gravity, marksmanship, knowledge, temptation and wholesomeness. “Coal” refers to labor, money, filth, energy, compression. “Yolk” represents possibility, protein, a nucleus, and when spoken, burden. How far the apple falls from the family tree is an underlying theme carried by symbols and metaphors laced into the paintings.
The Seminole Admiral

The Seminole Admiral

The Seminole Admiral is a painting of John Bonmaison McHardy, who rejected plantation life in Florida, disgusted with injustice and the treatment of slaves on the sugar plantations. After he inherited the family’s acreage, he chose instead to live among the Seminole Indians. He eventually returned to England to become an admiral in the Royal Navy, and made it his mission to interfere with and dismantle the slave trade to the US.

My Sister Wrangles an Alligator in the Stair Hall of Kingston Lacy

My Sister Wrangles an Alligator in the Stair Hall of Kingston Lacy

In the foreground, my sister demonstrates how to wrangle an alligator. Beside her is the propeller of the plane flown by Harriet Quimby — the first woman to earn her pilots license in 1911. Our grandmother considered learning to fly a plane – at age 16 in 1936 – one of her greatest achievements. The scene is set in the stair hall at Kingston Lacy, our ancestral home in southern England. The painting “Las Meninas” by Velazques hangs over the stair well, and figures from Sargen’s Boit Daughters, his version of Las Meninas are situated in a receding room as figures in the composition rather than a painting within the painting.

Tobacco Mountain Chariots

Tobacco Mountain Chariots

This composition was borrowed from my mother, who painted Tobacco Row Mountain in Virginia 40 years ago. The landmark would be familiar to generations of my ancestors who lived in this region. The red shoes of the swinging girl mean “there is no place like home”. The title refers to the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, the original version is thought to be encrypted with information about the underground railroad.

Annual Self Portrait

Annual Self Portrait of Whom I Wish To Become

This is a self portrait. That I am removing a golf glove off the wrong hand is an indication that the painting was done from a mirror image. The “golf glove” as I mean for it to be seen as , is borrowed from a Carolus Durand painting he did of his wife. Duran was Singer Sargeants teacher, and he devoted much of his practice to studying Velazques. I am also wearing my grandmother’s golf shoes, some of the prized possessions of an amateur golf champion. Pictures of my grandmothers are pinned on the wall beside me, one with a pearl pin, one with a piece of amber. Hanging on a string is a ring I always wear which was passed from my grandfather to my mother, then to me. The violin – which has no strings, bridge or f holes represents an unfulfilled dream of my grandfathers to play the violin. It is a reminder to myself to play it, and carry on the lives of my grandparents. My dog, Fletcher, my constant studio companion is posed next to me. On his collar are the keys to Corfe Castle, an ancestral home with a long story…

The Blue Pocket Captive

The Blue Pocket Captive

The imagery for this painting was provided by my great great great great great grandmother, Margaret Erskine, who was held for five years a captive of a Shawnee Indian tribe from 1779 to 1784. In her written account of these years, she describes seeing the encampment of another woman who was taken captive and married to an Indian chief. When her wagon train was ambushed, a trunk of her belongings was seized. She lived in a dwelling in the woods draped in french silks and the family ate off silver and china from her trousseau.

The Frontier of Curiosity

The Frontier of Curiosity

Backdropped by Tobacco Row Mountain, a coal train (both sides of my family were entrenched in the coal business), a model of the airplane my grandmother learned to fly at age 16, and a fishing boat suggest means to either get out of the place, or make an enjoyable life in it. The three modes of transportation also suggest progress that happened in one place.

From Robins to Roses

From Robins to Roses

The arrangement is about my great great great grandfather, Quinn Morton, who survived the civil war by hunting robins after he was orphaned. The house in the background is from a photo of “Point of Honor” the home of his mother’s father, who was the physician to Patrick Henry (who said ,”Give me Liberty or Give Me Death”). The other photo is of a West Virginia coal train. When Quinn Morton grew up he became a ruthless owner and operator of coal mines during the mine wars of the early 1900s. His other legacy survives in the back yard of my parents home, and in some other family plots in Virginia. He bred roses as a hobby, and gave cuttings to commemorate birthdays.  A hundred years later, his rose bushes still bloom.

The Macular Degeneration of History

The Macular Degeneration of History

Macular Degeneration is disease of the eye, which produces a blind dark spot at the focal point of ones vision, suggesting the obscured history of Native Americans. The focal point of the painting is a portrait of Olive Oatman, who was abducted from a wagon train in 1850. She was enslaved by a Mojave Indian tribe and given a cactus ink tattoo on her chin. Her freedom was ransomed five years after her capture. She had a silk dress made embroidered with the design she bore on her chin.

To see more of my sister’s work, please visit her website. As of today, more than half of the paintings in this year’s show have sold. Inquiries should be directed to Sarah at Also check out my post on last year’s show, Pony Sails and Fox Bucks.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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23 Responses to The Yolk of the Coal Apple

  1. terminalillusions says:

    Your sister’s paintings are incredible! And you have quite a family history. The visual narrative reminds me of the film Cloud Atlas for some reason.

  2. LOVE this post! Great pictures and wonderful story…loved you wrangling the alligator; I remember that original post so it allowed me to really connect to today’s post. Thanks!

  3. Wow! Terrific paintings. I also, especially love the one of you wrangling the alligator, but now in a long silk skirt in very different setting than the original event. What an amazing family history – no wonder you are so bold, strong-willed, and courageous. Your ancestors have given you great example as well as great genetics. Carol

  4. ritaroberts says:

    WOW ! Your sisters paintings are truly wonderful and thanks for sharing your family history with us you must be very proud. I know I would be, with such an interesting family tree.

  5. What are the odds? I moved to “gator country” from Lancaster 20 years ago! As an artist (& knowing how computers do an injustice to art), your sisters paintings are indeed amazing!!! Not surprising that her show sold out. Good for her! Great post!

  6. Your sister’s artwork is so amazingly talented and unique. Combining so many elements in a delicate manner. If I had known, I would have stopped by and visited the show. I just drove past there today!

    • Ah, well it’ll be up all month! Stop by if you come back through. The photos don’t really do them justice. You have to see them in person to get the full effect!

  7. knotrune says:

    Wow those are gorgeous! And the stories are fascinating. It’s great to see the one with you and the alligator you mentioned before. What’s the story behind the telling owls one?

    • Oh I missed that one! Here it is: The Telling Owls of Kingston Lacy refers to a poem discovered after my grandfather died under a sculpture of an owl that was always perched on his desk:
      There was an old Owl who lived in an oak
      The more he saw the less he spoke,
      The less he spoke the more he heard,
      Perhaps we should all be more like the old bird.

  8. forkinriver says:

    For the past two days I’ve reread your post and looked at these photos. I sit in awe. I’ve wanted to comment, but didn’t really know how to convey what I was thinking.
    There’s just so much creatitivty and thought going on here. It’s inspiring to see the beauty of your sister’s paintings. But the experience is so much more enhanced by the background stories. I love when artists let you into their heads and explain their perspective.
    And I don’t even know what to say about your family history. Incredible. I feel a pang of jealousy. I only know a few stories about my grandparents (on one side of the family) and everything else is a complete mystery. A hole.
    Please tell your sister she’s doing amazing work, and thank her for following her passion and taking the artists’s path. I love knowing that there are people out in the world paying attention to history, and retelling stories with their own voices. Kudos to her…and you! You’re carrying on a family tradition and living fantastic lives.

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  10. forkinriver says:

    Turns out I had to blog about your post this morning. Had to share your family’s talent with folks I know.

  11. WOW, what great works of art and what a great way to tell a story. I agree, having access to the artist’s thoughts brings so much to the works themselves, thanks for another great post. You and your sister are very lucky to be able to express your artistic abilities.

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