For about a year and a half, but mostly within a week in July 2021, I experienced a series of fortuitous incidents when I was researching and writing my book The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas (coauthored with Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, publication date September 5, 2022, The History Press). The book involves the Black and biracial people who modeled for William Sidney Mount, a famous 19th century artist. Mount lived and worked in the Three Village (Stony Brook, Setauket, and Old Field) area in Long Island, New York, where I grew up. My wonderful sister, Jennifer, and I rented an Air B & B together in Stony Brook so she could take photos of old houses for the book, gather materials for the map she would draw, and most of all, for the two of us to have fun together in the setting that is very dear to both of us. I live in Seattle and Jen lives in Virginia, and it was the first one-on-one vacation we’d had in many years apart from our husbands and families.
Here are some examples of synchronicity:
Mount recalled childhood experiences of knowing a Black fiddler, Anthony (Tony) Hannibal Clapp (1749-1816), and sitting at Clapp’s knee while he played folk tunes. Clapp was buried in a cemetery for people of color on land that used to belong to Mount’s grandfather. I’d read an article about an unnamed Stony Brook resident finding that overgrown cemetery in land behind his back yard. One day, about a year and a half ago, while texting my coauthor, Vivian, about Anthony Clapp, a Facebook Messenger text came in for me at the very same time from a school friend, Bob, who wanted to tell me about a webinar he thought I’d enjoy. For the first time in decades, I talked to Bob on the phone. I told him about the Mount book I was writing. He told me about the cemetery he’d discovered in back of his house. You guessed it—Anthony Clapp’s grave site!
Jen and visited Bob and his wife, Anna, and they showed us the cemetery. While there, I told Bob I was hoping to see a house in Stony Brook where William Sidney Mount’s sister (and people who are likely portrayed in Mount’s Dance of the Haymakers) lived. I had an address from the 1970s; for all I knew, the house could have been torn down. Bob knew the house and its owner, and drove my sister and I over to it. The owner, named Rich, said to my surprise, “I know you! I was your father’s chauffeur.”
What chauffeur? My sister, Jen, and Rich filled in the story. My dad, Dale Kirkpatrick, broke his neck two years before I was born while teaching my brother to dive off a diving board at our beach club. Rich was the teenage son of my dad’s chiropractor. While Dad’s neck was in traction and he couldn’t drive, he employed Rich to take him places. Rich turned out to know a lot about William Sidney Mount and gladly showed Jen and Bob and me around the house.
Within a day of that visit, I had another serendipitous meeting, this time in Stony Brook’s Crazy Beans restaurant. Months earlier, I’d written to the head of a local preservation organization through a general website contact, but did not get a response. Attempts at obtaining the director’s email address had failed. I wanted to meet her because she was in charge of an old house, now a museum, where several of Mount’s models had lived. While Jen and I were having brunch with one of my longtime school friends, Paul, we were suddenly surprised when Leighton, another longtime school friend, strolls in—accompanied by the organization’s director.
Another day that week, Jen and I hiked along the narrow strip of Setauket’s Shore Road in a quest to find out where William Sidney Mount had been situated when painting Eel Spearing in Setauket in 1845. Looking across Setauket Harbor at Strong’s Neck, we searched in vain for St. George’s Manor, the house depicted in the artwork. A lot of trees had grown up and houses built since Mount’s time. Barbara, Brookhaven Town’s Historian, happened to be driving by in her convertible on the way to playing golf. “I recognize you two!” she said, pulling the car aside. We’d visited her the day before at her office in Farmingville. As it turned out, Barbara had grown up on Shore Road. She took us to a place where we could see the manor; as it was barely visible in the summer’s foliage, we wouldn’t have spotted it on our own.
There are numerous other examples of synchronicity related to this project; I’ll tell you just one more. Jen and I ran into a family friend, Megan, while visiting the Long Island Museum. We were surprised to hear that Megan was employed by the museum. Last we’d heard Megan was living and working in Manhattan. She’s now in charge of reopening the museum’s gift shop, and is involved with a book event for me that will take place on October 2, 2022.
Out of my nine published books, The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas is the only title to go into print within a year of contract. In most cases I experienced a lag of at least three years. I ask myself how I could be so lucky in regard to this book, while I’ve encountered many obstacles for other projects. Arguably, there’s a certain ease that comes about when choosing a subject related to one’s hometown. My late parents, Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick, were very active in the Three Village community. Still, does my family’s wide network of acquaintances and friends explain the nature and timing of my experiences?
My friend author Andrea Simon uses the Yiddish word bashert (orchestrated by God) to describe a certain kind of synchronicity, in which things easily fall into place in uncanny ways. Was I experiencing bashert? I’ll leave it at this. I believe there are periods in our lives when we are particularly in the flow, and when we are particularly receptive to being in the flow. I believe that when we are relaxed and happy, as I was when I was enjoying time with my sister, that fortuitous occurrences are most likely to take place.
May the synchronicity related to my project continue. I’m hoping that the stories in the book connect descendants to their ancestors and descendants to each other. And I’m hoping for further opportunities to reconnect with those from my Three Village past.