Vicki Reed’s River of Gandmothers Installation

My maternal grandmother, Juanita Benitez de Mendieta. The adopted daughter of an American missionary and then wife of Rodolfo Mendieta, also a missionary minister, the Bible was central to her life and home. I wrote her favorite Psalm in spanish in the house shape behind her.

I met Vicki Reed at an exhibit we were both in at the University of Madison in Wisconsin about 8 years ago or so and I also visited her in her studio in Cedarburg. We stayed in touch through social media, which is wonderful as I have always responded to her photography. I was so excited when I got an email from her about an installation she was doing for an exhibit called Water at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts and whether I would be interested in submitting a piece of art, photo, along with a story of my grandmother.

Vicki’s inspiration came from when she was researching her own ancestry and found that when she went back to the sixth generation, she had accumulated 254 grandmothers. She didn’t know all of their names as often women were lost in records, often appearing as “mother’s name unknown”. The men were the land owners and voters so there are more records of them. Her vision was to preserve some of the names and memories of the women who have come before us.

My Maternal Grandmother with one of her recipes written in her own hand. Because she was adopted by an American Missionary in Honduras, a lot of the foods she made were not Honduran, but rather more North American in taste.

When I read about Vicki’s idea, I of course said yes as the concept fascinated me. I also saw it as a way to get to know my maternal grandmother. Having been born here in the United States, and my grandmother living in Guatemala, I did not know her. The few times I had gone down to Guatemala, my spanish was not good enough to have conversations with her and she only knew a little English. But she was always kind to me. I knew my Grandfather better as he would visit us in the States and he spoke English fluently and I knew that he loved her deeply as he wrote poems to her in all the years they were married. And I loved him so very much. So in my mind, she was beloved of my beloved grandfather and so she must have been pretty special.

The image I created was of a photo of my grandmother with a handwritten recipe of chocolate pudding. This spread is from a scrapbook that accompanies the installation of “River of Grandmothers” in the museum.

I took this as an opportunity to get to know her and it was such a wonderful journey. I spoke to my mom and got stories from her, and I corresponded with my relatives back in Guatemala. I learned more about the American woman that had adopted my grandmother when she had been suddenly orphaned at the age of 5 in a small village in Copan, Honduras. I had always known that she had been adopted, but beyond that I did not know much about the woman who raised her.

I decided to make a piece about her adopted American mother, Laura Nelson, who I found really interesting as she was a single woman who established a missionary in a remote part of Honduras in the 1880s! She never married and adopted three children in Copan. She educated my grandmother as she said women should be educated and she even wanted to send her to the United States to go to college but my grandmother did not want to go and instead stayed in Central America to finish her schooling where she met my grandfather, a Nicaraguan.

My image of Laura Nelson on the left and the write up of her to the right. These are included in a scrapbook at the exhibit seen here. Her photo was found online.

I sent all these submissions to Vicki to choose from. She then did a cyanotype process to transfer my images and those of others who participated to cloth. She then stitched them together to form a 15-20 foot River of Grandmothers.

River of Grandmothers was hung at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts in Cedarburg, Wisconsin as part of the exhibit, Water.  The show is now open and runs through November 15, 2019. The opening reception is Saturday, August 24 from 5-7. More information is available at

I am so proud to be part of this wonderful and important homage to the women who came before us. And I am so proud of the women that came before me. Getting to know their stories, and at that still, just glimpses of their stories, was a powerful journey for me. I have always felt a bit adrift being the first generation of multicultural parents from different sides of the Earth. Learning more about these women planted my feet a bit more firmly into the place where I stand and gave me a fuller understanding of where I come from. To know that my grandmothers roots are right by the ancient Mayan pyramids of Copan, Honduras fills me wonder. I know I have ancestors from Spain/Basque, but how many generations of women before me lived and breathed and birthed on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, long before the Europeans came? Who were their people? And what did they do? What did they dream of? And what did they create?

I learned a lot through this creative journey of finding out more about my grandmothers…but I feel, actually, that I want to know more.

If you feel inspired by Vicki’s installation piece, I encourage you to find out stories of the mothers that came before you and create a piece about her. It can lead you to reconnecting to your own history.

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