Although the United States prides itself on being a land where everyone has opportunity regardless of where you come from, who you come from still holds great weight. People are deeply committed to uncovering the truths of their lineage, and use DNA technology to both verify the stories that have been passed down and uncover those that have been long buried. Colette Copeland plays with this uncomfortable duality in Colette Copeland: My Jesse James Adventure at the Old Jail Art Center, seeking to come closer to the truth of her ancestors despite their complicated histories.
Who is Jesse James? A dangerous criminal, a Confederate folk hero, or an American pop-culture character? For Copeland, he is a distant relative and a real person whose narrative shifts depending on who you ask. In the opening room of the exhibition, a small wooden table sits tucked into the corner. Four framed images, clearly from different eras, are neatly arranged on it. These are Copeland’s ancestors, her connection to Jesse James. Through the marriages of her great-great-grandmother and her great-grandmother, her family was linked to the infamous James brothers. There is something intimate about this display, similar to what would be found in a family home. However, there is a notable absence of photographs of Jesse and Frank James themselves, and even of Copeland and her immediate family. This display is not meant to provide a full family tree in visual form, but instead it is a starting point for the James family presence in her lineage, and Copeland’s adventure deeper into her own relationship with the outlaw.
Colette Copeland: My Jesse James Adventure is on view as part of the Old Jail’s Cell Series, for which shows are installed in the building’s former jail cells. This space truly feels built for this exhibition. Walking through the iron doorway and ascending the stairs immediately immerses visitors in another era. A musical score by Dallin B. Peacock, meant to evoke the feel of the 1970s Western films that have shaped many of our perceptions of the Wild West, completes the effect. Yet there is a captivating juxtaposition of past and present in the opening room, with the family photograph display and a wall of screens mapping James’ and Copeland’s travels.
To better understand and connect with Jesse James and his legacy, Copeland underwent a journey following in his footsteps. She visited the places where James lived and committed his infamous crimes, capturing video and photographs of her experience. In many ways, the performance of tracking James is the heart of this exhibition. Through videos on 22 small screens, visitors are able to catch glimpses of Copeland’s journey. One of the most intimate videos is from her time in St. Joseph, Missouri at the Jesse James Home Museum, the site of his death. There is a truly domestic quality to this location; a room we see shows a pitcher and wash basin set out on a table next to a lit lamp. It seems as if we just missed him, a feeling that is perpetuated as his myth is maintained throughout generations, despite his death more than 140 years ago. This is a far cry from other sites, like Huntington, West Virginia, where modern signs of urbanity impeded Copeland’s encounter.
While the video footage is captivating on its own, the additional layer of viewing the works through the magnifying scope of a gun creates a rich complexity. Carefully lining up the crosshairs of the scope necessitates direct engagement; viewers must determine where to focus their sights. A person who lacks familiarity handling weapons might find this aspect jarring. It serves as an intentional reminder of the violence that was inherent in James’ crimes, and it also invites viewers to reflect on the tense relationship Americans have held with guns for many generations.
Much of what makes this exhibition so engaging is the slippery nature of identification. What is the viewer’s role in this space? Are we inhabiting these spaces with Copeland? With James? Or are we on the hunt, attempting to locate both of these absent figures? In the end, I found myself aware of my own implication in the exhibit, having left my fingerprints on the scope for the next visitor to find. This sense of self-awareness that Copeland invites viewers to have is a clever way of enhancing the immersive experience of this show.
The search continues in the adjoining room. A series of maps, carefully hand-drawn in pencil, records the locations of James’ robberies that Copeland visited on her journey. Each map also contains a photograph, documenting Copeland’s own exploits at each location. At the sites, Copeland left a plastic heart-shaped locket containing her own hair. It is an unexpected gesture that reflects the complex relationship Copeland has with James. How does one reconnect to a distant ancestor that has been excised from the family history? Hair is such a powerful token to offer at these sites: it contains the DNA that links Copeland and James, and hair has long been a tool for memorializing loved ones in the form of small locks passed down. Yet, it is an interesting stake that Copeland has placed at these sites for others to stumble upon.
The legacy of Jesse James is quite complex, with some revering the outlaw and others repelled by his criminality. There are many that wish to align with the folk hero created in the mythology surrounding the James gang, yet Copeland has the genetic connection, made manifest in the form of her hair. By leaving a piece of herself at each site, she makes clear her own right to claim the true figure of Jesse James. It also serves as a dare to track her down, by leaving evidence of her presence for others to discover.
Colette Copeland: My Jesse James Adventure is a deeply engaging installation that allows visitors an opportunity to step closer to the history of James (both real and aggrandized) and investigate their own connections with people and spaces.
Colette Copeland: My Jesse James Adventure is on view through Saturday, August 20, 2022 at The Old Jail Art Center in Albany, Texas. A companion show is also on view through this summer at Jody Klotz Fine Art in Abilene.