The paintings: Oprah is elegantly coiffed, gowned in a long blue dress, into which a portrait of her in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been etched. Lincoln, his sad visage rising above the American flag that envelops him, stands in front of a reproduction of a painting by Henry Ogden, “The Battle of Spotsylvania.” Afong Moy, the first woman from China to arrive in the United States, is clad in a culturally traditional red wedding dress, hands primly—or nervously?—clasped at her waist; her head entirely concealed by a veil. We’ll never see her face—which the artist hopes might prod us to consider: Would we have remembered it anyway?
These are just three from The Great Americans, a show by artist Jac Lahav ’00, on exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum in Lyme, Conn., until May 12. The work is attracting interest from both critics and schoolchildren alike, sparking dialogues among patrons responding to an implicit question behind the title: What makes someone “great”? Do the Americans shown here fit these criteria?
While he was still in grad school, that question was the starting point for Lahav. He’d been watching a Discovery Channel miniseries, Greatest American, and his attention was captured by the debates that arose around naming a top-10 group. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln easily made the list. But the audience was divided between Jonas Salk or Oprah Winfrey, illustrating the difficulty: What is the definition of “great.” While Salk is the creator of the polio vaccine and might initially be a shoo-in, his legacy is more complicated, notes Lahav: His vaccine is no longer the one in use today, and his collaborators felt that Salk had ignored their contributions in favor of personal celebrity.