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The Memory Collector: Artist Elizabeth McGhee’s fascination with genealogy, odd objects & storytelling


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Elizabeth McGhee’s great-grandmother died a few months after she turned 11, little could comfort her. The two were close, and young Elizabeth hadn’t yet experienced significant loss.

She’ll always be alive in your mind, Elizabeth was told. The child took the tired adage literally. “I didn’t want my grandma stuck in the black void of my brain,” Elizabeth recalls. “If she was living in there, I needed to imagine her house down to every detail. She needed a nice place.” Memory by memory, she concentrated on building Charlotte Blake Light’s home. Elizabeth spent time picturing the glass door that led out to Charlotte’s patio, the feel of Charlotte’s carpet on her toes, the smell of the ocean nearby.

In time, Elizabeth would come to have more in common with Charlotte than she ever could have predicted. But we’ll get to that later.

The Memory closeup

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Festival of Arts artist Elizabeth McGhee

Around this time, Elizabeth developed an intense interest in genealogy, an unusual hobby for an adolescent girl. Quiet hours were spent researching dead relatives, finding their graves, and uncovering their secrets. She discovered her family tree, like all family trees, was dotted with angels and demons. There were slave owners. An ancestral gun was rumored to have been used on the Trail of Tears. But there was also a man who became a remarkable advocate for Native Americans.

“We always thought my mother’s side was part Cherokee,” Elizabeth says. But DNA tests didn’t reveal a drop of Cherokee blood. Instead, there were traces of African American ancestors – a counterpoint to the slave-owning relatives on her father’s side. The stories, good and bad, are all rich fodder for her imagination.

Elizabeth also collected old objects from swap meets – letters and postcards, photographs of families she’d never know. She bought the dusty diaries of people most certainly dead. She found tarnished toys and cheap oddities. “My dad and I would go to swap meets every weekend, collecting stuff, learning about stuff, finding old rusty things and figuring out what they were,” Elizabeth says. “I love rescuing things that have no inherent value. Then I tie them into my still life paintings.” More on that later, too.

When painting became a serious part of Elizabeth’s life in college, all these quirky interests began to coalesce. Though she’s reluctant to acknowledge the intersections, echoes of her obsessions appear in her art. She’s quick to make connections, she enjoys playing with symbolism, and she likes rescuing objects and ensuring they find a proper home. 

Elizabeth is the consummate collector – of memories, records, letters, toys, or any curiosity that captures her imagination. She dusts them off, gives them life and context, and puts them into hands that will appreciate their value.

But, in a larger sense, everything Elizabeth does is a type of storytelling. 

The art of the story

It’s not surprising that Elizabeth’s first love – before painting – was writing. “I wanted to be a writer as a teenager. I was bookish, always learning about what I didn’t know or [correcting] misconceptions about what I thought,” she says. “Like torches!” Here, Elizabeth gets so animated that she hops from her stool to talk about the practicality of torches and how they’ve been misrepresented in film. She’s like that – so enraptured by research and arcane knowledge that she can hardly hold still. 

Before receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree, cum laude, from Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) in 2009, she started studying animation at age 14. “I’d taken the animation class for two years before they discovered I was too young to be enrolled,” she says. “They made me a teacher’s assistant so I could stay.” But moving pictures proved too frenetic and didn’t give Elizabeth the time to slow down and focus on the rich and often hidden details that portraiture and oil painting allows.

Elizabeth’s love of storytelling is everywhere in her art, particularly her Mythica Series. When it’s complete, there will be 80 paintings that modernize ancient Greek myths. “I plan to explore how our digital age relates to archetypal stories that have been passed down through the millennia,” she says in her Artist Statement. The 40 completed thus far are playful. Medusa holds a snake-like extension cord; Icarus plays with a paper airplane as colorful feathers float above his head; Hestia holds a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

The Memory three women

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Elizabeth with three portraits from her Mythica series – Hero, Dendritus, and Gaia

In studying the masters, Elizabeth found herself drawn to lowbrow humor often embedded in classic pieces. Large paintings that are heavily populated with people often contain hidden wit. Watch for harbor scenes, she says. “There’s always some dude taking a dump off the side of a boat. It makes you realize people back then were just like us. They had the same messed up humor.”

Her own still life pieces are full of play, and not only because they’re often occupied by toys. She’s a lover of the pun and likes to work with idioms. She’s got stacks of books on slang and lingo to ignite ideas. A row of wooden alphabet blocks, all the letter “I”, are topped with Dots candies. An old cast iron Humpty Dumpty looks down upon a pile of broken eggshells. 

She also enjoys the juxtaposition of the innocent alongside the naughty. “I’ve always been interested in words and double entendre. That got into my art.” In one recent painting, vintage Coke bottles and cans sit in a line. “I wanted to include a pile of sugar, but the image was too on point,” she says. So she substituted a plastic straw. In another, a steel screw is driven into an alphabet block. Naturally, it’s the letter “U”. “I probably inherited my mom’s analytical interest in history and my dad’s silliness.”

The Memory Coke

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Elizabeth poses with “A Line of Coke”

Elizabeth says it amuses her to take an object otherwise considered junk, elevate it into fine art imbued with meaning, and thereby give it monetary value.  “Toys are our first experience with symbolism,” she says. “People are willing to engage with toys and remember that sense of play. We lose that as adults. But play allows us to come up with new ideas.” 

Once again, it’s all about the art of the story.

A family tree full of artists

Speaking of great stories, what about that great-grandmother – Charlotte Blake Light – and the indelible impression she left on young Elizabeth? At the time of her death in 1996, no one yet guessed at Elizabeth’s eventual career in art. Maybe it was lying dormant in her DNA.

In 1950, around the time Charlotte turned 50, she left her husband and pursued a career in painting. She moved to Europe to study with Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka and, when she returned to California, Charlotte began showing her impressionistic paintings at the Festival of Arts. Sixty years later, Elizabeth would follow in her footsteps and become an exhibitor in the Festival. But that’s not the only coincidence. Charlotte was also one of the founding members of the San Clemente Art Club where, decades later, Elizabeth would become a juror. And, of course, they both made their homes by the sea.

Charlotte wasn’t the only artistic trailblazer in Elizabeth’s family. A long line of ancestors – all of them women – carried the artistic torch. Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother, Harriet Forward Blake, was the first female head of the art department of The Iowa State Normal School in the 1890s. Two 19th century Irish sisters were also oil painters. And a 5th generation grandfather (Harriet’s grandfather) sold artistic supplies in London sometime in the 19th century. “Mr. Forward’s Oil and Color Warehouse” operated from 1810 to 1840.

The Memory single painting

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Elizabeth’s family tree includes a line of artists, all of them women

The truth behind the starving artist adage 

For all her success – and there has been a lot of it – making a living as an artist in Laguna is still a struggle. Elizabeth doesn’t own a car. She’s only flown once since childhood. And she mostly maintains a diet of spaghetti, butter, and garlic (when she’s doing well, she springs for Ragu sauce). “If you watch the Food Network while eating,” she says, “the food actually tastes better. When they talk about all those fancy herbs, you can almost taste them. Like the invisible dinner scene from the movie Hook.”

Elizabeth makes the most of her modest one-bedroom. Books and toys are stacked to the ceiling. Storage bins are packed with supplies. Every object reflects her humor and whimsy, and household items are often repurposed for art. A coffee cup can act as a perfect ballast to secure a string of bell peppers for her piece, “Carol the Bells.”

Her financial concerns are somewhat surprising given that the prestigious Gallery Henock in New York City represents Elizabeth. Her work has been exhibited in Alabama, Oklahoma, and throughout California in more than two-dozen shows. She’s had several museum showings and has been an exhibitor in the Festival of Arts for ten consecutive years.

Her father – a reluctant accountant in the aerospace industry – advised her, “It’s better to be poor and struggling while doing what you love.” She couldn’t agree more. She supplements her art income by working part-time at Laguna Art Supply and teaching classes through LOCA. She facilitates art talks at the Festival, acts as a docent, and serves on the Artist Funds board.

Though there’s rarely a time she can relax and not worry, she’s used to the hard work. While at LCAD, she still managed to log 32 hours a week at Domino’s Pizza and take 18 units every semester. 

Playing hide-and-seek with the dead

But when she’s done with work, Elizabeth retreats into history and spends her leisure time living in the past. She describes herself as Wednesday Adams, who also likes playing with dead people. She’ll scan thousands of names on a census looking for lost relatives, scouring antiquated articles on, and strolling through cemeteries. She loves contributing to Find-a-Grave, an online service that allows members to upload photographs of headstones and burial plots so genealogists can locate their ancestors. “People can’t hide when they’re dead,” she says. 

Her real thrill is reuniting friends – and even strangers – with their deceased relatives, and she’s had remarkable success. Letters lost when a storage unit was repossessed found their way back home because of Elizabeth. A jealous great aunt who, decades ago, stole a pile of her sister’s jewelry, returned the treasures to her niece after Elizabeth uncovered her story. A 19th century oil painting found its way from Kentucky back to her co-worker, Janet.

The Memory with plaque

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Janet Kolle, co-worker at Laguna Art Supply, holds an 1820s portrait of her great-great-great grandpa that Elizabeth discovered in Kentucky

But there was one woman Elizabeth decided to keep all to herself.

Flora Montgomery and legacies that last

By the time Elizabeth encountered Flora Montgomery, Flora had been dead for 35 years. Elizabeth first acquired Flora’s diaries at a swap meet in San Diego in 1999. A year later, by pure luck and happenstance, she found a cache of letters Flora exchanged with Richard Camier, a Canadian farmer and wannabe suitor. The correspondence dated from 1920 to 1925. Elizabeth found yet another batch from 1944 to 1949. “Usually I try to find people’s descendants and reunite them,” she says. “But Flora? She’s mine.”

The letters detailed Richard and Flora’s daily lives – bad crops and favorite books, the skyrocketing rents in San Francisco when Flora moved, and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Richard confessed his love. Flora expressed her regret. Eventually, Richard returned to his native Ireland without her. Elizabeth found evidence of Flora’s death in 1964, and a record of her grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego. “Someday I want to get down there,” she says. But without a car, it’s difficult.

For Elizabeth, who once built a mind palace in which her great-grandmother could live, Flora built an equally vivid mental landscape for Elizabeth. 

This is Elizabeth’s goal with her art. It’s another attempt at immortality and connection. “My art is going to outlast me,” she says. “It’s a way for me to have conversations with people I’ll never know. This is my legacy.”

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Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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