“I know places by walking them,” Kathleen Bitetti says. For a decade and a half, the Boston artist and community organizer has been retracing the steps of Massachusetts legends Abigail Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson and others around Boston, Quincy, London.
This week, for her “Crossings: Massachusetts-Malta (2009-2019)” project, Bitetti has returned to Malta, the island at the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, where she was an artist-in-residence at Gozo Contemporary a decade ago. She’s there to retrace journeys made by Emerson, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nicolas Campbell, a Maltese sailor who took part in the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
“It’s physically connecting with a place,” Bitetti says. “You’re physically and mentally experiencing a place at the same time.”
From 2005 to 2013, Bitetti was an artist-in-residence at the Quincy Historical Society, where he created “site-based” history projects about Abigail Adams (1744-1818), the wife of John Adams, who could become the first vice president of the United States and then the second U.S. president.
For “Crossings: Abigail was Here” and “Crossings: Emerson Was Here” in 2010 as part of the London Biennale, Bitetti traveled to London. Abigail Adams lived there from 1785 to 1788, when her husband represented the United States to England. American writer and Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) sailed from Boston to Malta to London and back in 1832 and 1833. “That was the trip that made him the Emerson we know,” Bitetti says. “He left preaching and when he came back, he gave his first lecture on nature.”
At places Adams or Emerson stayed or visited, Bitetti left clear plastic bags holding an envelop and hand-sewn bag holding images of U.S. President Barack Obama and the American flag, a bookmark with historical information about Adams or Emerson, tea (the brand hurled into Boston Harbor during the 1773 Boston Tea Party), charms, and a small plastic container of Boston Harbor water.
“I’m interested in their work and what they did and who they were,” Bitetti says of Adams and Emerson. “Both were abolitionists and feminists. They were civil rights people ahead of their times.”
In 2017 and ’18, Bitetti similarly traced Adams’s and Emerson’s paths through Boston by leaving art packages—including a “guardian angel image for protecting people in passage”—at places they lived or visited. Bitetti focuses on the gesture of leaving a gift behind. People “can find it,” she says. “There’s not a lot of grandeur. … Sometimes it’s very quiet and people come across it.”
Back in Malta this week as a visiting artist via Valletta Contemporary, Bitetti is working on “Crossings: Massachusetts-Malta (2009-2019).” She’s visiting places a sailor like Nicolas Campbell, the Boston Tea Party participant, might have frequented. She’s following President Roosevelt via records of his schedule. Bitetti notes that Roosevelt traveled to the island aboard the USS Quincy, a heavy cruiser built in Quincy with sponsorship from Adams descendent Katherine Adams Morgan. “It’s pretty wild these connections,” Bitetti says.
“Emerson I know where he went because he wrote about it in his journal,” Bitetti says. “I’m literally following where they were.”
Bitetti describes her projects as “love letters to cities,” and “a pilgrimage or marking space and time.” As she walks where the historical figures walked, as she visits the places they visited, she traces “these kinds of things that build up from little things in history to big H history.”
If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.