While she prefers staying out of the limelight, graphic designer Karen “Ren” Davidson Seward is well known in the North Country arts community for her collaborative spirit, talent and generosity. She has been involved in some of the most popular exhibits in the area, among them, the Wild Center exhibits at Whiteface Mountain, a revision of the exhibit Dreaming of Timbuctoo and the Memorial Field for Black Lives at John Brown Historic Farm.
Ren’s work space at Lake Flower Landing is filled with art books, unique architectural fixtures and comfortable furniture. Her style is bright, eclectic and contemporary. The building housing Lake Flower Landing was renovated by Ren and her husband Peter Seward from its prior use as a taxidermy shop. With high ceilings and windows facing an unobstructed view of beautiful Lake Flower, it also serves as a venue for concerts, film screenings and talks.
Ren has been surrounded by art and dynamic mentors since her childhood in Chicago. Her mother Barbara was an interior decorator who relied on ingenuity to help friends and neighbors transform their homes. Ren’s father Don was in management positions at two of America’s most popular women’s magazines, Ladies Home Journal and Women’s Day. While Ms. Magazine had not yet been born, Don encouraged his daughters to be independent, faithfully observing “Take your Daughter to Work Day “ every year. He was also able to recount for his daughters his own day at the office, when on March 18, 1970 Gloria Steinem and 100 other women staged a sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal, with it’s 14 million monthly readers, calling for a change in how the magazine portrayed women.
Her own road to becoming an artist, who understood the power of imagery to encourage social change, included some exciting stops along the way. As a young college student, Ren spent a semester at sea on World Campus Afloat, taking classes from her uncle, a professional midwestern painter. Later, she worked at a prestigious San Francisco gallery, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), worked in creative promotion for large organizations such as the Revlon Company, and then at a NYC Gallery, where she was able to broaden her professional network. She soon knew that she wanted to work for herself, and in 1987 she took the leap and opened her own graphic design business.
Davidson Design Inc. kept seven employees busy in New York City, contracting with a variety of organizations and institutions to design exhibition brochures and catalogues. For a few years, she consulted with the retail division of the American Museum of Natural History, and was able to work with cutting edge scientists and artists to create products for the store and their special exhibits. Ren found that she was filling an important need in the nonprofit world for skilled and creative design and publishing. These are now the same skills and insights that Ren brings to her work with organizations such as John Brown Lives!, a social justice initiative and the official NYS Friends Group of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
One of her most recent projects was an updating of the exhibit Dreaming of Timbuctoo written and curated by Adirondack historian Amy Godine. When I asked about her experience working with Ren, Amy first explained that the project came about because she had amassed new information about the history of the Timbuctoo initiative since the original exhibition was created in 2001 by artist Stephen Horne. “Martha Swan (of John Brown Lives!) and I felt a refreshed look would reflect the changed narrative. Working with Ren on the redesign of each panel, working to make sure each caption and image was singular and bright — this was a collaborative thrill.”
While the reason Ren came to the Adirondacks was because of the traumatic events of September 11, Ren later discovered that her connection to the Adirondacks goes back to a time more than seven generations. She had been living in New York City for nearly two decades when she and Peter decided to leave sometime after that terrible day. Debris from the fall of the Towers had landed on her block, and it was impossible to escape the smell in the air. They chose the North Country, where they had vacationed, because of its natural restorative properties. The wisdom of the move did not reveal itself to Ren for the first few years, when she was still uncertain if leaving NYC had been a good decision. Surprisingly, it was her research into her family’s genealogy that has helped ground her to the area.
First, she had discovered that her maternal great grandfather had actually lived in Ogdensburg, New York. A colorful character, Sam Gebo prospected out West and then in Guatemala, where he opened coal and marble mines. But it was researching her father’s family that she learned something profound about her family. Ren’s 6th degree great grandfather, John Haff, had lived in Peru, New York. He had been a slave owner described in historical records as abusive to a fugitive slave. In contrast, Haff’s son, Abraham, became a well known abolitionist and cofounder of the Clinton County Anti-Slavery Coalition. John and Abraham are both mentioned in an exhibition at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Falls, located a stone’s throw from Ausable Chasm.
“In spite of the surprising amount of information that I find about my family going back to colonial times and the earliest settlers in a place like Peru, New York, I’m unable to even identify the man referred to as a fugitive slave. It’s become a priority of my research to find out more about who he was, his life and what happened to him. Learning about my own very-American family saga is contributing to my thinking about social issues in ways I hadn’t thought of before. It’s all too easy when something is uncomfortable, to try to cover it up, hide it away. That tendency was endemic in my family, which spurs me on to get to the bottom of things.”
Ren and Peter both have collaborated with John Brown Lives! designing the JBL! Logo and the 125th Anniversary Banner. In 2017 they joined with JBL! to host a film screening and panel discussion of I am Not your Negro, the award winning documentary by Raoul Peck. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson “the film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his personal observations of American history.”
It was standing room only that summer evening at Lake Flower Landing. But that evening, who could have predicted that in October 2021 filmmaker Peck would travel from France to participate in the Lake Placid Film Festival, and at the conclusion of the festival, visit John Brown’s Farm and Ren’s exhibit, the Memorial Field for Black Lives.
Although I had been to the John Brown Farm on many occasions, I only learned of Ren this past year when I read that she had received a prestigious award from the State of New York for “Excellence in Historic Site Interpretation and Public Engagement” for the Memorial Field for Black Lives. The inception of the installation, which is located at John Brown’s Farm, came during the pandemic, while everyone was glued to the news about Covid-19. As if the times couldn’t get much worse, the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd flooded the news. Overwhelmed by the senselessness of the killings, Ren began writing about each of the deaths. Ultimately, the writings became the source of the text on the headstones of the Memorial Field. Ren explained to me that the exhibit was not intended as a reproach to all police officers, but rather to encourage those who visit to feel empathy for the individuals and families who died under circumstances that most consider tragic, and unnecessary.
Interviewing Ren, and learning about how she came to create the Memorial Field, a place I bring all my guests to the North Country, has meant a great deal to me. It was fortuitous that I was interviewing Ren on November 24, in the early afternoon at Nori’s in downtown Saranac Lake, when the verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery case was announced. As a long time, but now retired criminal defense lawyer, I had been anxiously following the trial. Appreciating the role that criminal defense lawyers play in protecting a defendant’s right to due process, still the scenario and facts surrounding Mr. Arbery’s death seemed indefensible. Ren and I were both relieved to know that the rule of law prevailed that day.
Ren expects to be very busy in 2022, with new projects including events at the Memorial Field for Black Lives. Look also for Ren’s work at Historic Saranac Lake and the John Brooks Lodge property. Visits to Lake Flower Landing can be made by appointment.
For more information about Ren, go to: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ren-davidson-seward-b415a03/
For more information about Lake Flower Landing, go to: LakeFlowerLanding.com
For more about Dreaming of Timbuctoo go to: https://johnbrownlives.org/what-we-do/dreaming-of-timbuctoo/)
For more about the North Star Underground Railroad Museum go to: https://northcountryundergroundrailroad.com/museum.php
For more about the Memorial Field for Black Lives go to: https://johnbrownlives.org/about-jbl-events/memorialfield/
For more about John Brown Lives! go to: https://johnbrownlives.org