History as art

© 2020 Nina Tugarina

It is always a mystery how an artist gets inspiration. It could be a book, a person, an object, or even an historical event. Massachusetts, a state with many historical turning points, has always attracted artists. It is impossible to count how many wonderful pieces of art were dedicated to the Pilgrims’ history.

For my sister Nina Tugarina, an artist who came to the United States with me from Ukraine, the word “Pilgrim” did not ring a bell until she visited Plymouth and Plimoth Plantation. Exploring the Mayflower II, she tried to imagine how people could survive in these small, dark compartments. No privacy, extreme crowding, no fresh water, moldy food, severe storms: while the ship’s adults were used to hardship, the Mayflower children must have felt themselves locked up, dreaming of a new land where they could run and jump again.

Plimoth Plantation, a small village built on the shore, felt quite different from the ship. It was a natural environment in which people live. The village was so real that Nina felt herself in the seventeenth century. It was from this experience that two Pilgrim children, John and Elizabeth, were born in the artist’s imagination.

On the way back home, she put her heavy basket aside, sat on a rock to have some rest, and finally had a minute to eat an apple.

To create real characters Nina immersed herself in Pilgrim everyday life. She tried to find out every detail about Pilgrim children. When she felt that these vague images had begun to transform into real characters she started to sculpt.

All day Elizabeth was helping her mother pick apples. On the way back home, she put her heavy basket aside, sat on a rock to have some rest, and finally had a minute to eat an apple.

Tired of fetching water all morning, John decided that picking apples would be a more pleasant pastime.[1]

Boys and girls inhabited two different worlds, subject to the same hard work and hard life. Now we would say that Pilgrims did not have any mercy toward their children, but it was a necessity to prepare their sons and daughters for adult life. Even working all day kids always found time to play and to play jokes on one another or even to fight. After months spent in narrow Mayflower’s cabins they enjoyed the fresh air in the fields and meadows and were happy.

Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Wampanoag … are not just words; they are important concepts for Americans. And Pilgrim history always will be a great source of inspiration for new works in all types and genres of art.


[1] This is the artist’s story about John and Elizabeth, but every viewer will have his or her own vision of them.

About Olga Tugarina

Olga Tugarina, originally from Kharkov, Ukraine, was the NEHGS Library Collection Services Assistant until 2020. She received her B.A. in Metallurgical Engineering at Kharkov Polytechnical Institute. She emigrated from Ukraine to America in 1997. In 2016 Olga started her family genealogy, based on her own recollections. Her interests: Arts.

11 thoughts on “History as art

  1. Thank you, Olga, for sharing your insights about Nina’s art, learning about the Pilgrims, and sculpting the lovely figures of John and Elizabeth so that their unique story is universal and shared.

  2. I have a collection of dolls that represent Pilgrims and I have shared them with my Cleveland Mayflower chapter and other organizations. Olga, your dolls are beautiful and your attention to detail in costuming is obvious. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much, Donarita, for your kind words about the dolls! It is most appreciated and encouraging.

  3. The books Sarah Morton’s Day and Samuel Eaton’s Day cover this topic as well. Illustrated with photos taken at Plimouth Plantation, and widely available in public libraries as well as for purchase.

  4. As a descendant of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley, who came on the Mayflower and married a few years later, I’m going to imagine that these beautiful dolls represent them, even though the dolls do look like children. John was 28 and Elizabeth 13 in 1620.

    1. Ricky, you, Olga, Nina, and others may also enjoy the beautifully illustrated book _The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune_ by Irish author and illustrator P. J. Lynch.
      https://www.worldcat.org/title/boy-who-fell-off-the-mayflower-or-john-howlands-good-fortune/oclc/915748857 (Click on the preview button to see some of the book.)
      It, too, depicts John as younger than his reported age at death suggests, but it captures the essence of the Mayflower experience very well.

    2. Good Morning, Ricky. I have links in my Family Tree to John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley and many of the Mayflower Passengers and Crew as well. I began my studies of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower and Hilton, Morris and Archibald families in 1954 when I was 14. I am now 80. I spend my days looking into many links to my family ties. I am in a Senior’s Home and I am disabled due to a Car /truck accident. I appreciate so much to find these links to our Family Tree, wherever I can find them. Sincere Best Wishes, Paul Morris Hilton, Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada.

    3. Dear Ricky, I enjoyed reading your comments and can say that you are right about the girl’s name. Yes, she was named after Elizabeth Tilley (13) and John was chosen as a typical name for that time period. At first, he was supposed to be Bartholomew Allen (7), but, when he was created, my sister changed her mind, which  is typical for artists. Every piece of art has many stories behind it and every story has a truth. As I wrote in the note: “This is the artist’s story about John and Elizabeth, but every viewer will have his or her own vision of them”.  Thank you for sending your comments.  

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