Though she prefers to stay out of the spotlight, graphic designer Karen “Ren” Davidson Seward is well known in the North Country art community for her collaborative spirit, talent and generosity. She has participated in some of the region’s most popular exhibits, including the Wild Center exhibits at Whiteface Mountain, a review of the exhibit Dreaming of Timbuktu and the Memorial Field for Black Lives Matter to DHistoric Ohn Brown Farm.
Ren’s workspace at Lake Flower Landing is filled with art books, unique architectural installations, and comfortable furniture. His style is bright, eclectic and contemporary. The building housing Lake Flower Landing has been renovated by Ren and her husband Peter Seward since its previous use as a taxidermy shop. With high ceilings and windows overlooking stunning views of beautiful Flower Lake, it also serves as a venue for concerts, film screenings and conferences.
Ren has been surrounded by art and dynamic mentors since she was a child in Chicago. Her mother Barbara was an interior designer who relied on ingenuity to help her friends and neighbors transform their homes. Ren’s father, Don, held executive positions at two of America’s most popular women’s magazines, Ladies Home Journal and Women’s day. While Ms Magazine was not yet born, Don encouraged his daughters to be independent, faithfully observing Take Your Daughter to Work Day each year. He also got to tell his daughters about his own day in the office, when on March 18, 1970, Gloria Steinem and 100 other women staged a sit-in at the Ladies’ Home Journal, with its 14 million monthly readers, calling for a change in the way the magazine portrays women.
Her own road to becoming an artist, who understood the power of imagery to encourage social change, included some exciting steps along the way. As a young student, Ren spent a semester at sea on the World Campus Afloat, taking lessons from her uncle, a professional painter from the Midwest. Later, she worked at a prestigious gallery in San Francisco, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), worked in creative promotion for large organizations such as Revlon Company, and then at a NYC Gallery, where she was able to expand his professional network. She soon realized she wanted to work for herself, and in 1987 she took the plunge and opened her own graphic design business.
Davidson Design Inc. employed seven employees in New York, contracting to various organizations and institutions to design exhibition brochures and catalogs. For a few years, she consulted with the retail division of the American Museum of Natural History and was able to work with leading scientists and artists to create products for the store and their special exhibits. Ren found that she filled an important need in the nonprofit world for skilled and creative design and editing. These are now the same skills and knowledge that Ren brings to his work with organizations such as John Brown Lives!, a social justice initiative, and the official NYS Friends group at John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
One of his most recent projects was an update of the exhibition Dreaming of Timbuktu 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 Timbuktu Initiative since inception. from the original exhibition in 2001 by artist Stephen Horne. “Martha Swan (of John Brown Lives!) and I thought a refreshed look would reflect the altered narrative. Working with Ren on redesigning every panel, working to ensure every caption and image was singular and bright – it was a thrill of collaboration.
While Ren’s reason for coming to the Adirondacks was because of the traumatic events of 9/11, Ren later discovered that his connection to the Adirondacks went back more than seven generations. She had been living in New York for almost two decades when she and Peter decided to leave some time after that terrible day. Debris from the fall of the Towers had landed on his block, and there was no escaping the smell in the air. They chose the North Country, where they had vacationed, because of its restorative natural properties. The wisdom of moving didn’t dawn on Ren for the first few years, when she still didn’t know if leaving NYC had been a good decision. Surprisingly, it was her research into her family’s genealogy that helped her anchor herself in the region.
First, she had discovered that her maternal great-grandfather had actually lived in Ogdensburg, New York. A colorful character, Sam Gebo prospected in the West and then in Guatemala, where he opened coal and marble mines. But it was while researching her father’s family that she learned something profound about his 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 runaway slave. In contrast, Haff’s son Abraham became a well-known abolitionist and co-founder of the Clinton County Anti-Slavery Coalition. John and Abraham are both mentioned in an exhibit at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Falls, located a stone’s throw from Ausable Chasm.
“Despite the startling amount of information I find about my family dating back to colonial times and about early settlers in a place like Peru, New York, I am unable to identify even the man labeled a fugitive slave. It became a priority of my research to learn more about who he was, his life and what happened to him Discovering my own very American family saga contributes to my thinking about social issues in a way that I I hadn’t thought of before. It’s too easy when something is uncomfortable, to try to cover it up, to hide it. This tendency was endemic in my family, which drives me to get to the bottom of it.
Both Ren and Peter collaborated with John Brown Lives! design the JBL! 125th anniversary logo and banner. In 2017, they joined JBL! organize a film screening and a round table on I’m not your nigga, Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson “the film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s memories of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his personal observations of American history.”
There was standing room only this summer evening at Lake Flower Landing. But that evening, who could have predicted that in October 2021, the filmmaker Peck would come from France to participate in the Lake Placid film festival and, at the end of the festival, visit John Brown’s farm and the exhibition of Ren, the Memorial field for black lives.
Although I have been to the John Brown Farm many times, I only heard of Ren last year when I read that she had received a prestigious New York State award for “Excellence in historic site interpretation and public engagement” for the Memorial field for black lives. The creation of the installation, which is located at John Brown’s Farm, came during the pandemic, when everyone was glued to the news of Covid-19. As if times couldn’t get any worse, the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd flooded the news. Overwhelmed by the absurdity of the murders, Ren began writing about each of the deaths. Ultimately, the writings became the source of the text on the tombstones of the Memorial field. Ren explained to me that the exhibit was not intended to be a rebuke to all police officers, but rather to encourage those who visit to feel empathy for people and families who died in circumstances that most consider as tragic and unnecessary.
Interview Ren and find out how she came to create the Memorial field, a place I take all my guests to in the North Country, meant a lot to me. It was by chance that I interviewed Ren on November 24, early afternoon at Nori’s in downtown Saranac Lake, when the verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery case was announced. For a long time, but now a retired criminal lawyer, I followed the trial with anxiety. Appreciating the role that criminal defense attorneys play in protecting a defendant’s right to due process, the storyline 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 Memorial field for black lives. Also look for Ren’s work at Historic Saranac Lake and the John Brooks Lodge property. Visits to Flower Landing Lake can be done by appointment.
For more information on Ren, visit: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ren-davidson-seward-b415a03/
For more information on Lake Flower Landing, visit: LakeFlowerLanding.com
To find out more about Dreaming of Timbuktu, go to: https://johnbrownlives.org/what-we-do/dreaming-of-timbuctoo/)
To learn more about the North Star Underground Railroad Museum, visit: https://northcountryundergroundrailroad.com/museum.php
To learn more about Memorial Field for Black Lives, visit: https://johnbrownlives.org/about-jbl-events/memorialfield/
To learn more about John Brown Lives! go to: https://johnbrownlives.org