Richardson artist Jon Flaming makes a living helping companies like Pepsi and American Airlines create lasting brands. But for a new passion project, Flaming is using his artistic talents to create a lasting legacy for the descendants of a North Texas colony of former slaves. This is the story of how a meandering drive down a country road lead to connections that bridge race and history.
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Birdston Valley sits on a few acres in Navarro County, about 90 minutes south of Dallas. To get there, you take a blacktop road off the interstate to a gravel road to a dirt road. A hundred yards on foot and you’re there.
“To our right, you’ll see a little gate. And back beyond the gate you’ll see the tombstones, the headstones,” Jon Flaming says on a chilly Saturday morning as he heads down the well-worn path. “And then as we walk down through this grove of trees, to the right, you’ll see that there’s this little white, clapboard church. This is kinda what I saw the first time I came down here.”
These off-the-map spots are where Flaming finds inspiration for his art – mostly paintings. He stumbled upon Birdston Valley about a decade ago. And he kept coming back.
“And as I pulled up this one sunny afternoon, I looked out through this grove of trees,” Flamins says. “And there were all these folks working with mowers and weedeaters and hoes and shovels.”
The people working that sunny afternoon are the descendants of the former slaves who founded Birdston Valley. Today, they live in Grand Prairie, Burleson and other towns scattered across North Texas. Some are retired from office jobs; one’s an army veteran. But every six weeks or so, they return to Birdston Valley, to the cemetery they’ve cared for since childhood.
Maurice Boldon remembers cutting the grass when he was a teenager.
“And when we would mow, there’d be tarantulas crawling out here as big as my hand,” he says. “And I’d hit ‘em with the mower. Sound like running over a brick!”
Boldon’s now 53. And when he and the other volunteers clear the grass, they reveal 150 years of their family history.
“I went to church here. And we had a house right out there and that’s where I brought the school at … and we’d play ball out there,” says Mary Boldon. She’s 95. As she tells stories of days gone by, she instinctively brushes dirt away from the church’s front steps with her cane. A spiritual she once sang inside the church comes to mind.
“A few more years shall roll, and a few more seasons come. We shall be with those that rest, asleep within the tomb.”
When most people visit a cemetery, one or two of the headstones are familiar. But for the Birdson Valley descendants, nearly all of them are.
“This is my grandmother right here. I got an aunt back there. That’s my cousin right there, Robert Spence …” Maurice Boldon grew up in Streetman, the tiny town 20 miles south of Corsicana that’s closest to Birdston. “This is my grandfather right here. I got an auntie right here. And that’s my mother’s right there, Ivory Jean Boldon. … I got people buried here. And hopefully one day, when it’s my time, I want to be buried right here, too.”
But he and his family worry about Birdston Valley’s long term care. A fence badly needs mending. Neighboring cows wander in, knocking over headstones. What will happen if future generations lose interest?
With a little money, the descendants of Birdston Valley could tackle some of these projects. Maybe even put up a proper sign over the path leading to the valley. But where would the money come from?
Enter Jon Flaming.
You can imagine everyone’s surprise when a white stranger wandered their way as they worked.
“We were like, ‘let’s get the guns out’,” Gloria Busby remembers saying that first day that Flaming showed up. “But he’s awesome because, since we’ve met him, he knows more about the history of the place than a lot of us.”
When Flaming first met the Birdston caretakers on that sunny day, he wrote a check on the spot to help with the upkeep. But on the drive back to his Richardson home, he thought about how he could do more.
He found his answer in the thing that brought him there in the first place – his art. In some cases, the art is literally made from pieces from Birdston Valley. The old church is beyond repair and will soon be razed. So the families told Flaming to take whatever he could use.
“So this is a portrait of a man, obviously, and so you can see that I’ve used this old paneling from inside the church,” Flaming says inside his home studio. “In his coat pocket there, the handkerchief is a little piece of linoleum that was from the choir loft, and that dates back to the 40s.”
Next month, David Dike Fine Art in Dallas will host “Birdston Valley Revival,” a solo exhibition of Flaming’s work. A portion of the sales will go to care for the land.
Gloria Busby says the family’s touched.
“Not a lot of people take a lot of interest in, especially cemeteries and stuff way back in the country – in the woods – that are this old,” she says. “Because this is over 100 years old down here. It has a lot of history to it, and we want to try to preserve it. And to have someone that has our same interest was awesome.”
Beyond the money the art sale raises, Flaming is optimistic that others will be moved to contribute when they hear the Birdston Valley story.
Much of Flaming’s motivation for the project comes from his faith. He’s a devout Christian. And caring for this tiny chunk of land is a calling.
“For me, it’s living out my faith and loving my neighbor as myself,” he says. “And the cool thing is I get to do it in a fun way – I get to use the gifts and the talents that God’s given me to serve them.”
Flaming has a favorite Bible verse that comes to mind. It’s from Isaiah.
“The flower fades, and the grass withers, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
But through Flaming’s art and the hard work of the Birdston families, those flowers might not fade just yet.
“Birdston Valley Revival” opens at David Dike Fine Art on March 7 with an opening reception. Jon Flaming is working on a documentary about the project with filmmaker Chris Mano, which is previewed in the video at the top of this post.