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Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Local author, artist team for 'Colonel Washington and Me'

Jeff Finegan Sr. had a question one Fourth of July when he saw a reprint of the Declaration of Independence in The New York Times. Why wasn't he seeing George Washington's signature on the document along with the rest of the Virginia delegation? A Civil War collector since age 12, the third-generation funeral director from Phillipsburg, N.J., couldn't put to rest in later years how little he knew of the man known as the father of our country. When his brother presented him with a stack of books written on Washington, Finegan said he was "off and running" on a journey  led to his recently published, richly illustrated book, "Colonel Washington and Me."

Finegan and Easton businessman/watercolor artist Preston Hindmarch, who served as illustrator, will be teaming for a PowerPoint presentation and book signing on "Colonel Washington and Me" on Saturday, April 7 at 1 p.m., at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown.

The 32-page hardcover, recommended for young readers but quick to capture interest with all ages, tells of the relationship between Washington and one of his slaves, William Lee. Finegan's extensive research chronicles the history of the times when young Lee, age 16, was sold to Washington in 1768. His life changed forever as Washington's personal slave valet. He traveled with Washington from Mount Vernon to the blood-soaked battlefields of the American Revolution. He accompanied him through the presidency and was at Mount Vernon at the time of Washington's death in 1799. It is not only Lee's story but a look into the life of Washington and the birth of our nation.

According to Joseph Garrera, executive director of the museum, slavery is "a subject that is often untouched by historians of colonial America. …Rarely is the public able to read about historic events through the eyes of someone who is enslaved."

"Washington was a slave owner, but he also was a great American," Finegan said.

In addition to story and art, the book is augmented with original Washington and Washington-related manuscripts from Finegan's personal collection. A complete curriculum for classroom study also is available.

For the last 15 years, Finegan has been presenting birth-to-death lectures on Washington at area schools, civic organizations and historical societies. He recently spoke at the Berks County chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Berks County Historical Society. He also is a Revolutionary War reenactor.

Finegan spent the last few years researching the story he wanted to write, all the while striving for "historic accuracy and quality presentation." He said he had a layout for the art before he started the story. Once he wrote the text, he started to see the art come to life.

He also wanted to keep the process of the book ‘local' and incorporated the help of Hindmarch. He already was familiar with Hindmarch's artistic talent whenever he would visit his business, Aardvark Graphics, and see his watercolor scenes of Easton hanging on the walls. He wanted Hindmarch to illustrate the book and presented him with an outline for pictures to be used.

"Nobody really knew what Will Lee looked like. I had no real model," Hindmarch explained. What he did do was hire his next-door neighbor in portraying Lee from his teen years to his 70s."He thought I was a little nuts, asking him to pose and with various facial expressions," he recalled. "But he was thrilled in the end and not only wanted to read the book but have his kids read it, too."

Hindmarch researched clothing of the period and even had his work reviewed for accuracy by officials at the Mount Vernon Estate. When text and illustration were brought together, Hindmarch said the art mirrored the story perfectly.

Finegan described Hindmarch as more than just an artist. "He laid out the book and was more of a project manager," he said. Finegan owns the original art, though prints are available.

"We wanted to be historically correct right down to the costumes," Hindmarch said. "We wanted a book that was one-hundred percent historically correct, and Jeff and I valued the feedback coming back from Mount Vernon."

Finegan said the ultimate compliment came when Mount Vernon officials edited the literary work and gave it their ‘stamp of approval.' Mary V. Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon, said the book tells the story of Lee and Washington's relationship "for a new generation of young people. It is a story all Americans should know." According to Finegan, Mount Vernon has agreed to be an outlet for the book.

How does our author want readers to feel after they read the story? "I want them to be very unsettled," Finegan explained. "I see the book as not only a great story about humanity, fashioned after two men searching for freedom, but as historical fiction with everything historically accurate. I want the reader, young or old, to be unsettled and need to know more about slavery, George Washington, and historical architecture and why historical buildings are among us. The book is an entrée to bigger and better things."

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There will be a huge celebration happening in Berks County this fall, when the Reading Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 100th anniversary season on Oct. 13 with pianist Fabio Bidini at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center. The season continues with oboist Liang Wang on Nov. 17. The new year will feature violinist Christopher Collins Lee on Feb. 23, pianist William Wolfram on March 23, and violinist Midori (left) on April 20.

Not to be passed up this month, Saturday, April 28 at 8 p.m., is the Pops concert, "Night at the Movies," featuring epic movie scores ranging from "Star Wars" and "Jurassic Park" to critically acclaimed selections from "Amistad," and more. Joining the orchestra in a return appearance will be vocalist Carlyn Connolly, (right), resident member of Broadway Theater Studios in New York City. Also appearing will be the 501st Legion – Vader's First, a Star Wars costuming organization.

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In Lehigh County, the music continues at Allentown Symphony Hall with a new production of Massenet's "Manon" in the Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD" offerings on Saturday, April 7 at noon. Anna Netrebko's portrayal of the tragic heroine in Laurent Pelly's new production travels to the Met from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The classics continue with The Planets, "A Galactic Multi-Media Performance" on Saturday, April 14 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 15 at 3 p.m. Gustav Holst's "The Planets" will be accompanied by a film of the planets narrated by astronomer and video artist Jose Francisco Salgado.

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