The past several weeks, I have been spending my waning winter days (well, mostly Saturdays) creating an ancestor wall in my home.
In my own practice of re-rooting myself in my ancestral lineage and connecting to the ones who came before me (and still live in my bones today), I have been making altars with photos or keepsakes of my ancestors—like a tablecloth, candle holder, and pocket watch—and even leave them offerings of dandelion tea or their favorite foods on Samhain each autumn.
If you’re interested in learning more about connecting to your ancestors, I put together a guide right here.
Recently I heard this episode of the Medicine Stories podcast and saw Amy’s follow-up post that shared her story of researching her ancestry, how it took 12 years to fill out her family tree, and the images she used to build an ancestor wall in her home in Oregon and I got so inspired!
My intention behind building this ancestor wall is to honor and invite the spirits and stories of those who came before me into my space.
I want to walk past their faces every morning and be able to speak their names and remember their stories. I want to heal the wounds I’ve inherited from their complex experiences of life. And, to heal, we must first acknowledge and remember.
Creating an ancestor gallery wall is a fairly straightforward concept. You get photos, you get the frames, and you put them up on the wall.
But, as a recovering perfectionist, I found myself feeling a little paralyzed by the process. What if I chose the wrong frames? Where will I get the photos? Are they cool and old-timey enough?
Then I looked up “ancestor gallery wall” on Pinterest and got super overwhelmed, so I closed down the laptop and decided to just go for it. My inner dabblist needed to take over to make this happen.
Here are my tips for making your ancestor wall:
When searching for pictures...
Take your time with this one - it may take years to gather all the images you desire. That’s why I say my wall is a work in progress, as I know I’ll find more over the years during my research. I asked my family for what they had—digging through dusty old boxes and scanning photocopies of photocopies to get the pictures that really spoke to me.
One of my photos was taken with my iPhone a text message picture of an image sent to me by my sister-in-law. I know the quality isn’t perfection, but I don’t mind the grittiness and overexposure and torn edges of the images I chose.
If you don’t have access to photos like I did, I highly encourage you to research online. I found some old images from 1800s Italy on Ancestry.com that absolutely blew my mind. I’ve also heard FamilySearch is a treasure trove of old photos.
On the left is my great grandmother Elizabeth Root (age 4) who I affectionately knew as Manga. This photo is scanned from a photocopy found in a genealogy report my great uncle put together in the 1980s. On the right is my grandfather Harold Guthrie (I called him Papa) standing in front of the plane he flew in WW2. I found this photo in a box of photos sent to me after his first wife (my grandmother Virginia Moore) passed on.
When searching for frames...
Another process to be patient with yourself over. Speaking from experience, I had to take some deep breaths knowing I didn’t have all the right frames yet when I felt my anxious urge to just complete the project already. But I knew I wanted a mixture of shapes and textures, as well as the right sized frames to fit the photos I found.
I had a few old frames handed down to me, and then I went searching out at every consignment shop in my county. I also peeped in our neighborhood T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods and found a few good ones.
I also knew I wanted some oval frames to contrast with all the square shapes, so I looked up “vintage oval frame” on Etsy and found 2 that were shipped to me within the week.
On the left is my grandmother Anne Elizabeth Reed when she was a young girl. On the right is my great-grandmother Philomena Schleutker (on the left) when she was 4 years old. I found both of these vintage oval frames on Etsy.
One pro-tip from Pinterest I found really helpful? Lay all your frames on a piece of kraft or butcher paper the size of the wall you are framing and play with the layout and organization. Once you’ve found your ideal layout, sleep on it and come back to it with fresh eyes to be sure. I played with mine a few times until it felt right enough to nail it into the wall.
...and it’ll likely change again because that’s just the nature of my creativity. 🙂
On it being a work in progress…
Walking the ancestral connection path is a lifelong journey. Research takes time and, as we grow and change in our ever-becoming nature, more and more will be revealed to us. So be patient with yourself and dive into this project knowing it will always be a work in progress.
I, myself, purposely left space on the wall to add to it. I would like to do more research on Tim’s Polish and Italian roots and hopefully will have some photos to add to this wall of those ancestors someday.
Are you going to create an ancestor gallery wall in your home? Do you have one already?
I’d love to see it. Tag me on Instagram @beccapiastrelli to share yours!
To connect to those who came before you is to connect more deeply with the truth of who you are today. No matter who you are, you come from a lineage.
Continue your journey:
- How to Connect with Your Ancestral Lineage
- Belonging Episode #22: Discover Your Genealogy with Jaclyn Wallach
- Belonging Episode #10: Ancestral Connection through Folkways
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