Nampa artist Bryan Anthony Moore traced his finger over a faded illustration of James Madison. In the picture, a cameo of the Founding Father is flanked by the 10 Commandments. Scattered below are texts like Blackstone's Commentaries, a volume of John Locke and the Magna Carta. Striving to make the illustration look like an authentic Revolutionary War era document, Moore baked it to add patina, burning a hole in its headline, "We the People."
"I made my own quill pen. I made my own ink. I used bull shit as my actual dye. Everything I did had a reason," he said.
The piece, "Where Did the Founders get their Ideas," is part of Moore's National Mythstory, which opened Jan. 10 at the Boise State University Student Union Building gallery.
The show is mostly playful: there's a copper rendering of a sauropod with Abraham Lincoln's head called Emancipatosaurus and a collection of modified dinosaur and monster toys arranged around busts of American historical figures. There are provocative works like the Madison illustration. All point to the idea that American history might not be history at all, but an ongoing battle over who gets to be the bard of the national epic.
One of the most important institutions in the fight for American history is the Texas State Board of Education. With almost 5.3 million students enrolled in its K-12 public school system in 2015-2016, the Lone Star State has the second largest population of students in the U.S. Its local boards of education are typically elected by small numbers of energized voters—and with the backing of high-rolling donors with far-right leanings. Because of the size of Texas' textbook market, its demands to omit, marginalize or recast some areas of study have by and large been adopted by textbook companies.
For decades, the board of education has instructed producers of educational materials to erase or downplay topics like evolution, slavery, the civil rights movement and—significantly for Moore—the secularism of the Founding Fathers. They asked for textbooks to instead play up faith, family life and conservative principles.
Examples abound. McGraw-Hill's United States Government tells students the covenant between God and the Hebrews "influenced the formation of colonial governments and contributed to our constitutional structure," despite evidence to the contrary, including the diaries and letters of the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. In Perfection Learning's Basic Principles of American Government, the 10 Commandments are invoked as inspiration for the Founders and Moses receiving them from God is treated as fact.
The economics of the textbook industry means Texas' version of history has gone nationwide.
"There's this huge impact of a whole generation of children getting this right-wing narrative," Moore said. "The latest round of textbooks, they're actually saying God gave Moses the 10 Commandments as a fact."
The fact-twisting and whitewashing extends to the Founding Fathers themselves, who are presented as heroes in the molds of contemporary Christian conservatives. In textbooks, Jefferson's praise of Christianity is unaccompanied by his critiques of organized religion. Others, including Deists, mainline Protestants, Unitarians, Quakers and Catholics, are depicted as having deep religious sympathies that informed their secular, democratic experiment, rather than skeptics of religion in public life.
For Moore, Texas' outsized influence has created an alternate history that is being taught to millions of schoolchildren. National Mythstory is a counterpoint imagining what primary sources would look like if the America depicted in Lone Star State history textbooks were real, undermining the "mythic past and godlike stature" of the Constitution's framers while remaining neutral in tone. The result is something that walks the line between propaganda and satire while partaking of the power of images to tell stories.
"It's sort of neither, and it's sort of both. I hope it's treading new ground," Moore said.
His strategies vary. The core works of National Mythstory are forged primary sources, but others include watercolors of Jefferson, wood block puppets of Lincoln and a watercolor of Donald Trump—"Join or Die: Quetzalcoatl"—in which a scorpion's body bearing the president-elect's head wrestles with a Meso-American serpent god. The latter is a particular source of pride for the artist, who began working on it almost a year ago, when Trump's campaign was in its infancy.
"Sometimes as an artist you're tuned in a little bit more," Moore said.
National Mythstory began as Moore's MFA project at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where it hung at Brooklyn's First Unitarian Congregational Society amid stained glass windows depicting secular luminaries like Charles Darwin. There, it was a riff on familiar turf, close to sites of Revolutionary War action. In Boise, two pieces not on display at Boise State will eventually appear at the Boise Art Museum 2017 Triennial exhibition beginning Saturday, Feb. 18, during which Moore will be a resident artist.
Until then, it will hang at Boise State as the backdrop of a series of discussions beginning with a Thursday, Jan. 12 artist talk in which Moore will outline National Mythstory with the hope of changing minds about the story of America.
"I don't cover everything, so I'm just covering history and social studies," Moore said. "I'm just concentrating on the founding epic."