Looking for Clementine Hunter's Louisiana

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Some three hours' drive from Baton Rouge, in the northwest corner of Louisiana, lies the curving Cane River, and along it, fields planted with cotton, soy, corn and pecans, worked today by machinery. But when Clementine Hunter, arguably the state's most beloved artist, was born on Hidden Hill Plantation in the 1880s, slavery was an institution of living memory, and most African-Americans, including Clementine and her family, worked as field hands. In the artist's case, she picked cotton on Hidden Hill (which has been renamed Little Eva Plantation) and then, when her family moved, at Melrose Plantation. It was there that, in her 50s, Clementine Hunter picked up a paintbrush and embarked on what became a remarkable career.

I'd long been enthralled by Hunter's work, with its exuberance, astonishing palette and immediacy. While her work now hangs coast-to-coast, including in museums, galleries and private collections in New York, Dallas and Chicago, a good bit of it landed in her home state. But despite having lived in Baton Rouge for 13 years, I'd never actually visited the landscape that inspired it. Earlier this year, after having seen "Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter," a new opera presented by Robert Wilson, at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where I live now, I decided the time had come.

Which is how I found myself in Baton Rouge on a spring morning, with the intention of seeing her work and experiencing the rhythms of rural Louisiana as the artist knew it. So I pointed my car northwest for a roughly 150-mile drive past bayous and swamps, petrochemical plants and fast-food joints, flower-dotted sunlit green fields and fields planted with pecan trees and soy. It was April, and all of Louisiana, it seemed, was in bright bloom.

Expecting my destination to be grand, I drove right past the handsome but by no means gawk-worthy "big house " at Melrose Plantation, which is now a National Historic Landmark and part of the greater Cane River National Heritage Area. It was founded in the 1780s by a freed slave, Marie Therese, but by the time Clementine Hunter, in her midteens, and her family moved there, the plantation, much expanded, also served as an artists' colony.

The idea -- dreamed up by Cammie Henry, the wife of the owner, Joseph Henry -- was that painters and writers, each assigned a separate room, would create works of art surrounded by the labor-intensive cultivation of cotton and pecans. So long as the guests were productive, they could stay as long as they liked.

The story, in brief, is recounted in the Robert Wilson opera: how Clementine Hunter, born into the same work that her enslaved ancestors did, preferred working in the fields over "book learning"; how Miss Cammie, as she was known, then brought her into "the big house" to serve as a cook and washerwoman; how one day when she was cleaning out the quarters of one of the artist guests, she found tubes of paints and created one of her first paintings on a discarded window shade. Finally, and with the encouragement of another of the plantation's guests, she embarked on what became a hugely prolific artistic career, producing some 5,000 to 10,000 works on canvas, bottles, boards, jugs, spittoons, lampshades and pretty much any other surface that appealed to her. Many were originally sold for a few dollars or less, and are impossible to number as sales records weren't kept.

Along the way, Clementine Hunter had seven children -- two by Charles Dupre, a mechanic, with whom, in her own words, she was "just keeping company." When he died in 1914, she had another five by her husband, Emmanuel Hunter, a wood chopper from Melrose. Until her marriage she spoke only Creole French -- she credited Emmanuel with teaching her how to speak "American." Meanwhile, her friend and mentor, François Mignon, a Yankee from New York whom she met when he came to Melrose as a guest (staying on for another three decades or so), became one of her most ardent champions -- so much so that the two are lying side-by-side in the mausoleum that Hunter and Mignon purchased together around the same time she chose her future coffin, with "a heap of angels on it."

Not surprisingly, the plantation has shrunk from its original thousands of acres to a mere six, and its buildings, once filled with the normal messiness of day-to-day life, are museum pieces. I joined a tour, which started under an ancient live oak tree, where the very knowledgeable guide -- a young man born and bred in the area -- rattled off a complete history of the place. We made our way to the cypress-framed two-room Yucca House, a French-Creole cottage that, despite its modest proportions, served as the original family home. Here Miss Cammie's creative guests stayed in simply furnished rooms. Finally we went to the African House, so called because it was built in the early 19th century by slaves of African and Caribbean descent, probably as a storage facility. After learning about cypress and bousillage construction (which involves a mixture of river silt, clay and Spanish moss), we ascended to the second floor to see one of Hunter's crowning masterworks, aptly known as the "African House Murals."

Painted in oils on plywood during the summer of 1955, the nine panels of the murals tell the story of life in the Cane River Valley, its cycles of planting and harvest, of celebration and mourning, as Hunter experienced it.

Like most of Hunter's work, the murals are memory paintings -- painted from the artist's imagination and experiences. They display a sense of playfulness and reverence, and are not intended to be realistic portraits of the landscape and its inhabitants. Depicted here is premechanized cotton culture, replete with field hands; cotton being weighed; a funeral procession moving from a church to the graveyard; washday on the plantation; the pecan harvest; and nightfall with its trip to the local honky-tonk, this last image described by our guide as "drink, dance, get shot."

Among my favorite panels is a bridal scene where the bride is by far the largest figure, followed by the groom, a friend of the marital couple, and finally the preacher, an example of how the artist made those figures who were important to her (in this case, the bride) larger than those whom she deemed insignificant or otherwise uninteresting. I also loved her take on a full-immersion baptism, with its many attendants, including a woman depicted with two faces -- one profile looking right, the other left -- as if the painter were making fun of a two-faced acquaintance, which may well be the case. Despite, or maybe because of, a total lack of perspective, the murals are both instantly accessible and, with their delightful colors and childlike figures, almost hypnotically engaging.

Though she painted from love, and frequently gave her paintings away, soon Hunter started selling her work, mainly to friends and acquaintances, originally for as little as 25 cents or a few dollars. For a tour of paintings inside her own cottage on the Melrose property, she charged 25 cents. If a visitor wanted a photo taken with her, the cost was a dollar.

Needless to say, the price of an original Clementine Hunter has gone up: when I saw her work at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City earlier this year, the prices for the larger pieces were in the $6,000-and-up range, and some of her work has commanded prices many times higher. I continued on to the Big House, which by today's standards is actually rather modest, if graceful, roomy and lovingly kept with a combination of period and original furnishings, including Miss Cammie's extensive library of Louisiana lore, maps, rare manuscripts, diaries and the works of her own guests. But it is again upstairs, in the garçonnière -- the bachelor's quarters -- where things get exciting. Among the 17 pieces arrayed around the room, including four painted-on glass bottles, are five time periods in the artist's development, traceable by the changes in Hunter's signature, which wasn't really a signature at all. Clementine Hunter was illiterate, and while some of her earliest work is signed "Clemence" (probably signed by her friend and supporter James Register), as the years went by her mark became her initials, written back-to-back with a backward "C," then a partial blending of those same two initials, and finally one single, blended mark, somewhat like a Chinese character.

Here are her well-known good and bad angels (the bad ones dressed in red gowns) with their characteristic upward-pointing hair, and one of my own all-time favorites, a huge chicken pulling a cart. The story goes that when asked why her chicken was so large, she answered by saying that "if it were a normal sized chicken it wouldn't be able to pull the cart." In this painting, you can see how thickly the artist applied her paint, sometimes in globs, creating, for example, textured and shadowed loads of cotton. But pretty much all the paintings in this room dazzle by their palette alone: deep reds and yellows; astonishing turquoise-lavender blues; lollipop orange; ebony black; and two paintings of zinnias and others that include zinnias. Everywhere in this artist's work are zinnias, her favorite flower. Though childlike in the rendering, the work transcends itself, becoming not only a record of a way of life that's long since vanished, but also of what must have been Hunter's own joie de vivre, her own love of color and the natural world, and, most of all, what must have been a killer sense of humor. A chicken pulling a cart. What more can I say?

Just this: she was also an accomplished sewer and quilter. One of her quilts adorns a full-tester bed in a room just paces from the garçonnière. Another one is owned by the New Orleans Museum of Art but is not currently on display.

On, then, to Natchitoches, 16 miles away, where the first thing I did was look for one of the few restaurants still serving lunch (it was by then well past 3 in the afternoon) and finally alighted at Papa's Bar and Grill for a world-class turkey sandwich. Natchitoches, billed as the oldest town in Louisiana (founded in 1714), is outlandishly charming, like a miniature distillation of the best bits of New Orleans. It is filled with lovely old inns and B&Bs, not to mention shops and cafes, including the popular lunch joint, Merci Beaucoup on Church Street, with its Cajun and Louisiana cuisine, which sadly was no longer serving by the time I got there. The whole of Natchitoches Parish is filled with historic sites, including Fort St. Jean Baptiste, an alligator park, nature preserves and two other plantations. I took the slow route around the parish, forgoing the highway for the meandering Cane River, past fields that shimmered with a carpeting of yellow wildflowers, flocks of birds, grazing cows, plantations, and old country churches of the type that Clementine Hunter herself painted again and again. It was as if, all of a sudden, I saw with her eyes -- all that shimmering, soft blue Louisiana light, all that enormous heather blue wash of sky.

What she never saw with her own eyes, however, is the modern library on Second Street, where six of her paintings hang on the main circulation floor. Here are her images of a workday; a church funeral; cotton picking and carting; fishing; and women with fancy collars on their dresses in front of a big house, enjoying some kind of social engagement.

The Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, once a favorite of my children, is dedicated to the back end of plantation life, with reconstructed slave cabins, antiquated farm equipment, flatboats and plantation bells. It also has five Clementine Hunter originals, including one of her somber crucifixion scenes, featuring a dark-brown Jesus and a color field of brown-beige, beige-pink and somber blue.

Across from the tall State Capitol that Huey P. Long built stands the Louisiana State Museum, which in my view may well be the most underused first-rate museum anywhere. Yes, there's probably more than you'd want to know about Mardi Gras here, but the rest of the museum, including the second-floor area devoted to the work of Clementine Hunter, rocks. Hunter's preferred canvas was, well, canvas, but she also painted on all kinds of found objects. Four of them, green-glass bottles, are here, covered with pink-and-orange zinnias; another three glass bottles -- one a purple brown, one green and one blue, each with stoppers -- are covered with additional flowers. There are also paintings here from the 1960s through the 1980s, including a marvelous "Saturday Night at the Honky Tonk," a portrayal of Miss Cammie in her flower garden (Miss Cammie herself is painted a light pink, with blue eyes, a blue hat and dress and garden shears) and another of the artist's glorious big chickens.

Hunter painted what she observed, but she also painted what she experienced in her mind, with no interest in capturing the flow of time the way a movie or novel would, but rather, as memory itself would: All at once, without regard to what would normally be considered chronology. A man is killed by a bullet and lying on the ground bleeding outside a juke joint at the same moment that the bullet that kills him is being shot out of a gun and hanging in the air. Everything is painted straight on, including indoor scenes that she views as if with X-ray vision, allowing her simply to remove what would be the front of a building so we too can see what's going on inside. And most, if not all of it, is joyous, leading to the question: was the artist, who picked cotton for decades and never left the state of Louisiana -- not even when she was invited by Jimmy Carter to the White House -- happy? There's no reason to think she wasn't.

Though I was hoping to make stops at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, and the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, neither had any of their Hunters on display, so I made the trek to a homely corner of Baton Rouge, at the intersection (trust me on this) of Airline Highway and Florida Boulevard. There, in a stucco building, is Gilley's Gallery, an amalgam of fine Louisiana prints, antique maps, botanicals and out-of-this-world outsider, folk and primitive art. Included are the works of Hunter, whom Shelby Gilley, founder of the gallery who died in 2010, started promoting in the 1970s. Today the gallery is run by his son Eric Gilley, with 12 pieces off the entrance, and several other pieces upstairs. These are among some of the artist's latest works, made when she was in her late 90s, and they combine her painterly vocabulary (trees, animals, flowers) with photographs of some of her admirers, as well as, in one case, a newspaper clipping of "the cotton crucifixion," with a black Christ on a white cross with two crosses on either side, one of Hunter's own works. Apparently, if only rarely, Hunter's supporters would bring her blank canvases with their family photos already affixed to them, and she would take it from there. Who knew?

Who knew, indeed, that the $5 and $10 primitive paintings that some of my Baton Rouge friends were given as children would now be worth thousands and owned by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Joan Rivers, not to mention many public collections, including the Dallas Museum of Art. That an illiterate fieldhand born two decades after the Civil War would not only record a way of life that she watched disappear, but also spawn a new appreciation for the work of self-taught artists? It strikes me that only someone who herself was overflowing with life and humor would say about herself: "I'm not an artist, you know, I just paint by heart," and about her own more abstract work, commissioned in the 1960s: "Those things make my head swell."

But then again, when I moved to Baton Rouge in 1995, after having spent my life on the East Coast, my own head swelled, or perhaps spun would be a better word, as I had yet to learn how to take in my new, deeply religious Southern world. But by gazing long enough at the joyous and astonishing art of Clementine Hunter, I eventually grew a better set of eyes.

IF YOU GO

Melrose Plantation (3533 Highway 119, Melrose; 318-379-0055; aphnatchitoches.net) is closed Mondays; entry, $10.

Natchitoches Parish Library (450 Second Street, Natchitoches; 318-357-3280).

The Rural Life Museum (4560 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge; 225-765-2437, appl027.lsu.edu/rlm/rurallifeweb.nsf/index); admission is $7.

Gilley's Gallery (8750 Florida Boulevard, Baton Rouge, 225-922-9225; gilleysgallery.com).

The Louisiana State Museum (660 North Fourth Street, Baton Rouge, 225-342-5428; crt.state.la.us/museum) is closed Sunday and Monday; free admission.

There are several nice bed-and-breakfast inns in Natchitoches. One of them is Sweet Cane Inn (926 Washington Street, 225-226-8820; sweetcaneinn.com), with seven rooms decorated in variations of the Old South, and a full breakfast. Prices are $135 to $225 during the week, and $145 to $235 on weekends.

JENNIFER MOSES is a writer and painter. Her most recent book is "Visiting Hours" (Fomite Press), a novel-in-stories set in Baton Rouge.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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