Saturday, February 28, 2015

Clementine Hunter, Folk Artist

The book caught my eye the minute I walked into the children's section of the Harlem library, two years ago this month -- Black History Month.

Who was Clementine Hunter? The African American woman on the cover intrigued me. There was a directness to her stare, yet kindness in her eyes, humility in the way she cradled a collection of paintbrushes in her hands. Like she was proud, but uneasy with the attention.

When I removed the book from the shelf, settled into a child-size chair and started reading, I had no idea that Clementine would eventually lead me to Melrose Plantation in Louisiana.
She lived 85 of her 100 years (1888-1988) on the grounds of  Melrose, about 25 miles from Natchitoches, working as a manual laborer - picking cotton, harvesting pecans, cleaning, washing, cooking. Similar work that her Grandmother Idole had done, as a slave. She attended school for only ten days, and never learned to read or write.

Clementine had lived half her life before she painted her first picture on a window shade, using brushes and tubes of paint discarded by an artist staying at Melrose. Another guest at the plantation, Frances Mignon, encouraged her to paint more. For the next fifty years, she produced between four and five thousand paintings, on whatever she could find - bottles, cardboard, brown paper bags, roofing shingles, canvas. She drew what was in her memory.

The artist's first exhibit was on her porch and clothesline. The sign on the front of her house said,

C. Hunter
Paintings for Sale 

She sold her first paintings for 25 cents.

As the years passed, Mignon helped Clementine promote and sell her work. Her reputation as a folk artist grew, and her paintings were displayed in galleries miles from her front porch and clothesline. Today they can be found in museums and galleries all over the United States and sell for thousands, up to tens of thousands, of dollars. 

I ordered a copy of Art From Her Heart and placed it, cover-side out, on our bookshelf so I could see Clementine each time I sat down to write. A woman who didn't start painting to become wealthy, lauded, or to have a United States' president invite her to the White House. 
She painted because it was in her to do it.    

A year and half later, I was mapping my trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to visit the 49th labyrinth on my 50-state journey and interview its creator. I looked up at Clementine and wondered, "How far away is Melrose from Baton Rouge?" I had read that the plantation is now a National Historic Landmark and that several of Clementine's paintings are on display. "Two hours and thirty-two minutes," Google responded.

The morning of June 13, 2014, I drove along curvy Louisiana back roads from Natchitoches to Melrose, arriving fifteen minutes before the plantation opened. The day's first visitor, I parked in the dirt lot beside the gated entrance, got out and walked under huge pecan trees - ones from which Clementine had likely gathered sacks full of nuts. I joined the first tour and listened politely as the guide explained the plantation's history, eager for him to get to Clementine's part. As we stood on the upstairs porch, he walked over to a door, placed his hand on the knob and said that we were about to enter a room in which some of her paintings were displayed. "No photos, please," he added.

I walked in the sunlit room and instantly felt like I was surrounded by a rainbow. Clementine's bright colors sparkled, pure and honest, directly from their tubes onto canvas and bottle. The scenes of  every day life - picking cotton, getting married, playing cards - began telling their stories, as if delighted to have the door opened, new faces to greet. And the zinnias… purple, orange, white, yellow, red!

Without photos in my camera, I wanted something to take away with me, a reminder of the joy I experienced in the midst of Clementine's art. I stopped at the gift shop. Posters, muted notecards, nothing that felt real. Until… I spotted an original painting perched on a window ledge. Yellow zinnias in a red pot.

"Who painted this?" I asked the clerk.

"Clementine Hunter's grandson, James. She taught him how to paint," she answered.

"I'll take it!" I said, and gently took it off the ledge.





Three of Clementine's paintings shown in Art From Her Heart by Kathy Whitehead.

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