Sunday, January 11, 2009

A NEW IBERIA RENAISSANCE WOMAN

Each time I return to New Iberia for a few months after a sojourn in Sewanee, I seem to meet up several times at the grocery with a friend who is a folk artist here in New Iberia. We usually stand in the aisle or parking lot of the grocery and stop traffic because we converse such a long time. The friend’s name is Jean Wattigny, and I wrote a profile about her when I was associate editor for “Acadiana Lifestyle,” referencing her as a Renaissance woman because she has diverse artistic gifts that would challenge any accomplished creative person.

Jean has taught gifted and talented students in Iberia Parish School system, including Anderson Jr. High, students with learning disabilities in the Plantation Education Program, Inc. and at Our Lady of Fatima School in Lafayette. She established a tutorial program for children with disabilities called “The Beacon School” at Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cade, St. Thomas More in Lafayette, and The Academy of the Sacred Heart at Grand Coteau, Louisiana. In the Gifted and Talented Program of Iberia Parish Schools, Jean taught students how to write and refers to that experience as one in which she took students “out of chains” since many of them had been paralyzed by their inability to write before they came to her.

When I wrote my book THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, PROFILE OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN, Jean did a preliminary drawing for the cover which I decided not to use because it had many colors in it and the cover would have cost more to reproduce than a two-color one. I left the picture at Sewanee so I can’t reproduce it here for readers, but it shows a whimsical imagination busy with quaint characterizations of women at work. Jean also painted, for me, cartoon-like designs on a wooden stool that depict me as someone who performed a juggling act with all the jobs I was carrying out a few years ago. In my bedroom here in New Iberia, I’ve placed atop this stool Raggedy Ann, Jimmy Bear, and two other stuffed bears to remind me that I’m almost 74 and had better start playing a little.

One of my favorites among Jean’s paintings is something called “Catahoula Cows,” which she first rendered as a poem that didn’t satisfy her creative impulses. In the poem, she attempted to capture a feeling she had one summer when she was pregnant with one of her three daughters. She likened herself to a Catahoula cow (at Catahoula, LA) lying in the sun, too tired to even flick away the flies. After struggling with the medium of poetry, she went to her easel and began painting the droll picture that now hangs in her old-fashioned kitchen, a large room decorated with rich woods and hanging copper pots.

Another colorful painting, “We Can Fly,” is reminiscent of Chagall and depicts her family flying away while she holds onto the house in which they live. All of Jean’s art reflects two aspects of her personality: humor and a determination to understand the inner self. “The mystery of artistic ideas – where they come from – is fascinating,” she says. Most of her work is done in oils, expressionist style, and show her deepest emotions about people and events in her life. She claims that she didn’t know what she was doing in art until she joined the Friends of Jung and figured out that she was expressing her feelings. Sometimes she expresses her feelings in poetry and quotes Wordsworth to explain the emotion: “Poetry is the special feeling remembered.”

Jean lives in a restored Greek Revival home built in 1852, prior to the Civil War. It is made of cypress that had been aged for a year and was designed and constructed by slaves. Jean’s husband Jerry built some of the furniture in the old home. The two-story mansion has floors made of wide board heart-of-pine and is furnished with Louisiana antiques, primitives, and family heirlooms. The Wattignys once ran a bed and breakfast and entertained guests from all over the world in their elegant home.

Jean says that in her teaching she has never taught the same thing two years in a row and believes that variety is an important part of good teaching. She confesses that she changes interests a lot but never really gives up anything. She might not continue the interest as a vocation but keeps it and continues to grow by pursuing that particular interest along with new creative work. Needless to say, when I encounter Jean in the grocery, I know that I’m about to be immersed in an adventure that expresses the latest interest in her full and varied life --she IS an artistic experience!
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