Monday, January 25, 2010

“A WALK ON WATER”…Don Thornton




On my shelf of books written by Louisiana writers are several books by Don Thornton, a good friend, now deceased, who lived across the road in a neighboring subdivision. I have written several profiles of Don that appeared in regional magazines, and when I think about the time I was writing the articles, I remember the wonderful interviews I had with him. He died of cancer a few years ago and left a formidable legacy of paintings, sculptures, book illustrations, and poetry. His deepest love, perhaps, was his career in teaching gifted and talented children in St. Martin Parish. He published at least seven books showcasing the children’s talents and told me that kids were his real friends because he was inspired by their innocence and excitement about discoveries.

I met Don in the 80’s when he began saying that writing had become first in his career as an artist. He started writing poetry when he was ten years old, and by the time we met, he claimed that poetry had won out over the brush. His work appeared in 26 literary publications and four major anthologies of poetry, and he illustrated poetry for eleven publications. He produced most of his work in a geodesic dome he built himself (he was also a building contractor) in his backyard. “My poetry reflects my engagement with philosophical questions, love of scientific inquiry, and concern with the human condition,” he said.

Don called himself a “sharecropper’s son” who overcame many obstacles to become educated, receiving a Master’s degree in Art from LSU. He later exhibited his paintings and sculpture all over the world, including the Houston Contemporary Art Museum. He also designed sets for the Houston ballet. Don loved the outdoors and co-owned a fishing camp at Dulac, Louisiana, from which he would set out for Last Island to fish for Gulf catches. We always talked about making a trip to Last Island with him and his wife Suzy as I was fascinated by the devastating hurricane that leveled everything on the Island during the 1800’s. However, we couldn’t coordinate work schedules to avoid the mosquito season (which is always in Louisiana), and I still hope to make that trip.

I have one of Don’s paintings of the chenier country that I love, but I also treasure his books of poetry. In 1986, when he was working on A WALK ON WATER, Don called me to come over to share a catfish meal with him and Suzy so we could preview the book. I took along my grandson Martin who was seven at the time. While Don fried the fish, he noticed Martin getting restless and stopped mid-fry to unearth a large sheet of white newsprint, a set of poster paints, and a brush for Martin to entertain himself, then returned to his cooking. He was like that – very caring about children and fierce about them living up to their potential. That fierceness and passion for children’s education inspired respect for him in the teaching world. He was beloved by children and teen-agers who attended public schools in several Louisiana parishes.

Don once touted New Iberia as a place steamy with ideas. He appreciated the richness of coastal history and the Cajun character. I’m including a few of his wry, short poems from A WALK ON WATER, his poetry book in which he wrote about “the little things made precious.” Of them, he wrote “the poems articulate a willingness to share this planet with all other life forms….observations of a tree frog or a roach are given due respect in a non-hierarchical account.” A visit with Don always inspired me to keep writing, and I miss him.

PELICAN

Sit there full bellied
with your face hanging down,
a tired old Shriner
waiting out God.

PORPOISE

You unzipped the sea
to expose yourself
in your leap for joy.

ARMADILLO

Grubbing accordion,
hairy little tank with ears,
you uproot buried memories.

PALMETTO

Oh, you know
the palmetto,
a cabbage palm,
a sharecropper’s fan.
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