Monday, February 1, 2010

REVISITING CLEMENTINE HUNTER



Last Friday night following the poetry reading at A&E Gallery with Darrell Bourque, Poet Laureate of Louisiana, and Bonny McDonald, a vivacious gypsy poet performer, Margaret and Jeff Simon treated us to a late dinner at Clementine’s Restaurant on Main Street. The poetry reading, critiqued by many people in the audience as “magical,” had created a natural high for the three of us because we had connected so well with each other and the audience.  I was proud to be in “The Berry,” as people call New Iberia, participating in an inspiring poetry event.

 As we sat around the table at Clementine’s and when our excitement had abated, the conversation turned to Clementine Hunter (now deceased).  Darrell, who owns several of the paintings rendered by this famous African-American artist who lived near Natchitoches, Louisiana, asked me about the essay I wrote about her in THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, Memorable Louisiana Women. I told Darrell that the book was out of print, so we began to trade anecdotes about Clementine, including the one I told about interviewing Clementine and the retort she made to my question, “Why did you paint that pig so big in the foreground of one of your pictures?” She just looked at me and said proudly, “Because it’s MY pig!”

This morning as I recalled the late night conversation at Clementine’s Restaurant, I thought about publishing parts of the essay about Clementine Hunter for those readers who have never read THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL. I’ll publish it in installments, including the introductory interview I had with Clementine one summer day in 1983. Here’s the introduction to the essay derived from the interview:

“She’ll talk to you if you just drive up, but if you telephone her, she gets too excited and probably won’t see you,” Ann Hillis, caretaker of Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana, advised me when I told her I wanted to interview the artist Clementine Hunter for a book I was writing. Even that surprise attack on Clementine almost proved to be futile.

From Melrose Plantation, a friend and I travelled north on a narrow blacktop road along the eastern side of the Cane River and made a left turn onto a clay road pocked with holes, finally arriving at a trailer across the road from Cane River where Clementine lives. She was sitting on a screen porch attached to the trailer, looking out cautiously. Next to the trailer at the end of the road was her daughter’s house, a white frame structure. A fence blocked the end of the dirt road to cars, but an opening allowed passage to a tall, newly-constructed slide which young people were using to splash into the Cane River. As we stopped in front of the trailer, cars carrying white teenagers parked behind us. The teenagers got out and ran toward the river, oblivious of the famous African-American artist sitting on the porch (who was mutually ignoring them). Red pigs crossed the dirt road from a mud hole out of sight behind Clementine’s daughter’s house. They slid under a gate and sauntered to their pen on the river side of the road.

I recognized Clementine from pictures I had seen of her wearing the heavy black wig. At first she balked at being interviewed. I hadn’t anticipated that response. All the articles I had read about her had indicated that she was an open person, ready to talk about her picture stories. I walked up to the fence surrounding her trailer, peered over the aluminum gate, and rested my hands on the top. “I’d like to talk to you,” I said. “I want to put you in a book about famous Louisiana women.” She retorted, “I don’t know that I want to be in it.” I just stood there, leaning on the gate in the sun, until she finally said, “Well, come on in.” I fumbled with the latch as the end of the chain encircling the gates post several minutes before she sent her great-granddaughter, a young girl about eight or nine years old, to usher me indoors.

Clementine agreed to talk to me if I “would pay her something,” because she had been ill and she “got tired when she talked very long.” We sat in lawn chairs facing one another like combatants, and I shuffled my feet on the bare concrete floor of the porch, sensing that she wished people wouldn’t impose themselves and their idea of fame on her, asking questions she was tired of answering. She granted me a thirty-minute audience and sat, inscrutable as a Buddha, two gold eye teeth gleaming in the front of her mouth in an irregular smile and her ebony eyes snapping at me. She wore a red print apron over a blue dress with yellow flowers, an expensive-looking cotton dress which contrasted sharply with my faded Levis. Her legs were encased in long black socks and were as thin as a Louisiana heron’s. I glanced at the plastic flowers and plaster ceramic figurines of animals on a shelf in a far corner while she eyed me and my friend who had come with me, carefully turning her canvasses toward the side of a table so we couldn’t see her drawings. There was no evidence of wealth in her environment, although I had learned that she got $500 for her paintings and sold them as fast as she could find strength to paint them.

When I left, after paying for her effort, I felt a little embarrassed, but later decided that Clementine had been real. She didn’t regard her work as anything that possessed particular meaning. She was as unsophisticated as her paintings and, probably, would never vest art or thought or people with much meaning. Happenings were happenings, imaginings were imaginings, art was “just something that comes into my head, then I sit down and make my mark.”

This is just the introduction to the original essay, and several more blogs about Clementine will appear this week. The photograph was published by permission of B.A. Cohen, photographer, Natchez, Louisiana, and appears in THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL. 
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