Friday, February 5, 2010

REVISITING CLEMENTINE HUNTER CONTINUED…Installment #3

This is the third installment of the essay I wrote for THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN back in 1984, reprinted for those who have shown an interest in the life and work of the famous Louisiana folk artist, Clementine Hunter.

“After discovering Alberta Kinsey’s brushes and paint and launching her career as a folk artist, Clementine’s clientele broadened from local African-American and white people, who would snatch up her paintings as fast as she painted them, to wealthy patrons who came from other parts of Louisiana to buy her work. Her own appraisal of her painting was a simple “I guess it’ll do.” Clementine began selling her paintings for twenty-five cents each and soon garnered $100 for a picture when the demand for her work accelerated.

By the mid-1950’s, Clementine’s paintings were drawing national attention, and she was completing small pictures at the rate of one every two days. The New Orleans Museum featured her work in the first one-woman showing it had ever sponsored for an African-American person. Look magazine featured a lengthy story about her, and Northwestern State University at Natchitoches held a hometown exhibit of her paintings. Her “marks” began selling throughout the United States and Europe.

Although Clementine’s work never reached a point beyond “it’ll do” for her, she began to acknowledge the attention shown her. She posted a sign in the front yard of her cabin at Melrose Plantation, which read: “50 Cents A Look.” She placed her paintings against a fence at Melrose and sold them alongside watermelons. She also began to complain about the stream of curious white people who veered off Louisiana Highway 1 to Melrose to take a look at her.

In 1976, Clementine’s work received worldwide recognition when her Threshing Pecans painting was chosen as a UNICEF calendar selection. In this painting, the nuts seem to fall from the trees without much help from the pickers.

Clementine remained illiterate and uninterested in learning to read and write. She did not attend any of her exhibitions and refused to leave Natchitoches Parish. “I ain’t interested, I don’t travel,” she said adamantly. Her works have been exhibited in the New York State Historical Society Collection, in the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, and in a travelling exhibit of The Black American Artist, 1750-1950 that visited Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Dallas. Three of her paintings, Sunday Church, The Wedding, and Nativity Scene appeared in Forever Free: An Exhibit of Art by African-American Women, 1862-1980 which was shown in Illinois, Nebraska, Alabama, South Carolina, Maryland,and Indiana during 1980. The Louisiana State Library in Baton Rouge, Louisiana owns a collection of Clementine’s work, as do other parish libraries in her home state. Although the work of some folk artists often flourishes only until the paint dries on their canvasses, Clementine’s paintings continue to fascinate the art world.

Clementine produced flat, two-dimensional images and patterns of bright, vital colors. Her approach was honest and direct, and the paintings have an informal effect. Foreground figures loom smaller than background figures; trees, cotton bales, and figures hover suspended in the air; flowers are often larger than houses. One of her impressionist paintings features patches of colored blocks, interrupted by streaks of other colors. Although Clementine has never flown, she explained this work as Cane River From the Air. She discarded the impressionistic approach to art early because she claimed, “it nearly drove me crazy.”

Clementine understood little about fame. As she was illiterate and had no way to evaluate art and refused to travel to view other art, she remained a purist, undisturbed by competition. When I interviewed her, she was 98 and had completed over 4,000 pictures. She continued to “make her mark” but complained of ill health and sometimes slept until 11 a.m. Visitors often found her “just resting” and looking out at the Cane River flowing slowly by, across the road from her trailer where she lived with her sister Rosa.”
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