Thursday, February 25, 2010


This week, I initiated a new theme about New Orleans books, ahead of schedule, for the Fortnightly Literary Club here in New Iberia with a review of Lyle Saxon, one of Louisiana’s under-sung writers and a leader in the preservation of buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Saxon gained popularity as a chronicler of the history and culture of Louisiana and was a reporter and feature writer for “The Times Picayune” and “The New Orleans Item” during the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. One of his many projects included the Federal Writers' Project created by Franklin Roosevelt, a project to support and preserve the arts. The Project elicited a lot of criticism by those who felt that the U. S. defense program needed funds that were used to promote the artists and writers. Would that such a project existed today! A country is diminished spiritually when it doesn’t support artists and writers, in my opinion.

The Federal Writers' Project began in 1935 and ended in 1939 because of opposition to support of The Arts, but continued to function in some states throughout the 40’s. The Project attracted 300 writers from 24 states who produced valuable oral histories, books, and other papers documenting the social and economic life of families and communities during the 30’s, following the Great Depression.

The most notable books produced by the WPA Writing Project were the 48 state guides to America, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, which were compiled by writers in the Project and published by individual states. The guidebooks covered the history and culture of all the states, photographs and automobile tours of each state’s principal attractions. A valuable component of the Writing Project included slave narratives based on the life experiences of former slaves, complete with photographs.

Lyle Saxon produced THE NEW ORLEANS CITY GUIDE, THE LOUISIANA GUIDE, and GUMBO YA-YA: A COLLECTION OF LOUISIANA FOLK TALES while serving as State Project Director for Louisiana. His work stands alongside notables such as John Steinbeck, Frank Yerby, John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, May Swenson, and a stellar group of other American writers. The major goal of the Federal Writers’ Project was to provide employment, but the Project published many histories of people throughout the United States and in regions that had been previously unexplored.

For those readers who haven’t read Saxon’s books about Louisiana, there are four outstanding books, which have been reprinted by Pelican Press in New Orleans: FATHER MISSISSIPPI, FABULOUS NEW ORLEANS, OLD LOUISIANA, and LAFITTE THE PIRATE. Many of Saxon’s biographers say he “created people,” in that he took in and encouraged anyone who possessed even a small talent for art or writing. I might add that in addition to giving them a place to stay, he provided bourbon and good food so that he was always entertaining hordes of people. Some biographers say that he was a better raconteur than writer; however, I read and re-read all of his books and regard him as a superb journalist and non-fiction writer.

Saxon was a close friend of Weeks Hall, The Master of the Shadows here in New Iberia, and made visits to his “cousin,” as he called Hall since Hall had provided blood for an emergency transfusion when Saxon developed appendicitis. Saxon was also a frequent guest at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches where Miss Cammie Henry provided a cabin and meals, gratis, provided that he would produce a work of art. Saxon’s restored 18th century cabin on the grounds of Melrose is still a major tourist attraction at the old plantation. He wrote CHILDREN OF STRANGERS, his only novel, while sojourning at Melrose. Saxon is a character in the essay I wrote about Miss Cammie Henry in my book about Louisiana women, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL

Friday, February 19, 2010


My cousin Johnnie Daniel writes feature stories and covers Town Council meetings for a small newspaper in southeast Louisiana. He also raises money, through private appeals, for dying children, athletes, handicapped, and disenfranchised people. Now in his late 40’s, Johnnie became paraplegic at 18 when he slid into home base at a local baseball game and became paralyzed from the waist down. He types with a pencil strapped to his right hand and writes warm human-interest features that reflect his strength of character and endurance, and he's an inspiration to all of us who call him kin.

Johnnie and I correspond with each other through e-mail, and I think about him when I have fleeting bouts of acedia and encounter so-called “victims” whose situations in this life have really given them little to grouse about.

Johnnie’s latest feature story for his hometown newspaper centered on three-year old Adrianna Cavanaugh who died of neuroblastoma after a year-long bout with the disease. Johnnie helped raise money so that her parents could have precious time to be at their daughter’s side without worrying about financial burdens. Johnnie attended many of the candle light vigils for Adrianna, and the editor of his newspaper, “The Era Leader,” requested that he write a feature about Adrianna, which was published a few days before she died. “It was the hardest story I ever wrote,” Johnnie said. He had followed Adrianna throughout the year and, like others, had hoped that she would recover. At one point in her treatments at hospitals in the East, Adrianna’s disease went into remission… but the relief was short-lived. She was brought home in a Learjet to spend time with a loving community in Franklinton, Louisiana.

Johnnie has one of those compassionate hearts that has been educated by tragedy, and his life is a lesson to those who blame the world and other people for their life situations. He smiles, jokes with visitors, takes photographs of his nieces celebrating their birthdays, writes articles, reads, sends out appeals, and travels to Tennessee in the summer. Like a good Louisiana sports fan, he follows the Saints, attends Tiger football and basketball games, and still supports the great American game of baseball.

As Johnnie’s cousin, I’m prejudiced in his behalf, but I think he hits a home run every day of his life, if you’ll pardon my sentiment. When I encounter people who, because of self absorption and acedia, don’t even step up to bat, I thank God for all the Johnnies who know the power and strength of intentionality and who vow to become contributing persons. And I won’t even say “despite,” because Johnnie doesn’t acknowledge the existence of that word.


The other day, a feature writer for “The Daily Iberian” here in New Iberia, Louisiana, called me for information about the Anglican way to observe Lent. It was one of those surprise interviews. The writer hadn’t found the rector of Epiphany in his office, so he called me, Epiphany’s retired deacon.  I didn’t have all of my ducks in a row, but I managed to convey that Lent was a time to be what God wants us to be, not a time of what we want from Him. As Evelyn Underhill, a great Anglican mystic, wrote in “The Light of Christ,” “so all we do must be grounded in worship. First, lift up our eyes to the hills, then turn to our own potato field and lightly fork in the manure….”

Underhill was that kind of writer – just plain earthy. However, she put a lot of emphasis on the theology of renunciation and the evangelical counsels – Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience during the Lenten season. Evelyn lived in London during the mid-20th century and spent much of her time giving retreats – at Moreton, St. Leonard’s, Glastonbury, Canterbury, etc. However, Pleshey House was the first retreat house she knew and loved. It was a place known as “The Holy Land,” and was built on the site of a college of nine chaplains, two clerks, and two choristers, a place where the spiritual life had been lived fully. Then it became a convent and, finally, was used as the retreat house where Underhill prayed and worshipped. Pleshey was steeped in prayer and adoration.

When Evelyn held retreats at Pleshey House, she often presented reproductions of great paintings, which she placed on the porch and used to illustrate her addresses. In those addresses, she taught that retreats should be like experiences of the mountains – “a convicting and purifying message of holiness and sacrifice and love.”

However, she also held retreats in which she focused on Christian discipline and the season of Lent. Her Lenten Rule was simple, and she divided it into Bodily Comforts, Mental Comforts, Almsgiving, and Prayer. Many practices under the heading of Bodily Comforts are now dated; e.g., “reduce the use of hot water bottles,” but more of those disciplines involved reduction of excesses we’re guilty of practicing today. She listed them as cigarettes, chocolates, sweets, after dinner coffee, cocktails, sherry, bath salts, and bath powder. In other words, sensual pleasures! She advised a five minute limit on hot baths (ouch), no lounging, and suggested deliberately choosing an uncomfortable chair. “Do not linger in bed but get up at once when called,” (if you have someone to call you!) she wrote, “and no new clothes until Easter.” She also advocated giving up novel reading, films, and plays, and reading in bed. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch!! However, she added, “those who cannot relinquish any of these things for the whole of Lent might at least do so on Wednesdays and Fridays and in Holy Week.”

All of this sacrifice was followed by almsgiving and prayer. Underhill advocated that people should especially pray for peace at noon, for our enemies, and for the making of a just and Christian peace. She was definitely a woman who lived ahead of her time. Underhill became an amateur botanist, was a lover of art and architecture, and, of course, a writer of theological and spiritual books that spoke as loudly for the Anglican church as the renowned C.S. Lewis, Anglicanism’s great Christian apologist.

Evelyn Underhill was an old-fashioned girl who took her Lent seriously…but simply. Re-reading “The Light of Christ “during this holy season is a “must” for me. She wrote: “Now turn and look at ourselves, our own lives, in the light of this revelation of the Charity of God. What courage, what humility, what absolute self-giving is required of us if we are to be the channels through which that mysterious light is to be poured out on other men…” My favorite passage in her “Fruits of the Spirit,” concludes with the words: “The Fruit of the Spirit is Joy,” says St. Paul. “The rest counts as dung…”

For more reading by Evelyn Underhill, try “The Fruits of the Spirit,” “Light of Christ,” “Abba,” and “The School of Charity.” 

Monday, February 15, 2010


This morning when I read Secretary of State Clinton’s words about Iran moving toward becoming a military dictatorship and the President of this country ignoring the needs of his people, I thought about the famous Iranian poet Sa’Di. One of the poems I read at the recent poetry reading with Darrell Bourque, Louisiana poet laureate, and performing artist Bonnie McDonald, centered on Sa’Di and his ideals. He was always chiding the kings of Persia to show justice and equity and penned 1300 pages of ethical verse, extolling moral excellence. He also wrote that we were all members one of another and that when one member was in pain and discomfort, other members would also be deprived of ease and security. I’m sure he’d weep over the lack of justice and equity evidenced in the recent activities of the President of Iran and his Revolutionary Guard.

Ironically, references to the geography of Iran appeared in my sermon yesterday when I was explaining The Transfiguration of Christ. I quoted from an unfinished manuscript that will never be completed entitled THE PARADISE OF CHILDHOOD. The passage concerned a peak experience or moment of transformation that occurred within me while I lived in Iran during the reign of the Shahanshah in the early 70’s. I think it’s worthy of publication here.

“I thought of the rare times we’re captured, unreasonably, by a sudden peak moment in anticipation of something unknown to come. These moments signal a corner we turn, a jolt forward into new life that we know will be good but we don’t know why. The mind crowds out everything learned, everything that has trapped us for years, and some rapture of unknown source floods out reason. The feeling is that the truth and the reality beyond are about to be discovered. At such times we may receive revelations, meet God.” That was written to describe a moment in time when I was encamped in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, between the outlets of two great rivers, the Karaj and the Jaji Rud near Tehran. This is a city of many foothill oases in Iran, where one rarely loses sight of rugged mountain peaks, and every oasis is a green paradise compared with surrounding wasteland, as Iran is largely desert.

“We were near Shimiran, a place of pleasant pools and shady parks, where a sense of spaciousness and peace prevailed, away from the noisy traffic on Pahlavi Avenue. We see this avenue on television, often watch angry people shaking their fists at the camera and revolting against the government that Clinton describes as moving toward a military dictatorship. Pahlavi, even then, was a busy avenue where a cacophony of sound persisted.

“However, In Shimiran, peacefulness prevailed. That peak moment in time that came to me followed a morning prayer service at first light, and first light in Iran seemed to come, in the summer, at 4 a.m. The light in Iran was always lighter than light to me, perhaps because of so many cloudless days. I can only describe the peak moment following that service in the manner I just quoted from my manuscript. It was a glimpse of The Transfiguration, oddly enough in this Islamic country, something that allowed my personhood to become a fullness we call communion with God. Some have called it a time when the tyranny of sin and death are destroyed. I had no feeling that I was being drawn to the Islamic religion. Actually, in that moment, Christ’s transforming presence became the form of God’s life in the world and it offered to me an avenue of renewal for a mission in Christ…”

As I thought of Sa’Di this morning, I prayed that the people in Iran, who revere poetry, even the illiterate quoting it freely, will continue to absorb the words of their great poet and oppose the injustice and inequity that reside in the hearts of those who are moving toward the oppression of people that Sa’Di abhorred. 

Friday, February 12, 2010


We are the butt of many friends’ jokes today. Every November, when we decide to leave The Mountain and head to Louisiana, we tell Sewanee, TN friends that we’re going home to get warm, and when we arrive in Louisiana, we declare that we came to New Iberia where the climate is temperate in the winter. Ha! This morning, as I sat at my desk overlooking the back yard, I saw these white things falling through the oak branches. A moment later, I realized that the falling things were snow flakes! In fact, this winter, Louisiana has experienced many 20 and 30 degree days that disqualify it as a state in which to seek refuge from winter storms.

I recall traveling to Virginia one November when the driver, originally from Florida, turned on the windshield wipers and asked, “What are those bugs that keep flying against the windshield?” My winter in Maine years ago made an indelible impression on me, and I realized that the blur of white objects hitting the windshield wasn’t a swarm of strange insects–it was snow. At least I had a bit more savvy about snowflakes than the Floridian! However, that was “business as usual” in Virginia, and snowfall during February in Louisiana makes me rethink my choice of a winter retreat. Perhaps we should depart for Cairo, Egypt where the skies are clear, the temperature is 79 degrees, and a light wind is blowing today.

During these cold winter days, people seek various ways to keep warm–wood fires in the fireplace, hot tea and hot chocolate, or, ahem, they partake of hearty draughts of alcohol. An announcement on the “Episcopal Life Online” debunks the latter method of keeping warm. It seems that Benedictine monks in the Devonshire hills of southern England are being chastised by a Scottish bishop for producing a wine with high alcohol content because the wine has become notorious for “wrecking the hoose juice” in Scotland. One in ten of the crime reports in Scotland involve violence inspired (?) by this strange wine. I hope this announcement won’t encourage exports of the “wrecking juice” to America because we don’t need added anti-social behavior on our shores. Hopefully, when cold weather strikes, we’ll put more logs on the fire and forget about the brew.

As I looked out at the snow falling, I thought again about my newest book, THE MAINE EVENT, which will be published soon. A passage from this book describes the landscape of bounteous snowfall in wilderness country:

“The highway to New Brunswick led us up steep hills bordered by a wilderness so dense that I felt as though we were traveling into a wood that would swallow us up any moment, and we’d be unable to turn back. Thirty-two inches of snow had fallen in Aroostook County, and the tall snow mounds heaped there by snow plows edged the highway. I wrote about their height (which measured as high as telephone poles) in letters to my mother and was accused of exaggerating the description of snowfall. Mrs. Sprague, an older woman who was the only native of Aroostook County living in my neighborhood, told me that only a decade ago, before the county replaced them with snow plows, snow rollers packed snow on the roads so cars could be driven on them during the winter. Rivers in Aroostook County froze, but old-timers in Limestone told us we could anticipate some January thaws when a mock Spring of low, 40-degree temperatures would cause some melting…”

As I conclude this blog, the white flakes have dissipated, and I view a typical Louisiana scene–soggy ground and standing pools of water!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Yesterday, I wrote about winter weather and included information about a new book I’ve written entitled THE MAINE EVENT. I spent some time during the day reflecting on the icy winter I sojourned in the Far North during the 50’s. I also received a comment on my blog from a reader in Aroostook County who thanked me for giving Aroostook County “honorary mention,” even if I did complain about the winter we spent there. During my winter in Maine, I wished that I had possessed the wherewithal to travel farther south to visit the home of Sarah Orne Jewett, one of my favorite writers who lived near South Berwick, Maine, a seacoast town on the border of New Hampshire.  She captured the scenery and the rural people of Maine in a book entitled THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS, which is a novella that doesn’t have much of a plot; however, it speaks to my memories of the landscape and people in Maine during a particularly bitter winter.

Another facet of Sarah Jewett’s life that fascinated me was her conversion to the Anglican religion in 1871 and which led to some forays into the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed that God “was present in innumerable, joined forms…” (whatever that means to those who aren’t theologians). Jewett had a deep interest in nature, and though she had rheumatoid arthritis, she was a great walker, tramping throughout the Maine countryside, observing the flora and fauna , much of which appeared in descriptions of THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS. The vignettes in this little book are refreshing and capture the speech of locals in a way that disposed literary critics to pronounce that she had a “good ear,” much like writer Eudora Welty of Mississippi fame, who was a master at dialogue.

Jewett’s verse wasn’t as outstanding as her novels, short stories, and children’s books, but some of the passages in THE COUNTRY OF POINTED FIRS read like prose poems; e.g., the following passage from the conclusion of this book: “The small outer islands of the bay were covered among the ledges with turf that looked as fresh as the early grass, there had been some days of rain the week before, and the darker green of the sweet fern was scattered on all the pasture heights…”

The following poem is one of my own, written during this tamer winter here in Louisiana, and one of several poems on which I’m working that will appear in a new book of poetry with a working title of WINTER POEMS :


Winter, a gray belief
between full throttle light
and a stairwell of darkness,
the wind running away with you
longing for sunlight on the dining table
in a lonesome house with broken window
overlooking the chilly dark,
quilt folded as the foot of the iron bed.
In the attic, bats fold up
for the long silence of winter,
a gray belief,
this grainy movie following full supper…
an old man sleeping in a frozen stream.

Monday, February 8, 2010


But no one does anything about it,” Mark Twain once said, and there’s much to talk about nowadays throughout the U.S.: snowstorms in the East, rainstorms and mud slides in the West, freezes in the South, and business as usual in the North. Years ago, when I lived in Limestone, Maine, “snowmageddons” were everyday occurrences during the icy winter months in this small town on the Canadian border. Had it not been for an electric blanket, we would have been near frozen. We lived in an old farmhouse with one oil stove in the living room, an oven in the kitchen, and no heat in the rest of the apartment. I never could figure out why anyone would choose to live in northernmost Maine. We were there with the U.S. Army, stationed at a SAC (Strategic Air Command) base during the 1950’s, and my former spouse, an intelligence specialist, spent days in a radar shack, searching the sky for Russian planes that might cross our borders from Moscow. The weather at that time could have challenged today’s reports of snowstorms -- one night, the temperature dipped to 50 degrees below zero, and we southerners lived to tell it.

A proof for my latest book, THE MAINE EVENT, a mystery, is forthcoming and incorporates some of my experiences in northernmost Maine. The painting for the cover was rendered by my brother Paul, and the design, of course, was done by Martin, my grandson. It’s among the novels that have been in the cardboard box of my life, otherwise known as unpublished manuscripts, slowly being published, beginning with my retirement three years ago.

An excerpt from THE MAINE EVENT that gives readers a foretaste of the novel’s setting :

“Near the farmhouse, this deeply-forested area of northeastern Maine had tall canopies of fir, spruce, white pine, sugar maple, ash, birch, and elm, giving us the feeling of living in a virgin wilderness. The birch trees impressed me the most. After we first arrived, I had peeled off a piece of the bark, written a very short note on it and sent the letter back to Louisiana.

“Enough land in Aroostook County had been cleared for potato farming to support the production of one million pounds of potatoes. Even so, most people in the county were poor. Giant potato storage houses dotted the landscape. Limestone public schools, as well as Loring Air Base, turned out students and military each Fall for three weeks to help farmers with the harvest. During WWII, German prisoners of war helped dig potatoes, and a few had returned at war’s end to take up farming in Aroostook County. Jim picked up potatoes in tall baskets two days during the harvest and complained of a major backache all that week.

“The nearby St. John River had been a major route between Port Royale, Acadia and Quebec since 1612; by 1842, many Acadians had settled in Aroostook County. For all I knew, I lived a mile away from my ancestors, those people who thought Aroostook’s dense forests and trout-rich rivers were the promised land. By nature they were pessimistic, but, contradictorily, they expected that Divine Providence would give them more than their daily fare of pigeons, dandelions, and fiddlehead fern soup…”

THE MAINE EVENT should be available on in a few weeks or it can be ordered from

Friday, February 5, 2010


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.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


This is the second installment of a profile of Clementine Hunter, published in my book, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN, reprinted here for those charter members of the “Peasant Poet Society,” established Jan. 29.  The post followed a dinner table conversation among the charter members about this famous African-American artist. Clementine, of course, is deceased, but the interest in her personality and her colorful folk art has not diminished since she first began “making her mark” over a half century ago. 

“Clementine Hunter had been curious about the artists and writers who had been coming to Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana, from the time she was hired to be chief cook at the Big House on the old plantation during the early 1900’s. As a young girl she had stitched paper cutouts on cloth to make wall decorations, and later made quilts and created rag dolls. She was meticulous about her sewing and wanted everything she created to be perfect.

When Alberta Kinsey, an artist who visited Melrose Plantation often during the 1940’s, departed Melrose one day, leaving behind several of her brushes and a few tubes of oil paint, she did not envision that the nearly sixty-year old African-American woman would pick them up and begin a career as the African-American “Grandma Moses of the South.” Clementine found the art supplies. took them to another guest, art critic Francois Mignon, saying: “Mister Francois, I betcha’ I could mark a picture if I set my mind to it.” Mignon agreed with her and quickly tore a tattered linen window shade from the window, giving it to Clementine to “mark.” The following morning at 5 a.m., Clementine knocked at Mignon’s door and presented him with an oil painting of a plantation baptism scene – a queue of African-Americans dressed in white gowns who were being led to the river by African-American preachers grandly dressed in red robes. The execution of this painting was childlike, even crude, but colors were brilliantly blended, and a kind of intuitive good form overshadowed the artist’s lack of perspective. Mignon had discovered an artist who possessed “the inner vision which set her painting apart as a work of art,” as Edward Steichen, a famous photographer, later described Clementine’s work.

Clementine began to work on any blank scrap she could find on the plantation – cardboard box tops, wood scraps, wrapping paper, brown paper bags, and materials Mignon provided for her to “mark her pictures.” During the day she continued to work at the Big House as a cook, walking back and forth to the cabin on Melrose grounds where she lived with her husband Emanuel who was bedridden. At night after a few hours’ sleep, she would arise, light a kerosene lamp, and paint until sunrise. She often told her husband that as soon as she had lighted the lamp, “a whole lot of things start goin’ across my mind and before I know it, I’m getting’ ‘em down on paper.” The paintings that appeared were records of African-American plantation life which could not have been told as well in prose. She painted work scenes such as cotton picking, washing clothes, and threshing pecans, and more playful scenes such as watermelon-eating and fishing. After painting several hundred scenes, Clementine’s work began to improve remarkably in style.

Clementine painted cotton pickers working in the hot summer sun wearing big hats and walking in rows, one above the other, background figures looming larger than those in the foreground. Her portrayal of this scene came solely from her “inner vision.” “I just paint what comes to my head,” she said. “Don’t know one tell me what to paint. I can’t do that. And I don’t paint what everyone has already painted. I want to paint something like nobody has!” The cotton-picking scene was also an evocation of her past when, as a child, she picked 250 pounds of cotton a day alongside her father (who could pick 390 pounds).  Clementine said that she loved picking cotton better than anything she ever did; she even ran away from school to be allowed to work alongside her family in the fields. In her rendering of “Pecan Threshing,” Clementine painted her impressions of a cold winter morning when workers brought a small wood-burning stove into the groves. The painting shows an old woman cooking biscuits and coffee for the pickers, a child carrying coffee cups and a strange, make-believe bird Clementine called the “gooster,” a hybrid creature which is a cross between a goose and a rooster.

Perhaps one of her most famous paintings is “Saturday Night at the Honky Tonk,” which depicts the drinking, romancing fighting, and killing of the Saturday night drinking groups. The red honky-tonk is shown from the outside, and a window fan which fascinated Clementine dominates the scene. The painting records a series of events – lovemaking, murdering, and indifferent drinking take place all at once. Time telescopes in the painting. A bullet streaks toward a victim who has already fallen dead. Someone rushes to an old-fashioned telephone to call a doctor who has already started out on his call.

Mignon commissioned Clementine to paint murals on the walls of Ghana House on the grounds of Melrose. She quickly depicted an Ethiopian “Christ on the Cross,” at the base of which cotton is being brought in from surrounding fields. She began to paint other religious scenes believing that “the good Lord helped me make pictures – no person did it.” Her Nativity painting showed the manger in a Louisiana cotton field, across which African-American wise men travelled, bringing gifts of gourds and vegetables to an African-American Mary and a lively African-American baby Jesus. Angels with pointed heads swirl in the sky overhead. For Mignon, Clementine later painted a 4’x16’ mural in the African House, a Melrose outbuilding designed after houses found in the African Congo. The scenes, painted over a period of three years, depict day-to-day domestic life at Melrose – weddings, baptisms, funerals, church meetings, etc. When Melrose Plantation became a national landmark, Clementine’s mural became a permanent exhibit at the plantation.

According to records at the Roman Catholic Church in Cloutierville, Louisiana, Clementine Hunter was born in 1885, and records indicate that she was baptized in March of that year. She was the eldest of seven children born to John and Mary Antoinette Adams Ruben. Her paternal grandfather was an Irish horse trader married to a woman of Indian and African-American lineage named “Me-Me.” Her maternal grandmother, Idole Adams, was a slave who was brought to Louisiana from Virginia. As a member of a Creole family, Clementine was originally named Clemence and was called “Teba.” Her mother tongue was French, and she did not become fluent in English until her second marriage to Emanuel Hunter.  Her first marriage, at age sixteen, was to Charlie Dupree by whom she bore three children. After the death of Dupree, Clementine married Emanuel Hunter and had two more children. She was born at Hidden Hill Plantation, which Harriet Beecher Stowe had used as a setting for her famous novel, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. The plantation owner, Robert McAlpin, was the model for the cruel overseer in Stowe’s novel. Hidden Hill, now Little Eva Plantation, lies in the flat Cane River country near Natchitoches. Clementine later moved with her parents to Melrose Plantation, and her memory of the world seems to have begun with the cotton fields and pecan groves surrounding the plantation.

Clementine loved the cotton fields and despised school. “I just run off from those nuns at school every time they would send me. My mama kept sending me back. But all I wanted to do was pick cotton,” she once said. “I finally run away so many times my mama gave up and let me pick cotton.” Later, she compared painting with picking cotton. “Paintin,” she said, “is a lot harder than pickin’ cotton. Cotton’s right there for you to pull off the stalk, but to paint, you got to sweat yo’ mind.”

Eventually, Clementine was brought into the Big House as a part-time cook and maid. She was taught to cook elaborate cuisine by her grandmother. When asked the kind of meals she prepared for Miss Cammie Henry, mistress of Melrose Plantation, Clementine told her interviewers, “hard things. You know, peas, okra, and beans.” It was difficult for reporters to discern if she was talking “tongue in cheek,” or if at the age of almost 100, she had some notion that peas and beans are hard in consistency, rather than foods that are difficult to prepare. The cookbook, MELROSE PLANTATION COOKBOOK, which she illustrated for Francois Mignon, features some of Clementine’s gourmet recipes that are far more difficult to prepare than peas and beans – Game Soup, Piquante Sauce, Parsnip Fritter and Rice Blanc Mange.

Note: The third installment about Clementine Hunter will be published in a subsequent blog. Again, the photograph is by permission of B.A. Cohen for THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL. 

Monday, February 1, 2010


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.