Take the La. 119 exit from US 49, travel about 400 yards and you will see St. Augustine’s Catholic Church standing along the River Cane.
And resting quietly in a mausoleum behind the church is Clementine Hunter, her grave marked by an inverted C with her back against an H.
This is how Hunter signed his thousands of paintings, which created a new genre in folk art.
“His paintings told stories, and those stories were about life on the Melrose plantation,” said Tom Whitehead, co-author of “Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art.” “She told her stories from an insider’s perspective. Other people had written about plantation life, but Clementine’s paintings were different. She lived it.”
Melrose Plantation stands on La. 119, about a quarter mile from the church. This is where Clémentine worked for the first part of her life as a farm worker, then in the kitchen of the big house.
Lyle Saxon included a story about him in his collection of stories, “Joe Gilmore’s Friends”. New Orleans painter Alberta Kinsey, who often traveled with Saxon to Melrose, gave Hunter some of her paintings.
These paintings marked the beginning of the plantation worker’s journey to become an internationally renowned artist. And she did it all from her home near Melrose in the Cane River Country of Natchitoches Parish.
Hunter was born in early January 1887, on the Hidden Hill plantation near Cloutierville. She died at age 101 on January 1, 1988, at what is now the Natchitoches Regional Medical Center.
But his stories went beyond his internment in St. Augustine’s Catholic Church cemetery, so much so that they changed the way the FBI investigated forged artwork years after his death.
It happened in 2009, when the agency converged on the Keaty Drive home of Baton Rouge resident William Toye and arrested him for tampering with copies of Hunter’s paintings.
“Before this, the FBI didn’t investigate popular art forgeries,” Whitehead said. “But this investigation changed everything in the folk art world.”
Whitehead and co-author Art Shiver recount the investigation and how it unfolded in their book “Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art.” The biography was published in 2012 by LSU Press.
It was the second Hunter-themed book co-authored by Whitehead and Shiver. The first was a 2005 coffee table book, “Clementine Hunter: The African House Murals,” commemorating Hunter’s recently restored murals covering the upper story walls of Melrose’s Congo-style African House.
Hunter has had many supporters over the years, including writer Francois Mignon, who called Melrose home when owner Cammie Henry opened the plantation as a colony for writers and artists from the 1920s to the late 1940s.
Still, Hunter didn’t need much encouragement once she started painting.
“No matter how tired I am when night comes, as soon as I turn on this oil lamp, a lot of things start going through my mind, and before I know it, I’m putting those things on. on paper,” she said. stated in Mary E. Lyons’ 1998 book, “Talking With Tebe: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist”.
Lyons compiled newspaper and magazine articles on Hunter into a single collection, many quoting Hunter verbatim. One of the stories recalls an interaction between Hunter and Kinsey in the same African house that Hunter would later fill with murals.
According to Hunter, Kinsey was having trouble with a painting and Cammie Henry suggested he talk to Hunter. Hunter ventured to the African House, which Kinsey used as her Melrose studio.
“So I went over there and pointed to a spot on the Alberta canvas and said, ‘If that was me, I’d put one of those cotton balls right there,'” Hunter said. “Half an hour later, Alberta said the idea for the picture had come. It just happened in her head after my visit.”
Kinsey must have known Hunter had artist potential when he gave the cook those tubes of paint.
“I think she encouraged Clementine,” said Baton Rouge museum curator and consultant Elizabeth Weinstein. “I think she had an inner artistic impulse. I mean, why do people make art in the first place? People make art because there’s something inside of them. They have something they need to pass on, and for Clementine, it was about her life and documenting the things that happened around her, whether it was a wedding or a funeral or whatever. “
Hunter’s paintings are also reminders of a way of life that no longer exists.
“That way of life was difficult, but she presents it as more joyful,” Weinstein said. “Some artists have a lot of angst, and that’s what they paint. It’s all about emotion. And these artists also have a lot of technical skills. Maybe Clémentine didn’t have the same training and exposure to art, but she still had a drive to paint and produce and do her best with what she had. I think that’s something to admire about her.
During this time, Mignon found many surfaces and objects for Hunter to paint, and art collector and dealer James Register promoted his work, as did Mildred Hart Bailey, Department Head of the Education Department of Northwestern State University and co-founder of the Natchitoches Historic Foundation.
As for Whitehead, his friendship began with Hunter when he was a student in the television studio at Northwestern State University. He accompanied his supervisor, English teacher Ora Williams, on a 1964 visit to the artist’s home, where he purchased his first Hunter painting for $3.
The object? A bowl of zinnias. Hunter painted the flowers throughout his career, and these paintings became the basis for Robert Wilson’s modern opera, “Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter”.
Why Hunter? Wilson met her in 1940, when he traveled with his parents from El Paso, Texas to Natchitoches.
“This trip was life changing,” Whitehead said.
And that life-changing experience led to the premiere of “Zinnias” on January 26, 2013 at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. Whitehead was in the audience. He had amassed a large collection of Hunter paintings during this time, and they still cover his walls today.
But even more than the paintings, he values above all his friendship with the artist.
Whitehead left Natchitoches for Boston University in 1967 to earn his master’s degree in communications, then returned to teach in Northwestern’s communications department in 1969.
He taught there for 30 years, making sure to visit Hunter at least once a week. It was around this time, in 1985, that the university awarded Hunter an honorary doctorate of fine arts.
The day ended with a congratulatory letter from President Ronald Reagan, and Southern University awarded Hunter an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters the following year.
Whitehead was there for the presentation at Natchitoches but was traveling by train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1988 when he learned of her death.
“I read it in USA Today and then my parents called me to tell me,” he said. “I knew her health was deteriorating and she always wore a wig. The last time I saw her was the only time I saw her without that wig.”
Saxon’s story about Hunter in “Joe Gilmore’s Friends” tells a comic story about his wigs. But that’s a story for another time.
Whitehead says he’s grateful to have known Hunter.
“I am grateful for the wonderful world Clementine has opened up to me,” he said. “And I tried to protect his legacy and his work.”
And part of that legacy is in who she was.
“She was a plantation-born black woman who started painting late in life,” Weinstein said. “She became this artist, and it’s wonderful that she also had the support of people who recognized her talent and encouraged her to continue. She was a true artist.”