I’ve always been fascinated by what compels creatives to make art, especially those who are self taught and persist despite overwhelming odds.
Take Clementine Hunter (pronounced Clementeen), one of the South’s most celebrated folk artists. Though she never learned to read or write, and didn’t begin painting until her 50s, she managed to produce between 5,000 – 10,000 paintings, all while working as a cook and housekeeper at Melrose Plantation in Louisiana.
She is known for her unique and vibrant ‘visual diary’ of rural plantation life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an insider’s view of the African American perspective. Not only a pivotal figure in folk art, she’s also remembered as an important social and cultural historian.
Clementine (née Clémence) was born into a French Creole family at Hidden Hill Plantation near Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, around Christmas 1886. A descendant of slaves, she was the eldest of seven children.
When she was about 5, her parents moved to Cloutierville seeking more tolerable working conditions, and Clementine was sent to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church School. Because she could not abide the cruel, segregated, dehumanizing environment there, her parents kept her home after the first year.
From about the age of 8, she began working alongside her father in the cotton fields. Despite the back-breaking labor, Clementine was happy to be amongst people she loved, and remembered those days picking cotton and harvesting pecans as mostly happy ones.
When she was 15, her parents were hired as sharecroppers by John and Cammie Henry, owners of Melrose Plantation, where Clementine would spend the rest of her life. She joined her parents in the fields, harvesting 150-200 pounds of cotton a day for a wage of 75 cents. She continued to harvest pecans during the fall.
In her 20s, Clementine had two children out of wedlock with Charles Dupree, a highly skilled laborer who had an uncommon aptitude for mechanics (built a piano without ever having seen one in person). Ten years after he died in 1914, Clementine married Emmanuel Hunter, a Creole woodchopper six years her senior. It was Emmanuel who taught Clementine how to speak “American English” (she had previously only spoken Creole French). They lived together in a worker’s cabin on the plantation, and had five children (two were stillborn).
On the morning before giving birth to one of her children, she harvested 78 pounds of cotton before going home to call the midwife. She was back working in the fields a few days later.
Despite the demands of motherhood, she remained a diligent and determined worker, carrying on without childcare for her newborns. She adapted by leaving her babies in the shade of a tree at the end of the cotton rows. She’d attend to them after working each row.
She endured these difficult circumstances until the late 1920s, when she began working as a housekeeper and cook in the Big House, having endeared herself to Miss Cammie, the Mistress of the Plantation.
Clementine soon found several outlets for self expression, receiving validation and encouragement while demonstrating her skills as an excellent seamstress who made beautiful quilts, lace curtains, clothing and dolls for the white children on the plantation. She was also an exceptional cook known for her adaptation of French Creole classic dishes.
By the 1930s, Melrose Plantation had evolved into a thriving colony for writers and artists of the Southern Renaissance hosted by Cammie. Notable visitors included Lyle Saxon, William Faulkner, Richard Avedon, Rachel Field, Roark Bradford and Rose Franken. Though many had noted Clementine’s talents and friendly demeanor, one guest in particular would have the greatest influence on her artistic career.
François Mignon arrived for a six-week visit in the early 40s and stayed for three decades, as friend to Cammie and Clementine, while serving as resident curator and historian as he chronicled daily life at Melrose.
It’s likely that even before Mignon’s arrival, Clementine had regularly encountered painting materials left behind in the artist studios she was responsible for cleaning. Perhaps she had already started experimenting before she approached Mignon around 1940, asking about using the half-empty tubes of paint she had found.
Mignon was only too happy to encourage her, as the two were already friendly and he knew how gifted she was at making quilts and dolls and weaving baskets. He gave her an old window shade to paint on, and early the next morning she presented him with a “marked picture.” He was immediately struck by her uniqueness of vision and would continually provide her with art supplies from then on.
Mignon suspected the picture she showed him was not her first. It’s understandable that she would paint secretly, as art was the providence of the white ruling class, certainly not something a black housemaid and cook would dare or even have the time to pursue.
In addition to working long days from sunrise to sunset, she had children and grandchildren to support before and after work. She regularly took home washing and ironing, and during the 40s her husband Emmanuel had taken ill and became bedridden. Yet none of these things thwarted her creative spirit.
Clementine likely trusted Mignon and instinctively hoped he would be supportive rather than scornful when she first approached him. It took courage to “confess” her interest in painting, and his approval provided much needed validation, enabling her to share her paintings with family and friends.
She painted late at night by kerosene lamp, often by Emmanuel’s bedside. When he expressed concern over her lack of sleep, she assured him if she didn’t get her paintings out of her head, she’d “sure go crazy.”
Once she started painting in earnest, she couldn’t stop. She filled any surface she could find with brightly colored memories of her life: baptisms, funerals, weddings, nights at the honky tonk, wash day, cotton picking, pecan harvesting, card playing, flowers, foliage — rendered in oils with a childlike innocence and simplicity with her signature skewed scale and perspective.
I just get it in my mind and I just go ahead and paint but I can’t look at nothing and paint. No trees, no nothing. I just make my own tree in my mind, that’s the way I paint.
She created an orderly world depicting doll-like figures walking in procession or gathered in twos and threes working together harmoniously. She painted on cardboard, crockery, glass, old window screens, wood, gourds, and masonite, in addition to panels and canvases, when Mignon was able to provide them. It was he who collected her paintings and distributed them to interested parties. Earnestly promoting her work wherever and whenever he could, he arranged for some of her paintings to be sold at the local drugstore for a dollar each.
Through her friendship with Mignon, Hunter met scholar James Register, who devoted himself to making Clementine’s work available to a wider audience. He sent her money and supplies every month and established a grant to fund her work.
Together, Mignon and Register arranged for Clementine’s first art shows in 1945, and soon her work began to garner attention outside Louisiana. In 1955 she had her largest solo exhibition at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. Because it was a segregated space, she wasn’t allowed in the building, but the curators snuck her in by the back door when no one was around so she could see her work installed in that large and prestigious place.
It was also in 1955 that Mignon got Clementine to begin painting a series of murals for the African House, a unique two story outbuilding on plantation grounds with a massive thatched roof representing a blend of African, French, and Native American architectural traditions. Since the lower floor has barred windows, it was thought to be where delinquent slaves were once confined. In Cammie’s time, the space was used as a residence for artists. The upper floor was likely used for drying tobacco.
The African House Murals are the largest and most celebrated of Hunter’s creative output. It includes nine 4’ x 8’ rectangular plywood panels painted in her home studio reflecting Clementine’s life and the history of the Cane River Valley.
In 1956 Hunter and Mignon coauthored Melrose Plantation Cookbook, which included photographs of the plantation, 31 recipes, and Clementine’s illustrations. She was adept at reinterpreting traditional dishes such as Game Soup, Boiled Bass, and Eggs Grand Ecore, passed down from her family via oral tradition.
Clementine lived to be 101, painting every day until she passed away on New Year’s Day, 1988. Though she received significant recognition during her lifetime for her work — an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from NSU at Louisiana (1986), invitations and letters from U.S. Presidents, the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the subject of numerous biographies and an opera, her pieces installed in many museums (Dallas Museum of Art, American Folk Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Arts) — Clementine lived in near poverty most of her life and never traveled more than 100 miles from home.
She never complained about the remuneration she received and was initially loath to take any money for her pictures until after Emmanuel died. In the 40s she charged 25 cents each, then later she charged visitors to tour her cabin (“50 cents to Look”). Prices increased each decade and now her paintings are sold by dealers for thousands of dollars.
What compelled Clementine to paint? She knew it wasn’t going to be easy but she made time to paint after long hard days of toil. I think her motivation goes beyond the need for self expression to passionate self actualization, the desire to proclaim, “I exist,” in a world of social adversity and disenfranchisement.
She couldn’t write her story, so she painted it. She refused to be dismissed like her ancestors and peers. She led a hard life, yet her pictures are bright and joyous. Even funeral scenes convey a positive and optimistic tone with their vibrant colors.
Was her art an act of resistance, a willingness to defy oppression by producing tangible evidence that nothing, or no one, could quash her spirit, or her choice to openly share what she found beautiful, and to live her life as fully as she could?
Clementine painted from memory and from her heart. She made the most of what was available to her, intuitively sought out a mentor and advocate (she and Mignon were buried side by side), and she took joy in the process.
October 1 has been designated as Clementine Hunter Day by Louisiana State legislators.
God gave me the power. Sometimes I try to quit paintin’. I can’t. I can’t.
Humble and resilient, Clementine found purpose and release in art. Having being deprived of so much else, her pictures were totally her own.
Enjoy this video of Hunter biographer and friend Tom Whitehead showing viewers around Clementine’s home at Melrose Plantation.
*Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.