Ri’s “memory house” pictured left and Harper’s “memory house” pictured right
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.
- Clementine Hunter
I am writing this 11 months into quarantine. Life in a bubble with two growing (not so little anymore) girls, a spotted dog and one determined but exhausted mom. We know the confines of our shared space intimately. Each nook and cranny of daily life in our little house indelibly blueprinted on our insides. I often find the girls staring off into space on their zoom school breaks and I make sure not to disturb..always hoping that the mental escape is a sweet one. At night we recite memories of life before “Corona” in place of bedtime stories. We make a lot of lists: World Travel List, Road Trip List, Next Birthday List, then there’s the List of Canine Companion Contenders for Winnie (our spotted cattle dog mix), names for our Future Farm (the one with the art barn) paired with a list of Horse Names catalogued A-Z. Memories, daydreams, and lots of future plans; strands of levity and hope that keep us from teetering over the edge into “safe at home” delirium.
Much like our life in the olden days, art has been a constant companion and we have created A LOT of it in quarantine. Most of it stored on shelves or tucked away in cabinets “almost done..but not quite done”. Some of it created on camera for a live community class, camp session, or video class.. most of which has not made it to the blog archive. All that to say, I have missed this space and this writing and sharing practice. It feels good to be back and it is an honor to introduce you to the wonderful art of Ms. Clementine Hunter..
Artist Clementine Hunter
Clementine Hunter was born in central Louisiana in 1886 into a french-creole family. She was the first of seven children. Her parents were farm workers who worked the fields at Hidden Hill Plantation. Shortly after Clementine was born her family set out to find more humane working and living conditions. At the age of 5 Clementine had her first and last experience with the segregated school system of the South. Her desire to learn how to read and write was not enough to keep her in such a cruel and demeaning environment, so she fled the school house to work in the fields, picking cotton and harvesting pecans with her father. Clementine received less than a year of formal education and never learned to read or write, but her memories of early life in the fields were filled with a sense of belonging and community that would later become themes of her work.
At the age of 15 Clementine and her family moved to the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. A place she would call home for the rest of her life. Clementine worked the fields until the 1920s when she was brought into the main house to cook and clean. She was married and widowed and married again, giving birth to a total of 7 children at Melrose, two of whom were stillborn. Clementine was a skilled seamstress and cook. She created beautiful quilts, lace curtains, and dolls, but was also known for her delicious Creole dishes.
By the 1930s Melrose Plantation became somewhat of an artist’s retreat that hosted some pretty famous names from the art and literary world: William Faulkner, Lyle Saxon, Margaret Sullavan, Richard Avedon, Rachel Field, Ada Jack Carver, Roark Bradford, and Alberta Kinsey. It was Kinsey’s old discarded brushes and paint tubes that became the materials for Clementine’s first works of art.
Francois Mignon and Clementine Hunter
Francois Mignon, a prolific, gifted writer and member of the artist’s colony at Melrose relates the following endearing incident:
“It was on a hot day in July in the mid 1950's that scenes of plantation life in Louisiana began to appear along the walls of the African House. The artist was Clementine Hunter who lived in her cabin on Melrose Plantation. Well, I do remember when Clementine Hunter…first tried her hand at painting. She tapped at my door, said that she had found these twisted tubes (of paint) while cleaning up and that she believed she could ‘mark a picture on her own…if she set her mind to it.'”
She presented her first picture to Mignon who replied, “Sister, you don’t know it but this is just the first of a whole lot of pictures you are going to bring me in the years ahead“.
excerpt written by, Doyle Bailey for melroseplantation.org
.. and bring Francois a whole lot of pictures she did. It is estimated that Clementine created over 5,000 works of art in her late-life career. She started painting at the age of 50 and painted up until her death at the age of 101.
The “Africa House”
The Melrose Plantation was established by former slaves. The plantation is the site of one of the oldest buildings of African design, built by Blacks and for the use of Blacks in the country: a 2-story structure called “Africa House”. Often described as half french barn and half African hut. African House is the home to Clementine Hunter’s most famous work- The Africa House Murals; a series of murals painted on nine panels.
View of African House Murals, 1955, oil on wood
MEMORY HOUSE Project
inspired by, Clementine Hunter
After reading about Clementine Hunter’s life, the girls and I got to talking about the themes of memory and story in her work and how those themes might inspire our own paintings. I felt drawn to the house shape in Harvesting Gourds near the African House and Wash Day Near Ghana House (pictured below) as both a container for our memories and stories and a poignant symbol of life in quarantine.
Prompt: If you were going to paint or illustrate a moment in time from your life story, what would you paint? What symbols and motifs might appear in your work? How would you evoke memory? What is a “snapshot” you would like to remember from this time?
The girls had questions: Can we paint things we miss.. from life before Covid? Should we paint what we do everyday NOW? My answers were YES! and yes! I cut the cardboard house shapes. They selected a few examples of Clementine’s work which they felt particularly drawn to. They studied the colors that they saw in Clementine’s work, prepared their own paint palettes and then got to work.
Harvesting Gourds near the African House and Wash Day Near Ghana House, Melrose Plantation,1959, oil on board, 73” x 66.5” | Uncle Tom’s Cabin, circa 1968 oil on board, 16” x 24”
Pencil (we used a white colored pencil)
Acrylic or washable tempera paint
Water cup and a rag or paper towel
Paint pens for details we love these or these but chalk markers are a second fave
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Ri uses a white paint pen to add details to a portion of her painting
Use a pencil or a colored pencil to sketch out the stories for your memory house
L- Riley’s memory house in progress and R- Riley’s finished piece
Riley: Music is an oasis from the mundane. It has always been “my happy place” .. both playing music (violin, piano and guitar) and listening to it. I love discovering new artists and creating play lists. I drew pictures of myself playing the violin, listening to music when I am taking a break from school and listening to music through my head phones when I walk Winnie. For memory I drew a picture of me and a good friend sitting by a tree talking. I miss time with friends and the freedom to just get up and go and do anything I want. Of course Winnie is part of my story. When I started sketching my illustration I just had a single bird perched on top of a window. The window is kind of a bridge between home and the outside world. The bird was me waiting for life to go back to normal. After I started painting I saw that there was this pathway of blank space in my piece that needed something. So I decided to bring the black birds I saw in Clementine’s painting into my painting. I like the movement and the way they fly through the painting. Now I think the birds kind of feel like hope..
Clementine Hunter, Flowing River, circa 1950, Oil on panel | Clementine Hunter, Bouquet of Flowers, 1985 (inscribed “black Jesus”) 13 1/4" H x 10 1/4"
L- Harper’s painting in progress R- Harper’s finished memory house
Harper: my painting is about things I do now and things I miss. I drew a picture of the back of my head looking into a computer because I do school on Zoom now. At first I really liked not having to get up as early and now my school is 4 hours instead of (mom, was it 7 hours before?) 7 hours. I have more time to do things that I love like sing and play the ukulele and make art with my mom. I knew I wanted a window because houses always have windows and I painted birds to symbolize my dad. I miss my dad and he used to always call one of our favorite songs “flock of birds”. It’s a song by Coldplay called O but he would call it flock of birds. So the birds are something I miss. Then I painted a picture of me singing in my black and white plaid skirt.. I am ALWAYS singing. I drew a rain cloud because my sister and I love the rain and I drew a sunset on the beach because that’s something that is really important to my family and we don’t do it is much because of Covid. I painted Winnie on her dog bed because I like to drag her bed into my room so she can keep me company while I am on Zoom. The lemon tree and the little house are from my Grammy’s house.. it’s one of my favorite places to be. The tea cup is a painting of tea time with my mom and sister.. It’s something we started doing a lot in quarantine and I like it. I decided to paint a river in my painting because I really love the river in Clementine’s painting. I don’t live near a river but I live near the beach and it’s kind of the same thing.
What about the flower painting?
Oh! We found out that Clementine loved growing flowers and painting them. Zinnias were her favorite. So I painted a painting of her painting for my room.
h. goddard - age 9 inspired by Clementine Hunter’s bouquet of flowers, acrylic paint on cardboard 2021
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