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Clementine Hunter’s Story to be Presented at Banquet

Posted on November 3, 2012

Originally published in the El Dorado News-Times on November 4, 2012.

By: Janice McIntyre

Tom Whitehead, a retired journalism professor from Northwestern State University in Louisiana, will lecture on the "Story of Clementine Hunter, Her Plantation Life and Her Historical Primitive Art,? during the South Arkansas Historical Foundation?s Keeping History Alive Banquet at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 at the El Dorado Golf and Country Club.

Whitehead co-wrote a book, along with Art Shiver, about Hunter, who was born in 1887 and died in 1988 and "painted every day from the 1930s until a few days before her death at the age of 101.?

He will focus on recognizing a forged Clementine Hunter painting from one of her authentic works of art.

 As a cook and domestic servant at Louisiana?s Melrose Plantation, Hunter painted on hundreds of objects available around her ? glass snuff bottles, discarded roofing shingles, ironing boards ? as well as on canvas, according to information on a website about Hunter.

She produced between 5,000 and 10,000 paintings, including her most ambitious work, the African House Murals. Her paintings of cotton planting and harvesting, wash days, weddings, baptisms, funerals, Saturday night revelry and zinnias depict her experiences of everyday plantation life along the Cane River.

More than a personal record of Hunter?s life, her work also reflects the social, material, and cultural aspects of the area?s larger African American community.

Drawing on archival research, interviews, personal files and a close relationship with the artist, Shiver and Whitehead offer the first comprehensive biography of this self-taught regional painter, who attracted the attention of the world, according to information about the book on the internet.

Shiver and Whitehead trace Hunter?s childhood, her encounters at Melrose with artists and writers, such as Alberta Kinsey and Lyle Saxon, and the role played by eccentric plantation historian Fran?ois Mignon, who encouraged and promoted her art and supplied her with paint and materials. The authors include rare paintings and photographs to illustrate Hunter?s creative process and discuss the evolution of her style.

Hunter was born on a plantation said to be the inspiration for "Uncle Tom's Cabin,? where she worked as a farm hand, never learning to read or write, according to Wikipedia. When she began painting, she used brushes and paints left by an artist who visited Melrose Plantation.

She first sold her paintings for as little as 25 cents and by the end of her life, her work was being exhibited in museums and sold by dealers for thousands of dollars. Hunter was granted an honorary doctor of fine arts degree by NSU in 1986.

Hunter was the granddaughter of a slave, the eldest of seven children born to Creole parents at Hidden Hill Plantation, near Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, La. Hunter's given name was originally Clemence, but she changed it after moving to Melrose Plantation.

Melrose Plantation became a mecca for the arts under the guidance of its owner, Cammie Henry. Numerous artists and writers visited, including Saxon, Roark Bradford, Alexander Woollcott, Rose Franken, Gwen Bristow and Richard Avedon. Brushes and discarded tubes of paint left by New Orleans artist Kinsey after a 1939 visit to Melrose Plantation, were used by Hunter to "mark a picture" on a window shade, beginning her career as an artist.

With Mignon's help, Hunter's paintings were displayed in the local drugstore, where they were sold for one dollar. In her later years, Hunter co-authored "Melrose Plantation Cookbook" with Mignon.

On the outside of the unpainted cabin where she lived was a sign that read, "Clementine Hunter, Artist. 25 cents to Look." One of the more well-known displays of Hunter's artwork is located in a food storage building called "African House" on the grounds of Melrose Plantation. The walls are covered in a mural Hunter painted in 1955, depicting scenes of Cane River plantation life.

Hunter was noted for painting on anything, particularly discarded items such as window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds and cardboard boxes. Her paintings rarely run larger than 18 by 24 inches and her work has generally been considered uneven, with her work from the 1940s to 1960 considered to be the best.

She was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art) and achieved a significant amount of success during her lifetime, including an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter and letters from both President Ronald Reagan and Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.

Radcliffe College included Hunter in its "Black Women Oral History Project,? published in 1980 and former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards made her an honorary colonel and aide-de-camp.

Whitehead is a retired journalism professor, a native of Baton Rouge and graduated from NSU in 1967. At Boston University, he earned a master?s degree in public relations and communications. In 1969, he returned to NSU to teach. He retired in 1999, but remains a consultant on special projects to the university president.

Whitehead met Hunter in 1966, when he was an undergraduate at NSU. He was invited by the supervisor of his student job to accompany her to Melrose Plantation. That visit changed his life.

Also during the Nov. 13 banquet, the John Abbott Award will be presented and this year?s recipients will be Laverne and George Breazeal for their preservation efforts with the W. H. Nash Home.

For more information about the banquet or to purchase tickets, contact Stefani O?Donohoe at the SAHF office to reserve a seat at the banquet. The SAHF office number is (870) 862-9890 and her email is Tickets are $100 per person and there will be tables of eight available with open seating.