BAIA BITS: Clementine Hunter

BAIA BITS

Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art
 

It has been reported that Clementine Hunter, a mother of seven who worked as a Louisiana field hand in the first quarter of the 20th century, picked 78 pounds of cotton one morning before going home, summoning a midwife, and giving birth. A few days later, Hunter was back in the field picking cotton. 

Born to a Creole family in 1886 or 1887, Hunter only attended school for 10 days and never learned to read or write given her preference to labor in the fields. Creole French was the only language she spoke for almost forty years until her second husband taught her English. About the same time, Hunter began working as a cook and housekeeper at Melrose Plantation, owned by Cammie Henry. Henry, an art lover, soon decided to create an artist’s colony at the plantation where famous artists and writers could visit and create.

One day in 1939, the 51-year-old Hunter was cleaning up when she came across some paint supplies left behind by New Orleans artist, Alberta Kinsey. Hunter proceeded to paint a picture of a river baptism on a window shade. The leaders of the colony took notice and its curator, François Mignon, gave Hunter paints and materials. With the support of patrons like Mignon, Hunter soon earned a reputation as a talented painter, selling her vivid depictions of plantation life and rituals through local stores and outlets. Given Hunter couldn’t write, her friends would sign the paintings for her, or she would scrawl a backwards C and H on the jugs, window shades, canvases, and cardboard boxes she adorned.

Despite her increasing notoriety, Hunter remained poor for the majority of her life, selling her art for coins, and running tours of her works from home. Reportedly, she had a great passion for art and was not driven by the money, regularly giving her works away for free. Still, the prolific Louisiana artist, who is believed to have produced over 6000 works in the second half of her life, did receive numerous honors for her art including being the first African American to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In the late 1970s, Hunter received an invitation to the White House from President Jimmy Carter in recognition of her artistic contributions. 

In 1986, the Northwestern State University of Louisiana bestowed an honorary fine arts degree on the 100-year-old artist in recognition of her lifetime achievements. By the time of her passing in 1988, Hunter’s art was on display at several major institutions about the nation, with her works being collected by such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey.

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