Saturday, November 24, 2012

Memory Paintings

She is often referred to as the black Grandma Moses, but the ‘Americana’ of Louisiana folk artist Clementine Hunter is a strong reflection of African influences with its use of bold color, pattern, stylized imagery, and stacked perspective. The artist called her works memory paintings because they depict scenes of everyday life around the plantation and her church. Asked the title of a painting she would describe instead what it was about, rarely thinking in terms of a name. The titles we see given to her paintings were most often applied by her white patrons.

Clementine Hunter (she pronounced it Clementeen) was born in 1886 on a cotton plantation near Cloutierville, Louisiana. At the age of five her family moved to another plantation in the Cane River area of Natchitoches Parish, where she first attended school. Clementine never liked school, often failing to attend until her parents gave up on sending her. When she was fourteen the family moved again, this time to Melrose Plantation, another Cane River plantation dating from the late 1700s. The owners of Melrose hoped to preserve the arts and crafts of the Cane River area, and as a result the plantation became over the years a haven for artists and writers. Clementine and her family worked in the cotton fields and the pecan groves, but when she reached the age of forty-two Clementine moved from field work to house work.

Gone Fishing, 1950s; a day on Cane River with everybody fishing in their Sunday best.

Several years later a man named Francois Mignon joined the Melrose family as a literary assistant to the owner. He recognized the creativity of Clementine, offering daily encouragement. When a New Orleans artist visited the plantation to paint magnolias, she left behind several tubes of paint. Finding the paints, Clementine approached Mignon saying she could “mark” a picture of her own, and he gave her an old window shade, some brushes and turpentine. The very next morning, she brought him a picture. In the years following, she painted whenever she had time, on anything she could find—from cardboard boxes, brown paper bags, lumber, to plastic milk cartons and wine bottles. 

Cotton Crucifixion, 1970; oil on paper

Over the next forty plus years she produced 4000 paintings, each one telling in a simple, straightforward way a story of life as she saw it. Though illiterate, her paintings are a storybook of everyday life on and around the plantation. The artist died on New Year’s Day, 1988 and was buried near Melrose Plantation in a spot close to Francois Mignon, the man who believed so strongly in her talent.

Zinnias in a Pot, 1965; return to a favorite theme first seen in 1939

Milking Time, 1940s; asked why the cow had only three legs, the artist reasoned that the milking stool only needed three legs, so the cow only needed three legs.

The painting at the top is a large mural titled Baptism, done in 1955 and now in African House on the grounds of Melrose Plantation.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Symphonic Orangutans

In Japan, families traditionally gather in late December to celebrate the passage of the old year and arrival of the new. True of yearend in most countries, a variety of customs earmark the season and one of those involves the family watching together two or three popular and long-running television shows. The most popular of those has long been the celebrity heavy New Year’s Eve broadcast of  Kôhaku Uta Gassen or Red and White Song Battle. Another late December show that has been wildly popular since its debut in 1979 is Kinchan & Katori Shingo no Zen-Nihon Kasô Taishô, a pantomime contest exhibiting the passion and cleverness of amateur performers. Kasô Taishô translates as something along the lines of “masquerade belly laughs.”

The performers display a fun and often hilarious series of masquerades using precision choreography, goofy ideas, cute kids or clever visualizations. Imagine a parade of sight gags concocted by Monty Python, Terry Gilliam and French film director Michel Gondry and produced by Chuck Barris of The Gong Show. In addition to making their own costumes and props, contestants work hard to create an unusual, weird, wacky and very original idea, bringing it to life in a jaw-dropping performance.

Teams vary in number from individuals to school groups. Celebrity judges in crazy costumes vote at the end of each skit, the total score appearing in an onstage flashing tower of bells and lights. Contestants getting votes above fourteen qualify for big cash prizes but the large number of prizes almost guarantee that everyone is a winner. The top prize is a whopping ¥1 million, almost $12,600.

Have a look at three short examples…



KENDAMA NOTES  (Kendama refers to a cup and ball toy)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Volkswagen has a commercial on television these days which makes the point that ‘It’s not the miles, it’s how you live them.’ Not a gag or joke type of sales pitch, but if this one doesn’t make you laugh maybe you need to go in for a tune up.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Blue Bloods

Though never in proportions that we witness in our cities and along our coastlines, big storms do bring a measure of chaos and loss of life to marine communities beneath the waves. The situation here along Florida’s east coast gives the appearance of being not far from the norm and people are back under the sun with their boogie boards, fishing rods, bicycles and suntan oil. The difference out there now is the seeming closeness of people finding space on a beach with high rolling tides, one made narrower without the dunes that disappeared with the passing of Hurricane Sandy.

In living here the past couple of years and walking on the beach daily I’ve developed an eye that takes in many of the shifts and changes in life on or along the beach. But really, anyone ‘unplugged’ and sensitive to the sights and sounds will see the same thing. Pull out the earphones, put away your smartphone and on any day a mini-Jacques Cousteau special will unfold at your feet, but this time it will tell a story of storm effects on a creature 300 million years old—the horseshoe crab. A day after the storm passed Florida on its move north, horseshoe crabs began washing up on the beach in numbers not seen in a few years. Some quality or condition in their habitat was badly disrupted, causing many of them to die and wash up on the beach.

These ‘living Fossils’ with their fierce looking shells and long tails are interesting animals. They live primarily along the eastern North American coast in the soft sand of shallow waters. It surprised me to learn that they are not related to crabs but to spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites. Horseshoe crabs require sandy beaches to bury their eggs where it isn’t unusual for one female to lay between 60,000 and 120,000 eggs. Only the tiniest number of those eggs hatch and grow to maturity, since they are an important food source for shore birds. A horseshoe crab has five pairs of eyes, one pair of small pincers and five pairs of legs. The long tail is used for steering and to flip itself over if stuck on its back. Another curious characteristic is seen in their blood. Because of the copper in their blood, once exposed to air it is blue. Females are often twenty-five to thirty percent larger than the males. The appearance of these rather large prehistoric holdovers can be intimidating but horseshoe crabs are not at all dangerous.

Out for a bike spin on the beach Sunday morning, after riding south for about two miles the sand became less than hard and I cut up to the paved road for an easier ride. Decided for a change to ride on the much more picturesque Saxon Drive, one block west and that same street with the big, tall flowers that look so much like sunflowers. The street was never before familiar to me from the prospective of a bicycle and I was surprised by the charm of a shaded street nestled in the mangroves between the Atlantic and the Halifax River. Little traffic, wide sidewalks under an overhang of green, a bird sanctuary and a handful of beautiful homes make for a very pleasant Sunday morning bike ride. Very likely that my next bike outing will retrace the route along Saxon Drive. 

About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America