In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Marketing Manager Erin Rolfs writes about Clementine Hunter, by Art Shriver and Tom Whitehead.
The paintings of Louisiana artist Clementine Hunter crept into my consciousness slowly. I was not aware of her work when I moved to Baton Rouge in 2000, and I didn’t become fully acquainted with Hunter’s oeuvre until LSU Press published the eponymous book written by Thomas Whitehead and Art Shiver in 2012. But looking back over the past decade of living here I can see how I was always surrounded by her art; I just didn’t notice it and didn’t have the knowledge required to appreciate it.
Prior to the publication of Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art, I took several trips to Melrose Plantation, where Hunter spent most of her life working in cotton fields and later as a housemaid, and where she painted the famed African House Murals. I also walked through exhibits of her work at Louisiana State Museum and the Ogden Museum multiple times. I was aware of the FBI investigation into Hunter forgeries, and even recognized that a person in possession of a real Hunter painting had something special. Yet none of this managed to impress upon me the true value of her work. I placed the public’s interest in these seemingly unsophisticated vignettes in the same category as liking the taste of boudin or the sound of Zydeco music—it was just an ornament of a culture I didn’t grow up in and therefore had little reason to contemplate further.*
But during the course of planning and executing the marketing for Clementine Hunter I noticed that her paintings, which seemed at first like quaint, rural outsider art that failed to appeal to my own aesthetic, had transformed themselves into remarkable windows into the life of an African American woman working on a plantation and living in the heart of Louisiana. I realized, on a personal level, I had dismissed her work because it seemed simple and evoked themes I didn’t relate to. It turned out that this simplicity and distance were exactly why they deserved my attention.
What records do we have that call up the vivid memories of a black servant living in central Louisiana during the twentieth century? How many first-hand accounts of female plantation workers do we have from any state, from any time? How many documents grant us access to the inner life of any marginalized person? And when do we ever get to explore that perspective without it being colored by the overbearing shadow of those with more power? The answers to all those questions is very few and very rarely.
After hours of art history courses in college it took a 260-page book to bring this to my attention. Regardless of whether the work matches your couch or reinforces your cultural identity, Clementine Hunter’s art is an invitation to see the world as she did. This exercise, only possible through the medium of visual art, is one all of us should undertake if we want to speak more honestly about our shared history.
It is when LSU Press publishes work like this, the kind that disturbs the self-curated hierarchy of what matters, that I am not only humbled as a person but also as an employee.
*I’ve also come to love boudin and I will boogie down to Zydeco.
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