Melrose Plantation, Natchitoches, La. Primitive artist Clementine Hunter.

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Clementine, Francois, Mrs. Cammie, Melrose, and Me

 A cabin in the plantation country of Louisiana serves
Clementine Hunter as her personal art gallery -
the only gallery she has ever known.
Look Magazine. June 16, 1953. Photograph by Clarence John Laughlin

 

Whenever we went to Happy Landing , I always went by to see Clementine and Francois. If Clementine wasn't busy or if Francois wasn't showing people around I would sometimes stay and visit for hours. Clementine lived across the cotton field and down the road from Happy Landing in a little house that looked like it was patched up with all kinds of boards and planks that may have been parts of other houses at one time. My grandmother always had a bunch of paints and brushes and things to paint on for Clementine.

Clementine always seemed glad to see me, maybe because if she was painting or making something, I didn't ask too many questions and just sat there and kept my mouth shut. I think she especially liked young people, but with grownups, it wasn't always the same. One time when I was out in the front yard with Clementine, she saw a car coming down the road and said she didn't want to have to talk to visitors, so she pulled me inside her house and shut the door. We both hid and looked through a crack in the wall. The people got out of the car, and a man started knocking on the door. Clementine didn't answer him, but after he had knocked about a dozen times, she said in a stern voice, "Nobody home." And that was that. The people went away.

Clementine could speak her mind, and when she did, everybody knew she meant business. She could put on a very grumpy expression if something was going on she didn't like, but she could also be very funny and say things in funny ways that made you laugh. I think that's what I liked best of all about her. Every once in a while Clementine would give me a picture to take and hang on the wall at Happy Landing. One time when I was watching her paint a picture of people working on the plantation, she said she was going to put me in the picture, too. She did, and she painted me black like everybody else.

My grandmother and Mrs. Cammie loved to weave rugs. My grandmother had a big loom at her house in Alexandria, and Mrs. Cammie had several of them at Melrose. When my grandmother and Mrs. Cammie sat down at the looms they looked like they were playing a duet on pianos, but instead of singing they talked. Mostly it was about flowers and going out to dig up iris in the swamps, but I was interested in stuff like that, so I felt perfectly at home listening to them. I never got to know Mrs. Cammie really well, because she hurt herself and died when I was pretty young, but I liked her a lot. There was one loom that was small enough so my feet could reach the pedals. Mrs. Cammie taught me how to use it, and I made a rug nearly one foot wide.

If you've ever seen a big loom working, it looks kind of dangerous, especially if you are a little kid. There are two sets of strings that pass back and forth between each other like long fingers, and when the person operating the loom pushes the pedals to change the woof and warp, the loom makes a big thump. Francois told me that one time a nosey little boy stuck his hand in a loom and it got chopped right off and woven into the rug, and there it remained forever, clawing and clutching at people's feet when they walked across the floor. That was enough to make me and anybody else keep their hands in their pockets.

When I got tired of watching my grandmother and Mrs. Cammie weaving, or if too many people came into the room, I'd go over to see Francois. Francois' house was right near the Big House on Melrose. He called it his "cabin". I remember that the house was always nearly dark inside even during the day. The only light in the room came through the slats in the window shutters. Francois' eyesight was very bad, even way back then, but I never realized until much later how bad it was. I guess having electric lights on just didn't make much difference. Sometimes Francois would be talking to you but not really looking at you, like he was talking to somebody just over your shoulder. On one occasion Francois sent my grandfather, Dr. Paul King Rand, a long typewritten letter in which the words were nothing more than vague impressions of the keys. Unseen by Francois, the old fashioned fabric ribbon had simply reversed back and forth through the machine so often that the ink had finally been typed away.

Francois always had lots of stories to tell. Some of them were to keep kids out of trouble, like the one about the loom. And there was another one about what would happen if you got too close to the gigantic ground-level cistern in the garden at Melrose. Francois said that two big water buffaloes had once lived inside and that their ghosts still lived there. If a child got too close to the edge of the open cistern, one of the ghosts would butt him in, and the other would be waiting with its mouth wide open. It was very convincing. I took a wide path around the mysterious black hole. There were lots of other stories about all kinds of other things. Some of the stories were real, but some of them I know he just made up. Sometimes you'd hear the same story two or three times, but a few more things had been added, or left out, or changed. It didn't really matter to me or anybody else. One version was as good as the next.

One of my favorite things about Francois was that he always treated you like you were a grownup even if you were just a kid. He would ask your opinion on things that you would only know if you were a doctor, or a lawyer, or the President or something. And he'd ask you to do things that you couldn't do unless you were six feet tall, like asking me to feed his goldfish, which lived in a little aquarium on a shelf by the window. He would inquire as to how they were doing, and I would say fine. But I really didn't know because I was too short to look over the top of the aquarium, and the glass was so thick with algae that only a pale green light from the shutters could filter through. I never saw any fish, dead or alive. My grandmother told me later that there hadn't been any goldfish in the aquarium for who knows how long. And there wasn't any food in the little tin container that I dutifully raised over my head and shook into the water. I think maybe Francois knew all along and was just giving me something important to do.

I remember Francois once offering my seven-year-old cousin a cigarette. Francois was very polite and gentlemanly, holding out the pack and tapping out a cigarette. My cousin, in turn, replied in the most matter of fact, grown-up way, "No. Not at the moment. But thank you very much". Whether Francois was being playful or simply wasn't aware that my cousin was only a child, I really don't know. It was just all part of the endless surprises that happened when you went over to visit at Francois' house.

(Continued in final vignette)

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