Clementine Hunter. photo provided
Clementine Hunter. photo provided
Clementine Hunter was a self-taught Louisiana folk artist. Born in 1886 or ’87, she lived and worked for most of her life on Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches. She made thousands of paintings that depicted flowers, religion, and plantation life in the early 1900s. Today she is considered a folk art legend, and her work is on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Textile artist Catherine Childress of Sisters discovered Clementine Hunter’s work years ago, when she traveled as a regional manager for Sprint, working out of Atlanta. One day in New Orleans, Childress came upon a yarn and needlepoint boutique called The Quarter Stitch, “like the Stitchin’ Post only for yarn,” she said. Hanging on the shop’s walls were needlepoint reproductions of some of Clementine Hunter’s most iconic scenes. As it turns out, the original owner of The Quarter Stitch had licensed the rights to reproduce several of Hunter’s most iconic works as needlepoint kits that include stamped canvas and yarn in appropriate colors.

Childress grew up in Atlanta, so she was immediately drawn to the themes of Hunter’s work: life in the post-Civil-War South, the folk art style, and the color. Over the years, she needlepointed 15 Clementine Hunter paintings, using the materials supplied by The Quarter Stitch. She set them aside for a while during the time she cared for her husband, Dave, when he had cancer.

When she moved to a new home in Sisters, she had the needlepoints framed and hung in her sunny sewing room. She is now working on a 16th needlepoint reproduction. For a few days this month, Childress’s needlepoints are on loan to Sisters Library, in the Computer Room, as part of the many colorful exhibits that make up the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show.

Dawn Boyd, the Quilt Show’s executive director, said, “I am super excited to offer an additional type of fiber art. I love the historical context, the simplicity and bright colors, and being able to share them with our quilting community.”

Although she spent her life in poverty, Clementine Hunter never considered herself to be poor. She was born at the Hidden Hill Plantation, thought to be the inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She worked in the fields there, and at first when her family moved to Melrose Plantation. In the 1920s, she began working in the plantation house at Melrose, cooking and doing laundry.

Cammie Henry, the woman who owned Melrose, loved the arts, and she hosted artists and writers from all over the country. After one visit, New Orleans artist Alberta Kinsey left behind some brushes and tubes of paint. Hunter picked them up and, it’s said, created her first painting on an old window shade.

Clementine Hunter had two husbands and seven children. She never learned to read or write, but she did sign her work with her initials, CH, and sometimes the C is backwards. Each needlepoint includes the initials just as Hunter made them.

During her lifetime, she was the first African American artist to have a show at the Delgado Museum, now called the New Orleans Museum of Art, but because of the laws in effect then, she could not attend. President Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House, but she declined because she didn’t like to travel outside of Louisiana. Northwestern State University of Louisiana made her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts in 1986, and Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards designated her as an honorary colonel.

Clementine Hunter lived to be 101, and she painted nearly every day until she became too sick. It’s impossible to know exactly how many paintings she did, but it’s somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. She died on January 1, 1988, and is buried at St. Augustine Catholic Church Cemetery in Natchitoches.