Dance Hall1955 by Clementine Hunter

If we had an American Artist month, as we have a Black History and Women’s History month, Clementine Hunter would be at the top of the list of artists to celebrate. She is easily one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. She was self-taught, creating her first painting with discarded paints and brushes. A window shade was her canvas.

Hunter produced thousands of paintings and received widespread acclaim. Her paintings hang in the Smithsonian Institution, the American Folk Art Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, among other museums; many of her paintings are owned privately. Her art will be prominently displayed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture that is scheduled to open on the Mall in Washington, DC two years from now [2013].

Yet she remained a simple woman; she never learned to read or write but she was a chronicler of history; she expressed, in art, what life on a cotton plantation in the South was like. It was there that she lived, after all, to the day she died, at 101.

She called Melrose Plantation, in the Cane River Valley, Louisiana, her home for all but her youngest years. She was born in 1887. In the early days, she picked cotton in the fields and gathered pecans in the groves; she became a domestic servant as she approached middle age; she married and raised five children.

It was in the late 1930s that she began painting, having access to the discarded paints an artist from New Orleans--who made frequent visits to the plantation--left behind. Hunter’s paintings, in stunning color and intricate detail, provide a narrative of the experience of African American and Creole people who lived and worked on and around the plantation. She was an acute observer and, at times, a fanciful and good-humored eyewitness. Hunter painted on anything, finding discarded items such as shades, jugs, bottles and gourds--and cardboard boxes--to be suitable for her expressive observations.

Her paintings were first exhibited in public at Northwestern State University of Louisiana but she was not allowed to visit during the gallery’s open hours. She had to view her own art when the exhibit was closed to the public. She was awarded an honorary degree from this institution some years later and demonstrated considerable grace, even magnanimity, in accepting it. The year was 1986, two years before she died.

Hunter continued to paint up until a few days before when, in 1988, on the first day of the year, she died.
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