“I just get it in my mind and I just go ahead and paint but I can’t look at nothing and paint. No trees, no nothing. I just make my own tree in my mind, that’s the way I paint.”
These were the words of my great-great grandmother, Clementine Hunter, a woman noted as one of the most important folk artists of her time. Born to a Creole family in the Cane River region of Natchitoches near Cloutierville, Louisiana, she spent most of her life on Melrose Plantation, now a National Historic Landmark.
On the brink of adolescence, overt racism turned Clementine away from school, but her ability to paint stories depicting Black life in the deepest pocket of the American South was so impactful that she would later be granted an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Northwestern State University of Louisiana. President Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House, and she was the first African-American with works on display in a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art — one of her many museum exhibitions to date.
She died in 1988. “Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter” would be presented as a play in her honor 25 years later. A self-taught Black woman with a spirit so impenetrable that she could pick 78 pounds of cotton the morning before having a baby and return to work a few days later, she knew how to create something special out of nothing — that was the way she painted and the way she lived.
Clementine’s colorful documentation of life is solidified in history because it spoke truth to her existence. And yet, because she lacked formal trainings and titles, her art is also categorized as “outsider art.”
“Over the years, it [outsider art] has been used increasingly loosely and can often now refer to…