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Exploring Art at Whitney Plantation

April 2, 2019 by · Comments Off on Exploring Art at Whitney Plantation 

This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of DeSoto Magazine.

Georges Braque, a famous French artist who helped develop Cubism said, “Art is a wound turned into light.” That quote describes the Whitney Children perfectly: 40 life-sized terracotta statues of enslaved African-American children created by sculptor Woodrow Nash. The haunting boys and girls in ragged clothes are scattered around the grounds of Whitney Plantation, in Wallace, Louisiana. Most are placed in Antioch Baptist Church, the location where guided tours begin. As you move throughout the church, the statues pull at your heart and make you question what they are thinking. If these pieces of art don’t touch your soul, I dare say nothing will. 

Antioch Baptist Church now on Whitney Plantation

The endearing children are the work of Ohio-based sculptor Woodrow Nash, commissioned by Jim Cummings, Whitney Plantation’s owner. Nash, who describes his style as African Nouveau, has a consuming passion for elevating the human spirit. He builds a sense of mystery and charisma into each piece, clearly evident in the Whitney children. 

Whitney Children sitting on a church pew.

When approached while working on the Children of Whitney, Nash said: “I want these pieces to be as genuine to true slave life as possible. This project has been a challenge that I’ve looked forward to for a long time. My pieces will breathe life into the whole plantation.”

Sculptures by Woodrow Nash, the Whitney Children as seen in the Antioch Church.

Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014 as the first plantation museum in Louisiana to focus exclusively on the lives of the slaves, and one of very few in the country. Many of the famous Louisiana River Plantations, like Oak Alley, have finally begun to include slave stories and slave cabins on tours. However, most estates in the Old South continue to focus on the grandeur of the big house and lives of the wealthy landowners. Whitney Plantation portrays the opposite. 

Whitney focuses the point of view on children because the collected oral histories from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s came from former slaves. These people were children at the time of emancipation in 1865, so their stories came from their youth. Whitney presents their recollections as told in their own words.

You’ll find some of the statues scattered around the plantation.
Two boys on the porch of a slave cabin.

To accomplish this, each visitor receives a lanyard with a card imprinted with a photo and name associated with an individual sculpture. The flip side of the card contains a brief narrative—in the original dialect and vernacular as told to the WPA. These snippets are among the 2,200 collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. The museum thus brings the past to life when visitors search for the child on their card, find the replica and make a connection.

John Cummings, a wealthy New Orleans lawyer, bought the plantation property about 16 years ago. Originally German immigrants, the Heidels (also spelled “Haydel”), were the landowners. They grew indigo and then the more profitable sugar cane from 1752 to 1867. Its second owner named it Whitney, after his grandson.

Cummings came to the realization that Americans knew little about the lives of slaves. He developed plans to educate them through visits to the plantation. He spent over $8 million of his own money to establish Whitney, a work still in progress. Especially noteworthy are the church and seven slave cabins, purchased and moved to the site to help tell the story. 

Statue of slave girl inside the Big House.

Guides move tours through the Whitney in a specific order. After leaving the church, visitors encounter The Field of Angels, a circular courtyard, featuring a poignant bronze statue by Rod Moorhead of a black angel holding a baby. The area is dedicated to the 2,200 slave children who died before their third birthdays in St. John the Baptist Parish. 

Statue in the Field of Angles, Whitney Plantation

Further along, a Wall of Honor, similar to war memorial walls, recognizes the 354 people who were enslaved at Whitney. 

Then, the most shocking part of the tour is the memorial to an 1811 slave uprising. Dozens of black, life-sized men’s heads stand on sticks in the ground. This is a brutal display, but unforgettable art. About 500 slaves participated in the uprising with the aim of escaping to New Orleans. Most never made it that far. Many of the captured were killed — and their decapitated heads were put on sticks along the river to terrify others. 

Slave Rebellion Heads at Whitney Plantation

The tour continues toward the slave quarters where guests discover a few more Whitney Children, one sitting on the front porch. Stepping into the cramped cabin provides a perspective on the bare-bones accommodations provided for the slave population. At one time, Whitney had 22 slave cabins, each serving at least two families. Nearby sits the kitchen, the oldest in Louisiana, where typically female slaves toiled over burning fires. 

A slave cabin at Whitney Plantation for hold two families.

Last stop is the French-Creole-style Big House built in the late 18th century. A few children worked in the house along with other servants. Therefore, another statue of a little girl rests there, in opposition to the fine antique furnishings and artworks. Guides use her to talk about the lives of the house slaves, the long hours they kept and the pallets where they slept on the floor. By the end of the tour, most visitors fall silent. Whitney is an attention-grabbing and moving place. 

Whitney Plantation Kitchen is the oldest kitchen in Louisiana.

Plantation owner Jim Cummings said, “You can’t rewrite history but you can right many of the wrongs—primarily with education.” Whitney Plantation makes significant strides in that direction. 

The Big House on Whitney Plantation

If you go: Whitney Plantation is about 32 miles from the New Orleans airport, 5099 Highway 18, Wallace, Louisiana. (225) 265-3300. Open daily 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Tours are on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Advance reservations are recommended. Tours cost $22; $15 for students with ID, military, those age 65 and older; free for children under age 12. They are 90 minutes, all on foot and mostly on gravel paths. Those with special needs should call in advance. www.whitneyplantation.com. Whitney Plantation is a member of the New Orleans Plantation Country group: visitnopc.com.

My Too Brief Visit to Natchitoches, Louisiana

May 6, 2015 by · Comments Off on My Too Brief Visit to Natchitoches, Louisiana 

Have you ever driven through a city or town and immediately wanted to stop and explore? That’s how I felt when I reached Natchitoches, Louisiana, site of the town in the movie Steel Magnolias. Fortunately, I had a few hours to spend, but the brief visit only increased my desire to return. The destination has much to offer.

Downtown Cane River Lake in Natchitoches LA

Downtown Cane River Lake in Natchitoches LA

Natchitoches (pronounced “Nack-a-tish”) is the oldest community in the Louisiana Purchase territory. Today, it’s the B&B capital of the state including many historic homes that look inviting for a girl’s getaway or romantic escape. The lively riverfront of the downtown district borders the beautifully landscaped Cane River Lake. I stopped into the Northwest Louisiana History Museum, which also houses the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Downtown Natchitoches

Downtown Natchitoches

I found the museum’s new (but year long) exhibition impressive: The Murals of Clementine Hunter. “Clementine Hunter is a great example of the creative genius who arises from the most unlikely circumstances,” said Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne at the exhibits opening on March 28, 2015. “After the age of 50, with little more than her own vision and fierce determination, she picked up a brush and painted her way to wide acclaim.”

Murals of Clementine Hunter
Wash Day – The Murals of Clementine Hunter

 

Hunter Murals-6

The Baptism by Clementine Hunter

 

Most of Hunter’s works document the social life and customs of the African-American community as she saw it. Her early days were spent picking cotton and pecans at Melrose Plantation, and eventually she moved into the Big House to help with kitchen and laundry duties. There her first creative endeavors were sparked; making dolls and quilting. One day she picked up a leftover paintbrush and started painting. She never stopped until a few days before her death at age 101.

Murals of Clementine Hunter
Murals of Clementine Hunter

 

She painted her memories, so we see an insider’s perspective on life from 1939 to 1988. The murals (removed for renovation from the walls of the African and Yucca House on Melrose Plantation) are large, four by eight feet. The size brings the viewer into the painting, and the primitive style provokes a level of understanding, not intimidation. Hunter often drew women larger than men because she saw them as more important.

Living History at Fort St. Jean Baptiste

Living History at Fort St. Jean Baptiste

I didn’t have time to visit the National Park site in Natchitoches: the Cane River Creole Plantation, which includes Oakland and Magnolia Plantations. I did make it out to Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The full-scale wooden reconstruction sits near the site of the original fort based upon archival research. Many of the interior buildings: a trading warehouse, powder magazine, church, commandant’s house, barracks, guardhouse, and bastions reminded me of those within St. Augustine’s fort. Costumed interpreters portray life during the period when French soldiers lived in Louisiana.

Costumed Interpreter

Costumed Interpreter

 

 

 

 

 

The Cane River used to pass by the fort and downtown district, but the river changed course in the 1830’s. The loss of the former port, bustling with cotton and sugar shipments, also changed the economy of the area. Natchitoches suffered through the Civil War and Great Depression and growth came slow during the industrial age. Tourism is now one of the primary sources of income. Visitors will find appealing shops, restaurants featuring Southern, Creole, and Cajun cuisine, comfortable lodging, museums and many National Historical Landmarks worthy of a tour.

The City of Natchitoches was established in 1714 and is the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory. Historic Front Street, shown here, is part of the commercial heart of the 33-block National Historic Landmark District. (Photo by Mark Bills)

The City of Natchitoches was established in 1714 and is the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory. Historic Front Street, shown here, is part of the commercial heart of the 33-block National Historic Landmark District. (Photo by Mark Bills)

 

 

 

If you go:

Natchitoches lies in Northwest Louisiana, 256 miles or about a 4-hour drive from New Orleans. Spots of interest along the way include Baton Rouge, Plantation Alley, Atchafalaya River Basin, Lafayette, and the Kisatchie National Forest.

Try the meat pies at Maglieaux’s on the Cane.

The Spirit of Mardis Gras ~ New Orleans 2009

March 1, 2009 by · Comments Off on The Spirit of Mardis Gras ~ New Orleans 2009 

Krewe of Zulu

Krewe of Zulu member displays coconut "throws"

“Throw me some beads, mister,” is the cry heard all along parade routes, except at the Zulu promenade, where tradition calls for coconuts to be given away.

New Orleans embraces joie de vivre at Mardi Gras ; a jolly spirit like the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.  Strangers are friendly; they hand out small tokens; passersby smile and speak to one another.

Should that be unusual?  Well no, but sadly, most city streets don’t feel that way.

In New Orleans, folks wear outfits or masks on Fat Tuesday, which helps create a lighthearted mood.  They hang glitzy wreaths of purple, green and gold.  But unlike Christmas, Mardi Gras plays to a soundtrack of rhythm and blues, and is celebrated outdoors. The air smells from the pulse of the crowd, of hot dogs, beer and alcohol.

No one tossed me a coconut at the Zulu parade, but I caught lots of beads and gave most away. I dressed as Cruella DeVil ; my friend as a Dalmatian.  Revelers stopped us to take our picture.

Bourbon Street Awards Contestant

Bourbon Street Awards contestant

We gawked and laughed along with the participants in the obstreperous Bourbon Street Awards : a flamboyant drag-queen contest that, honey, is just something else.

At breakfast, I stuffed myself on waffles; ate a shrimp po’boy (sandwich) for lunch in a hole-in-the-wall cafe. Dog and I drank wine as we threw beads from a balcony over hanging the street.

In Louisiana, Fat Tuesday is a legal holiday, a date celebrated with abandon; one I look forward to annually.  Thankfully, the ghost of Katrina has faded. As Tiny Tim might say, “God bless Mardi Gras, every one.”

Mardi Gras Costumes--Dalmation Puppy and Cruella DeVil

Mardi Gras Costumes--Dalmation Puppy and Cruella DeVil


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