When Kathy Whitehead’s children wanted to go to Disneyland for summer vacation, she instead chose the Melrose Plantation, near Natchitoches, Louisiana. While the children might have pined for Mickey Mouse, Whitehead found the subject for her newest children’s book, “Art from Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter.”
And it turned out to be a worthy subject— Whitehead teamed with Kansas City artist Shane Evans to create a quick read on Hunter, a plantation laborer who began painting on her own and rose to find critical acclaim with her simply, folksy style.
“The book is doing real well. It was named an Alabama Emphasis Award Top 10 book, which means every second and third grader in that state will get a book and get to vote on their favorite,” she said. “Just being in the top 10 is pretty good!”
“I wanted to write this book for young children so they could get an introduction to her,” Whitehead said. “It’s now being used in a lot of grade levels.”
The story of Clementine (pronounced “Clementeen”) Hunter is one of natural talent. The descendant of slaves, she was born in late 1886 and worked as a manual laborer on the plantation. She lived on Melrose Plantation, a well-known haven for artists and writers.
At about age 50, Clementine asked if she could have leftover paints thrown away by visiting New Orleans artist Alberta Kinsey. Writer François Mignon, who “visited” for over 30 years, gave her an old window shade to use as a canvas. She took the paints and produced her first art that night by the light of a kerosene lantern.
The next morning, she showed her work to Mignon, who was taken by it. She began to sell her work for 25 cents a piece and her reputation grew in artistic circles. The costs of her pieces grew to three dollars apiece in the early sixties, hundreds of dollars in the seventies and thousands by the 1980s.
“Her work is really interesting when you see it up close and personal—it’s very vibrant and she kind of editorializes in her paints. For example, she would make a bride bigger than the groom because she felt the bride was more important,” Whitehead said. “Or if there was someone she didn’t like, she might make him smaller than all the rest of the subjects.”
Whitehead said her work also documents her life of labor, with representations of farm machinery and other rural working details.
“It was really hard to figure out how to write this book because there was so much information,” she said. Whitehead pared the prose down to a manageable book that children can read and get a good feel for Hunter’s personality and her work.
Hunter was the first self-taught African- American artist to win the attention of the national media at the same time segregation laws kept her from viewing her own work in museums. In 1955 the Delgado Museum presented a Hunter exhibition, the first ever by a black author. But she had to see it on a Sunday when the museum was closed and be snuck in by a friend through the back door.
Finding a publisher
Whitehead went to a childrens’ writers conference in Houston and met an editor. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Books of New York, accepted the material. With the slow pace of the publishing world, the book was printed and ready for distribution a scant five years later.
Whitehead’s prose was paired with Kansas City artist Shane Evans, an African- American who works in everything from painting to sketches to furniture design to photography.
“I thought Shane was excellent,” Whitehead said of the artist she has never met face to face. “He had energy I wanted and was pleased with what he did.”
Evans’s website is www.shaneevans.com.
Whitehead lives in College Station, but has plenty of local connections. Her parents are Steve and Jean McFaull, who reside near Minerva.
Whitehead is currently writing a middlegrade mystery using elements of Texas history. Her website is www.kathywhitehead. com. PRAISE, RECOGNITION FOR ART FROM HER HEART
“The message of Clemtine Hunter’s life, to not wait for the perfect time to create, will inspire many readers.”—Ashley Bryan, winner, Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration
• New York Puoblic Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing • Alabama’s 2009-10 Emphasis on Reading Award Master List • Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books of 2008 • Junior Library Guild Selection 2008