Sometimes reflection takes me down a rabbit hole that I did not foresee. I find myself in that position now. I was approached as an artist to help with a program at Goodwood Museum and Gardens that was obtaining, on loan, the works of Clementine Hunter. As I stumbled through the conversation, attempting to sound a bit enthusiastic for them, I thought “Who the heck is that”. Sometimes people assume that because you are an artist you know about all artists throughout history. I will admit that my knowledge in that regard is pretty slack. I agreed to help, a bit, still not really knowing who she was. Of course, once home I researched her.
Clementine was a black painter born in 1886. Her parents where slaves at one time. They were still employed as field hands doing the hard work for the plantation in Louisiana. In the 1940’s she and her family moved to Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, where she lived and worked as a cook and domestic. As you know, the plantation life, with no free labor, was waning and Melrose was failing. Carmelite Garrett Henry of Melrose brought it back to life as an artist colony where writers and authors stayed. They encouraged Clementine to paint by giving her paints and supplies. Thus her career began. Her work is simple, untrained, and childlike but its simplicity tells the story of her and her people of the fields and community.
So now you and I know who she was. The “why” was that Goodwood wanted to present her work as a contrast to the art procured by the Arrowsmith’s of Goodwood, mostly Mrs. Arrowsmith. This would be art of the Grand Tour. You know when all the well healed traveled Europe to play and buy things. Well a small problem was that there is a bit of a time gap here. The Arrowsmith’s owned Goodwood from 1886 – 1911. They did furnish the house with lovely European art and objects. However, Clementine didn’t start painting until the 1940’s. Sadly, I don’t know that much had changed from her experience as a domestic and the 50 years prior when the Arrowsmiths owned the house.
I didn’t think too heavily about this at the time. I just filed that away thinking that the board of Goodwood had thought this through and this was their program and it seemed like a good idea. European art contrasting with untrained art of an ex-fieldhand; you know, the haves and the have nots. You might begin to see the problem here as I lay this out.
Now, we know that in Tallahassee, just as now, and just as in everywhere else, there was a thriving middle class black community and there was an extremely poor community. There were those still providing domestic and field help to the large manor homes of the area…yes, they were still called plantations. But here is one of the little itches under my collar, Goodwood doesn’t call itself a Plantation now. They don’t like to use that word. Granted, when you look at its long life from the 1840’s to today, it has not operated as a Plantation for most of that time. It became a grand home, a hub of political and social activity and entertainment. Unfortunately, there is little historical data of slavery at Goodwood or conditions that the help lived in. That isn’t really surprising because really it wouldn’t have been of much concern to write of anything distasteful.
But here is the thing, all through this group of events, they did not address the lives of the domestics or field hands. They did have one program that talked about the religious practice of hush arbors which was a way for slaves to quietly practice their religion as a mix of Christian and African.
So you have to ask yourself how did we get Clementine Hunter here? One of the co-directors knew the major collector. That is all fine and good, her work has value as the story of her time and experience. However, Goodwood has not addressed that at all. That is my problem. She was an interesting lady, no doubt, but really what does it have to do with Goodwood? It was a stretch. As a newspaper person once asked me. “What does this have to do with Tallahassee?”. Not really a darn thing if you aren’t going to talk about the poverty, the back breaking labor, the community churches, the ways of life of Clementine’s time that where similar to the people here in Tallahassee working in the Plantations, farms, and homes.
I don’t know, I just don’t see much celebration in the wide chasm between the haves and the have nots. It is sort of like when they have the big real estate open house and the million dollar homes have the most traffic because who doesn’t like to see how the other half lives. Goodwood is a beautiful home and has lovely tended southern gardens. It has some interesting architectural elements but, yes, it is how the other half lived. Maybe, they should just stick with that. Even a large majority of their supporters come from the “have” side of things. That is not that unusual in that that is where the money and time often is to participate. But it all feels classist and it clashes in my mind with trying to pull some of the white privilege out in the open. I could be overthinking this, as I said, a rabbit hole, but it is itchy.