Randell Henry is filled with awe when he walks into Martin Payton’s sculpture-filled studio.
Payton was a professor of art at Southern University for 20 years, retiring as the chairman of the university’s Visual Arts Department in 2010. And though Henry knows that an artist never stops working, he was struck by the volume of work produced by Payton in retirement.
“It was an inspiration,” says Henry, an art professor at the university. “And it inspired me to put a show together featuring the work of retired art professors.”
The exhibit, “Southern Rhythms: Art by Former Visual Arts Professors of Southern University,” runs through March 24 in the Southern University Visual Arts Gallery in Frank Hayden Hall. Payton is the only living artist in this show, which also features paintings and sculptures by Frank Hayden, who died while still teacing at SU; Harold Cureau and Jean Paul Hubbard.
“But they are all former Southern University professors, and they all kept producing work,” Henry says.
Henry was both student and colleague to these professors and remembers watching Hubbard paint one of the show’s works in a class.
“I was his student, and his daughter was a child at the time,” Henry says. “She and a friend — a boy — were playing in the backyard one day, and the young boy found a dead bird and started chasing her with hit. It’s just one of those things little boys will do.”
Hubbard finally put a stop to the chasing game and gave the boy a pencil and paper.
“He said the boy’s punishment was to draw the dead bird,” Henry says. “At the same time, Professor Hubbard was drawing it and his drawing inspired the painting.”
Hubbard titled his painting “Song of Life.” Its images of a pregnant woman holding a dove, a nest of unhatched eggs and a dead bird hanging upside down from a branch represent the circle of life.
“I had my eye on that painting for a long time,” Henry says. “I told this to Professor Hubbard while visiting him one day, and he said he would sell it to me. He quoted a price that was way too low, and I paid him more.”
Hubbard left behind 40 years of art when he died in 1997 at age 85. He was a native of Virginia and chaired Southern’s arts department from 1964 to 1983.
Cureau worked at Southern from 1960 to 1985. His work fills two walls in this show.
“His wife is downsizing, and she had a lot of his large works on her walls,” Henry says. “She asked members of her family if they wanted them, but they didn’t. To make a long story short, I bought them.”
The collection is a combination of pieces owned by Henry and Mrs. Cureau, providing a glimpse at Cureau’s varied abstract and impressionistic styles.
They complement the five Hayden sculptures rounding out the show.
Henry owns one of the Hayden pieces. The others are part of the Southern Museum of Art’s collection.
“Those four sculptures were borrowed for a show by the Dallas Museum of African American Art,” Henry says. “They called, asking where to ship the sculptures, and we had them shipped directly to the gallery for this show.”
Hayden was a professor at Southern from 1961 until his death in 1988 at age 54. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Xavier University in New Orleans and studied with famed sculptor Ivan Mestrovic at the University of Notre Dame.
Hayden also was the recipient of a Fullbright Scholarship, and his public artworks can be found throughout Baton Rouge.
“These artists produced a large volume of great work,” Henry says. “That’s why I was so struck when I visited Martin Payton’s studio. He has all of this time to himself, and he uses it to make art. It’s an inspiration.”