Life in and a love for the Felicianas shine through an exhibit at The LSU Museum of Art.
Letitia Huckaby’s “This Same Dusty Road” will be on exhibit through March 14 at the gallery on the fifth floor of the Shaw Center for the Arts, 100 Lafayette St., in Baton Rouge. Visit www.lsumoa.org for exhibit times and prices.
While Huckaby didn’t grow up in the Wilson area, her mother and extended family did. Huckaby’s father was military, so holidays and summers were spent at “home,” her mother’s childhood home.
Her mom, Audrey Jenkins, now lives in Zachary, but Huckaby said numerous aunts and uncles “and a lot of cousins — my mom was one of 11” — still live in Clinton, Wilson and Baton Rouge.
Huckaby was born in Germany, where her father spent two tours of duty. “So, whenever we would come home to visit family: Louisiana, Mississippi are so different than say Europe, right?” Huckaby said.
Those visits “home” still influence her life. “I think I developed a sort of romantic attachment to Louisiana. I’ve always been drawn to nature. Even when we were in Germany, I liked to hike or rock climb or swim in ponds. … I’m a bit of a plant-aholic, even now. … I think I inherited that from a number of my ancestors cause my aunts and grandparents, they all grew stuff.”
Those grandparents lived “deep in the woods” on a dirt road. “It’s all surrounded by trees, and you’d see deer and wildlife and all this native vegetation,” the artist said. “So, Louisiana has become this romantic place in my heart; the smell of the dirt after a rain or the colors people paint their houses or just the way it looks in the different seasons. Even if I’m not making works about Louisiana specifically, I feel like the culture of it, the experience of it, feeds into everything I do. It’s just who I am.”
Huckaby said she has two favorite pieces in this exhibition. Both are large pieces and both deal with her grandmothers.
First is “East Feliciana Altarpiece,“ which is 46 inches by 144 inches, about her mother’s mother, Jesse Washington.
“It has three panels, and in the center panel is an image of my grandmother. It was the evening of her 80th birthday, and she’s all dressed up. … The family is throwing her a party and she’s sitting on the couch in the spot where she always sat when people came to visit. She could see the TV and the door.
“The two side panels … one is the goat in a field and the other panel is this large tree with moss dripping off it but it’s in a junkyard. Both of those images are visual markers for me as a child. When we’d drive to my grandmother’s house, we’d take forever to get there, and I didn’t know the way, but there were certain things I saw, as a kid, certain visual cues that tell you you are getting closer to your grandmother’s house. And both of those locations were cues for me,” she said.
“The one with the goat used to have hundreds of goats in the field. I used to love to see all the different colors and see them in the landscape it was just wonderful for me as a child. And that tree, even though it’s in a junkyard, it was the most beautiful tree. Big tree with all this moss dripping off it, something about it being in a junkyard was really appealing to me. So, I went back and photographed those pieces to include in that piece," she said.
The Altarpiece has a “pieced” frame influenced by Huckaby’s life in Europe.
“My mom was a bit of a history buff, and so we would go into any kind of old chapel or cathedral or anything like that,” she said. “In those kind of places, they always had amazing art and the art always had these huge chunky frames on it. It would be paintings of the saints, relief carvings, and it just had this grand feeling.
“So when I made that altarpiece, I sort of wanted to give that presence to the piece but do it in a way that felt more Southern to me.”
So she used the ideas of quilting and recycling.
“All those frames came from a frame shop that was going out of business and had just stacks of frames up on the side of the road. My husband threw them in his truck and brought them home and helped me,” Huckaby said. “You know how when you say your husband helped you with something: basically, I was like, this is what I want, you can make it happen.”
Huckaby’s second favorite piece takes a central place in the main room. It’s a three-dimensional piece, using a clothesline to represent her father’s mother from Greenwood, Mississippi.
“I took some of my grandmother’s old linens and I screen printed images of her over the course of her life. I used everything from an image when she was about 16 years old all the way up to one of the last images I took of her before she passed away."
Huckaby included an image of herself, and one of the many linens was a quilt made by a great-grandmother. “I never met her, but it felt to me like a sort of artistic conversation by taking her quilt and putting my artwork on top of it,” Huckaby said.
The artist said the piece is named for a phrase her grandmother said when something exciting happened, “Look what a woman’s got!”
“She said when my grandfather was in the war, she stayed with one of her brothers and one day he busted through the door and he said, “Look what a man’s got!” And he had crackers and sardines and was so excited. She was so tickled by it, so as I was growing up, anytime something exciting happened, she’d say “Look what a woman’s got!” Huckaby said.
Another part of the exhibit with a Louisiana flavor are the pieces showing nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans.
These are retired nuns in their 80s and 90s who live in the order’s Mother House.
Huckaby said this was another attempt to recreate what she saw in European art.
She said she was trying to recreate the old masters style of portraits of saints “and photograph them in a way that was grand and elevate them through the work.”
The artist said when the pieces were in a show in New Orleans, the nuns visited the work several times. “That was nice because at the beginning I don’t think they were all 100% behind what I was doing. I think they thought I was going to come in and do JC Penney style portraits that they would then send off to their families and I showed up with all these bedsheets and lights and they were like ‘What? Now what are you doing?’”
And while the exhibit at LSU is at home, Huckaby has art showing in many places. An exhibit recently ended in Dallas, but in December, shows were still up in San Antonio, New York and Vienna, Austria.
Other thoughts from the artist
When did you get your first camera?
“I got my first camera from my mom actually. And I took my first photography class: I was working for a radio station that was half country, half classic rock, and because of my job with the radio station, I was able to take a class at a vocational school at a discount
“I had always wanted to take photography but when I got my first degree my parents didn’t think photography was a viable career path. But it was OK as a hobby, so I took this class and it was black and white photography, darkroom.
“I just loved it and ended up quitting my job at the radio station and applying to a school in Boston. I had never been (to Boston) and I found a roommate online in the 90s. I went to Boston and went to school and got my photography degree, but it started out as just this little Pentax film camera and a vocational-technical school in Lawton, Oklahoma.”
When did you start quilting?
"That started when I was in grad school in Texas. I had lost my father right before I went to grad school … and it was the first time I had lost somebody really close to me. It just struck me. It made me think a lot about his life and where he was from and the experience he had and how I had been sheltered from a lot of that stuff — a lot of racial tensions, that sort of thing.
“I wanted to start being able to layer in more information into the work and fabric, especially vintage or heirloom fabric, allowed me to add a history to the work and really start a dialog with my contemporary emphasis and sort of historical ideas about race in this country, my ancestry or just black experiences in general.
“That’s when I started printing onto fabric and making quilts. It’s relatable to a lot of different people. We all have quilts in our family that have been passed down, and that makes that immediate connection between home and ancestry.”
When did you know you were an artist?
“Do I even know that now? I think I’ve always approached this as a conversation. My artwork has been my language. Maybe this last year or two I would say. I just decided I was going to go wherever the artwork would take me. …
“I have had so many experiences, and it’s been so really wonderful to see how the work is being received. I probably have felt like an artist these past couple of years just because of how much work I have been doing. And how much attention the work has been getting and the collections the work has been getting into.
“I guess the level of my experiences has gone up these past couple of years. I do more traveling, I do more talks, I do more interviews. And so it feels more like a job. Whereas before, when I was building my career, even though I was blessed to be able to do a lot of things, it was more sporadic, so it didn’t have the same feel as like a 9 to 5, I guess. So I think these past couple of years I began to feel more like a quote unquote artist.”
What would you tell someone sitting in the Felicianas thinking, “I want to do art?”
“I would say ‘Go for it.’ When I decided to pursue art, I already had a degree in journalism, and I was working at a radio station. I was in a position where my parents thought, ‘OK. She’s got a 401(k) and she’s going to be OK.’
“And I chucked all of it. Sold my car and followed what was in my heart. And really, I have never regretted it. I had a moment when I was in Boston that it kind of hit me, and I’m sure everybody has this moment, but I was in school and I had gotten a full-time job at the Limited working stock and that was how I paid my way through school. One day, I was walking through Boston. It was one of those summer rain days where the drops were really big but the sun was out. I was walking down the street and I realized 'I’m doing this myself.' It’s something I wanted to do and I just decided I was going to go for it.
“And here I am. I’m in school. I’m working. Living in a place my parents have never been. I did it all on my own. It just felt so rewarding. I just tried to keep that spirit all the way through — to sort of follow my true self.
“So, I would tell anyone out there to just go for it, just do it and follow your inner voice.”