If only in my mind and sculpture and MacBook. Back before the beginning of time, or so it seems, I roamed St. Joseph, Louisiana, the parish seat of Tensas Parish. (Pronounced ten-saw, by the way, like Arkansas) As we get older, I'm told, we become more in touch with our youth and more aware of the distance between now and then. That particular season of my existence began to surface after a spring storm this year which downed some fair-sized trees at Wise Acres. Too large and too heavy to drag off to the brush pile, I resigned myself to sawing them up into manageable chunks.
But the more I looked at them, the more they reminded me of something. Something I had seen many years ago. Tupelo and cypress trees in the bayou, reaching barkless dead fingers out of backwaters and sloughs. And something else. Art made of these expressive pieces of nature. Primitive art, all the more powerful for its lack of, or even avoidance of, artistic sophistication.
I was also experiencing writing blockage on a novel I'm trying to finish for publication in 2019. A switch to sculpture often frees up creative inertia in writing so I began making pieces influenced by childhood memories of Tensas Parish. I became so immersed in it that I didn't much care about the writing; it has become an idée fixe, and the show even has a name this early in the game. "A love letter to Tensas Parish."
Four pieces in, I decided to contact some people from there. A talented poet/librarian named Garland Strother surfaced online. He agreed to send me a picture and a short bio. I will be posting his Tensas-oriented poems and materials at the show. I found a young entrepreneur from Tensas Parish, an LSU grad, Joel Brannan, who is building a distillery for his Magnolia brand vodka. I talked to the Mayor, Elvadus Fields, for a delightful hour. The list of honorees is growing.
If you come to the show (Hilliard Gallery, KC crossroads, May, 2019, First Friday May-June) expect to see representatives of Tensas Parish and St. Joe, the parish seat, on the walls. These are interesting people. All the more so, because they belong to an exclusive club: the least populated parish in Louisiana, and they're all making marks.
A little about that neck of the bayou: there are three towns in the parish, St.Joseph, Newellton and Waterproof. The parish butts up to the Mississippi River, and has a couple of big oxbow lakes. Lake Bruin is about 3,000 acres of extremely clear water.
Among the celebrated from Tensas Parish is a bodyguard for Huey P. Long who was present at the "assassination." That's in quotes because it's looking less and less like a murder and more like a ricochet accident. The assailant may not even have been armed, but the gun (they say) he had was a .32 revolver. Long died from a .38 caliber wound. Check it out here for some fascinating history.
I shot my first duck in the parish bayou, a merganser. We were in a johnboat among the cypress trees, my stepfather, me, and a sweet water spaniel named Suzy who lived with us later in Tulsa. The shotgun was nearly as tall as I was, an Ithaca 16 guage pump that still hangs on the wall all these years later. The duck hit the water but was alive enough to slip in among the cypress roots and evade us. Suzy jumped into the water and caught it, swam back to the boat. It was the only duck we got that day.
So, a rite of passage occurred down there. But I quit hunting altogether about forty years ago. Blasting unarmed creatures when you don't need to do that to survive was counter to my idea of myself. Many things are. But the good people of St. Joe and nearby towns own qualities I would do well to aspire to, even at this late date.
Tensas Parish keeps declining in numbers, in income, in solutions. But I'm thinking with notables like those I've mentioned and those I'll meet, that may start to reverse itself. The mayor mentioned a lady named Vivian who left St. Joe to get a top nursing degree in Maryland. She came back and is investing in the town. She runs a restaurant and is rehabbing a derelict mansion as a home for women who need a sanctuary. I want to get her bio and a photo for the show. And others. I hope to have a nice wall of fame for the show in May. Y'all come, hear?
And I hope that book is on Amazon by then, and you've got a copy and recommended it to your book club and Oprah, and my royalties are better than the $12.74 I got last quarter.