Louisiana’s Artist

Whatever you do, be sure to read the chapter about the FBI.

It’s called “Fakes, Forgeries, and the FBI,” and it starts on page 120 in Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art.

That’s the book Tom Whitehead co-authored with Art Shiver. LSU Press published it in September, and the LSU Museum of Art is hosting the exhibit Louisiana’s Artist: Clementine Hunter to coincide with the book’s publication.

The show runs through March 31, 2013, and features rare works, even Hunter’s palette, which is basically a long piece of plywood.

Whitehead now owns the palette, and its backside is plastered in labels used by the FBI in an art forgery case, the same case discussed in the chapter, “Fakes, Forgeries, and the FBI.”

It’s interesting reading, but even the book can’t match the storyteller in Whitehead.

He knew Hunter, and he worked with FBI agents who uncovered the crime. He talked to the across-the-street neighbor who shrugged off work to watch the show.

And he was one of the first to learn about the cat hair. Yep, cat hair. It was one of the determining factors in deciphering which paintings were created by Clementine Hunter’s hand, and which ones were made by William Toye’s.

Toye, not Hunter, is the main character in this chapter. He and his wife Beryl lived in a two-story house on Keaty Drive in Baton Rouge.

No one really knew the true story of William Toye’s past. He was from New Orleans. He told some people that he had been a symphony conductor, others that he had been a composer. And he told art collector Don Fuson that he and his wife were Hurricane Katrina evacuees and needed money on which to live.

So, Fuson agreed to help out by buying what William Toye described as his collection of Clementine Hunter paintings, a transaction that would trigger an FBI investigation that would end one morning at the Keaty Drive residence.

The chapter outlines the investigation from beginning to end. This is where the palette plays into the story. The agency tested Hunter’s dried paint and compared it to that on Toye’s forgeries.

There was no match.

And on the morning of Sept. 30, 2009, the FBI converged on the two-story house on Keaty Drive.

“It was quite a show,” Whitehead said in an interview. “The neighbor across the street worked at LSU, and he was walking to his car that morning, when he saw all of these black vehicles drive up and surround the Toyes’ house. He went back inside and called into work. He told them he wasn’t going to be coming in that day, then he set a lawn chair in the middle of his front yard and watched.”

FBI agents were in the black vehicles. They had a warrant to search the Toyes’ residence, and their sense of smell immediately was assaulted by the acrid smell of cat urine.

“The Toyes had over 30 cats, and there were no litter boxes in the house,” Whitehead said. “The cats were everywhere, and the FBI saw that there was a problem, so they had to call animal control.”

The agents were helping East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control in herding cats when the drama took another turn.

“Mrs. Toye walked in waving a bottle of pills and threatened to kill herself,” Whitehead said. “So, the FBI had to call the medical examiner’s office. Now, imagine that you’re this guy sitting in your front yard, watching all of this. There’s your neighbors’ house surrounded by the FBI, animal control and the medical examiner. It really was a show.”

A show that ended with the incarceration of New Orleans art dealer Robert Lucky and committing of William and Beryl Toye to a Baton Rouge nursing home.

Those decisions were handed down in 2010, after the Toyes struck a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Louisiana in Lafayette. The New York Times covered the story, as did Louisiana author John Ed Bradley, who previously wrote a feature story about the Toyes for Gun and Garden magazine. He’s not writing a book.

Oh, and the cat hair?

“Well, when the FBI was testing Mr. Toye’s painting, they found cat hair imbedded in the paint,” Whitehead said.

With the 30-plus cats roaming his house, it was likely that William Toye’s work would have cat hair in the mix. But not Hunter’s.

The result was a landmark case for the art world.

“Rarely has there been a federal prosecution of self-taught art forgeries,” Shiver and Whitehead wrote in Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art. “The Toye/Lucky forgery cases recognized works by self-taught artists as a legitimate art form.”

Now one can’t help wondering if Hunter would have ever thought her work would be the center of a national investigation. Then again, did she ever dream that her art would be known worldwide?

Hunter was born some time in the weeks between late December 1886, and early January 1887. She was 101 when she died on Jan. 1, 1988, and in her century of life, she rose from field hand to acclaimed artist.

Hunter was born on a plantation said to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The place is known as Little Eva Plantation these days, named for the fictional young character who was kind to Uncle Tom.

Little Eva Plantation is located in the small community of Chopin in the southernmost part of Natchitoches Parish, and it was there where Hunter spent her first 15 years before moving to Melrose Plantation. She attended school only 10 days in her lifetime and never learned to read or write.

Melrose stands on the Cane River between the city of Natchitoches and the once thriving town of Cloutierville. The plantation itself is rich in history, having been home to a woman named Marie Therese CoinCoin, a slave in the household of Natchitoches founder Louis Juchereau de St. Denis.

She is said to have been beautiful. French merchant Pierre Metoyer was smitten and leased her from St. Denis. Metoyer gave her the plantation, where the couple became parents to 10 children.

Louisiana’s Code Noir forbade marriage between whites and blacks, so Metoyer bought CoinCoin’s freedom, as well as that of his children. Their oldest son, Augustin Metoyer built what is now Melrose Plantation’s big house. He also built St. Augustin Catholic Church just across the river from the plantation.

Hunter later would portray all of these buildings in her work, as well as the plantation’s structure known as the African House. The plantation now is open for public tours, and visitors are invited to climb the stairs to the African House’s top floor, where walls are covered by Hunter’s murals depicting life.

Glance in one direction, and you’ll see workers picking cotton. Look in another, and you’ll see a bar fight, then the newly confirmed walking in a line toward a Cane River baptism in another.

And then there, sitting in front of the Yucca House, is Hunter’s depiction of Louisiana author Lyle Saxon. The Yucca House is Melrose’s original quarters where CoinCoin lived when she owned and ran the plantation. Saxon referred to it as “the cabin,” his home away from his home in New Orleans.

John H. Henry and his wife Cammie were the plantation’s owners by that time, but Cammie Henry was its driving force. Melrose was still a working plantation, but Cammie Henry also opened it as an artist’s colony. Her only requirement was that artists-in-residence had to produce work each day.

Saxon often visited for extended stays and introduced other writers and artists to the plantation, including the painter Alberta Kinsey. Kinsey was an Ohio native who left her school teaching job to enroll in art classes at Newcomb College on the Tulane University campus.

As the story goes, she fell in love with the French Quarter, so much that she elected to stay there and paint rather than return to Newcomb. She eventually bought a house on Royal Street. She turned the front into a shop, where she supported herself through sales of her artwork.

Saxon wrote about Kinsey in his 1948 posthumously published book, The Friends of Joe Gilmore. There’s also a chapter about Hunter in that book.

But missing is the story of how at the end of one visit, Kinsey left behind what little was left in her oil tubes for Hunter.

Whitehead and Shiver write about it in their book. And now the painting that possibly resulted from that story is on display in the LSU Museum of Art’s current exhibit.

“It’s possibly Clementine’s first painting,” Whitehead said.

“If it’s not, it’s one of her first. It’s called ‘Socialized Medicine,’ and Francois Mignon writes about this painting in his journal. He describes it as a plantation nurse administering medicine to a patient, and that’s exactly what this painting seems to depict.”

Mignon is another writer who visited Melrose. More about him later.

Back to the painting, it’s clearly different from the ones that followed.

“The paint is thin, whereas it is thick in her later paintings,” Natalie Mault explained. “Paint would have been hard to come by for her, so she made the best use of what she had.”

Mault is the museum’s curator and oversaw the installation of this exhibit.

“It’s a small exhibit, but it’s significant,’ she said. “Lyle Saxon presented this painting to the state librarian, and she donated it to the library.”

“And the painting is a part of the library’s collection,” Whitehead said. “They keep it in storage. This is probably the first time it’s ever been on exhibit.”

Whitehead said this while signing copies of his book only a few feet from the painting. The museum hosted a September book signing for him and Shiver in the gallery. It was a celebration of the completion of a 10-year project.

That’s how long it took the authors to research and write Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art. Shiver was working for a Shreveport television station at the time; Whitehead was a journalism professor at Northwestern State University in his hometown of Natchitoches.

Shiver and his wife later moved to South Carolina, but Shiver kept working on the project. The book is the duo’s second, its first being the coffee table-size book, Clementine Hunter: The African House Murals.

This, as a side note, has inspired a musical by the playwright Robert Wilson. Those who follow events in the LSU Department of Theatre will remember Wilson’s fall 2011 presentation in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre on campus.

Well, before traveling to LSU, Wilson detoured to Natchitoches, where Whitehead met him then drove him to Melrose.

“He’s from Waco, Texas, and he remembered traveling to Melrose Plantation with his parents when he was a child,” Whitehead said. “He met Clementine, and he remembers talking with Francois Mignon. He remembered all of this and was inspired by it. And he wanted to go back there.”

Now Wilson’s musical, Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter, will premier in New York in January. The title is inspired by Hunter’s many paintings of zinnias, one of which is included in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit.

Who was Francois Mignon? Well, the answers are many.

He was the first to recognize Hunter’s work as art. He also was Melrose’s historian, a job assigned by Cammie Henry.

And he wasn’t really Francois Mignon. His name was Frank VerNooy Miineah.

“Mignon’s writings about Hunter remain the best source of material about the artist and her life,” Shiver and Whitehead wrote.

“When Francois Mignon died, those close to him discovered that he had also carefully crafted the story of his own life. He adapted the name Francois Mignon, and he created his life’s story. Nothing explains his decision. The reason may never be known.”

Mignon came to the plantation in 1937 and stayed for 32 years. He left Melrose after it was purchased by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches, and while there, he told everyone he had owned an import-export business, claimed to have been a student of international law at Columbia University and said he had acted as a consultant in France for the restoration and preservation of Marie Antoinette’s farm at Versailles.

“He claimed to have ben born in Paris and educated at the Sorbonne,” the authors wrote. “Almost everything that was believed to be true about Mignon’s early life turned out to be untrue.”

In the end, Mignon was just a guy from New York who never explained to anyone why he decided to move to rural Louisiana. But he also was a guy who loved the work by a self-taught artist who never learned to read or write.

Hunter had spent her life picking cotton, then keeping house and cooking upon moving to Melrose. Many saw her as just a plantation hand and dismissed her art. But Mignon recognized it as something special and promoted it.

Hunter’s work depicted plantation life in the early 20th century, documenting a bygone era. She also documented places and events outside the plantation.

Hunter started out selling her paintings for 25 cents. Two years before her death, Northwestern State University presented her with an honorary doctor of fine arts degree.

Today, her work can be found in museums and collections throughout the country, including the Smithsonian Institute.

Art books have been published featuring Hunter’s work. There’s even a children book that tells her story.

But Shiver’s and Whitehead’s book is more than that. It’s almost like Hunter’s paintings, documenting not only the artist’s life but the people and events surrounding her.

Even events after her death, including the cat hair-filled forgeries of her paintings that would result in a landmark court case.

So, whatever you do, be sure to read the chapter. about the FBI.