Harrington’s art fills room with memories

Retrospective exhibit now at LSU Rural Life Museum


Arts writer

The room was already heavy with memories, each branded by her name.

There it is on “Pepper Field,” and again on “Gathering” and right there on “Attakapas Morning.” Chestee Harrington.

These are her wood polychromatic bas reliefs, her paintings and woodcut prints, all part of a 60-year retrospective exhibit of her work, which runs through Aug. 3.

It’s been installed at the LSU Rural Life Museum, founded by Steele Burden. The same Steele Burden who once inquired about the location of an old slave cabin in one of her paintings. She told him it was in a field near Reserve.

“He said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Harrington says. “I said, ‘Yes it is. It’s where I found it.’ He said ‘No, I don’t think so, because I moved it here.’ It’s the same slave cabin outside on the museum grounds.’”

She laughs. The joke was on her, but that was OK. Harrington and Burden were friends, and Burden believed in her talent. He encouraged her to pursue her art.

And now, six decades later, her life’s work hangs in the museum her friend so loved.

This is why memories fill the museum’s main exhibit hall. The works represent more than Harrington’s career; these are moments in her life: places she’s been, people she’s met, friends who continue to live in her heart.

So, it was understandable when she burst into tears the first time she walked into the exhibit. Life has a way of prodding you, especially when it’s set on instant replay.

That was the case for Harrington. She didn’t need a computer or iPad for this to happen. Memories are preserved by her works.

She looks at the piece titled, “God’s Light,” and remembers paying a man to bring her to a remote spot along the bayou. It was a clearing next to a cabin, the perfect place she could capture the sun’s golden light as it bounced off the Spanish moss before dusk.

“I call that light God’s light,” Harrington says. “You only have about five minutes to catch it before it goes away. And I think back now about the things that could have happened back there. I could have been eaten by an alligator.”

But she wasn’t. She sat at her easel, paint brush in one hand, a shot gun propped and ready to be grabbed by the other.

“And one day, a man came up in his boat,” Harrington says. “He walked past me and didn’t say anything. He just walked into the cabin. He came out and didn’t look my way. Finally, he stopped, looked and said, ‘Oh, you’re painting a picture.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘That’s nice.’ And he went about his business.”

She lives in New Iberia now, and when thinking back, this wasn’t a planned career path. It really wasn’t a vocation, either.

It’s always been a part of her.

Harringon married young and had four children. She divorced, married again and had two more kids. She began painting in 1958 and discovered wood bas reliefs when her brother introduced her to the print block.

Her brother was home visiting from college and was taking a printmaking class, but Harrington saw the print block as something more — the answer to what she wanted in her own paintings.

“I had been paintings in thick layers, trying to create texture, and then there it was in the wood,” she says.

So came her development of wood polychromatic bas reliefs. Labeling these pieces three dimensional isn’t quite accurate, yet they have a way of reaching out and drawing you in.

While creating these bas reliefs, she was befriended by such noted Louisiana artists as Clark Hulings and legendary Louisiana architect A. Hayes Town, who advised her to enhance her work by studying past Louisiana artists.

Finally, there was Burden, fellow artist and lifelong friend. He believed in her work, and that belief had foundation, for Harrington’s work eventually would sell for thousands of dollars, and she would be featured in magazines.

But the real story is inside the Rural Life Museum, where each of her works not only depicts a specific scene but holds a memory.

“Pepper Field” was in 1969, when Virginia Kyle Hine asked Harrington to depict the McIlhenny pepper picking on Avery Island. Harrington was told that this would be witnessing the last of these events.

Then there’s the 1999 oil painting, “The Gathering, Vermilion Parish 1870,” which examines the evolution of Cajun music, which includes a diverse group of people coming together for a fais do-do. Native Americans, Scot-Irish, Germans, and of course, Frenchmen gather at the Old Harrington place in Vermilion Parish.

Harrington remembers spending summer weeks at this house as a youngster, and from there traveling to Rayne to listen to Cajun music, which, she says, evolved from the different cultures represented in the painting.

Her 1981 painting, “Attakapas Morning,” was inspired by her study of Knute Heldner’s journals. Heldner was a regionalist painter who lived and painted in the New Orleans French Quarter. The painting depicts Harrington’s father’s family’s original homestead in Vermilion Parish.

Then there’s “The Dawning,” the 96-pound polychromed printing block sculpture created from a long leaf pine post that once supported the roof of the Cafe Du Monde’s coffee roasting house on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans. Harrington’s friend, Ruen DeSantis, brought the block to her after Hurricane Katrina.

When pressed on paper, the block’s four separate images create a single Louisiana swamp scene.

“This technique revealed itself over time to become an intense work,” Harrington says.

That statement really says it all, for Harrington’s work continues to reveal itself in her life, a life that reveals itself in the LSU Rural Life Museum.