Sunday, July 8, 2018

St. Francisville Welcomes First Artist in Residence

St. Francisville Welcomes First Artist in Residence
By Anne Butler
IMG 1615When Life give you Lemons, you make Lemonade.
Or Collages. When life gave English artist John Lawson lemons, in the form of Katrina floodwaters engulfing his New Orleans studio and soaking over two decades’ worth of original sketches, he pieced together tattered fragments, added other meaningful images, and won such praise from art critics that he’s been working in that medium ever since.
While studying landscape architecture at LSU in the 1980s, Lawson fell in love with Louisiana’s creative culture---its art, its music, its cooking, its lush landscapes and magnificent architectural treasures, its joie de vivre, its Mardi Gras parades that provided bright beads he recycled into gorgeous artworks including covering an entire piano—but after Katrina he left the state. Now he’s back, has just had a well-received showing of colorful collages of iconic blues musicians at Ann Connelly Fine Art, and was tapped to design the official poster for this year’s Baton Rouge Blues Festival.
He’s also going to be in St. Francisville from mid-July through the month of August as the very first Artist in Residence sponsored by the local umbrella arts organization called Arts For All, which is providing lodging for him in downtown’s quirky 3-V Tourist Courts, the little throw-back-thirties automobile-age cabins with garage attached that were used in one of the Bonnie and Clyde documentaries. Arts For All is also providing work space in its studio.

maryTIn return, Lawson will give a public talk at Birdman Coffee on August 2 at 6 p.m. and will teach a collage workshop (pre-registration required) on August 7. In addition, limited opportunities to observe the artist’s creative processes may be available, as he demonstrates his techniques and also explains a bit about his selection of meaningful images---prolific butterflies, for example, representing rebirth, or the cycles of the moon as something always changing but always still there, image of the artist processing the passage of time and loss and recovery. Information on these programs is available at westfelicianaarts.com or birdmancoffee@bellsouth.net, and donations to help with expenses would be welcomed. John Lawson will also be honored as the featured artist at fall’s popular Yellow Leaf Arts Festival in Parker Park, St. Francisville, a great gathering of original artists and crafters, musicians and food vendors.

Birdman Coffee & Books owner and Arts For All guiding light Lynn Wood, an artist and musician herself, along with local musician Nancy Roppolo, attended the April opening of Lawson’s blues series of artworks at Ann Connelly gallery and, says Lynn, “we were blown away, intrigued by his enthusiasm about art, the blues, about working up here in our area, and his ideas about collaboration with us; he went on and on. He is ‘the real deal,’ if you know what I mean, a very creative thinker, a true artist who talks and breathes creativity. He talks about learning about the world and understanding the world and communicating that understanding through his art.”

Birdman has an exhibit of Lawson’s collages hanging, and Lynn says during his residency he will “soak up the atmosphere in our area and then create work!” The St. Francisville area, with its verdant woodlands and picturesque pastoral reaches, has been inspiring artists of every stripe since Audubon painted a number of his famous Birds of America series in the area, and now it is home to a wide assortment of writers, artists, designers, musicians, crafters and other creative souls.

IMG 1617And now it may also inspire one resilient English-born and nationally appreciated fine artist, whose intricately layered collage images create mixed-media representations of his journey through life and his search for its meaning.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

IMG 1612The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

St. Francisville’s Shelter Success Depends on Community Support

posterSt. Francisville’s Shelter Success Depends on Community Support

By Anne Butler

 The promotional poster, designed by Alan Morton, looks like the cover of a steamy romance novel, the male with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, passionately holding in his arms a scantily clad sexpot gazing adoringly into his eyes. But wait! It’s not Fabio!
Closer inspection reveals big erect ears and protruding snout exposing the masculine heartthrob as a German Shepherd, and the sexpot in his arms really a sultry feline.

Yep! This scintillating poster is announcing the Wags & Whiskers Gala on Saturday, July 21, from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at Hemingbough just south of St. Francisville. Its slogan is “All You Need Is Love,” but bring your cash or credit cards, too, because this is the main fundraiser supporting programs spreading the love to St. Francisville’s lost, injured, abused or abandoned animals.
 This sixth annual gala promises the usual fun carnival-type activities, dancing to music by the popular Delta Drifters, silent auction of an enormous cache of fabulous donated items, spectacular food, kissing booth where attendees can Smooch A Pooch, and lots of costumed cats and dogs parading around and looking for a home. Tickets are $25 and are available from bontemptix.com or at the Bank of St. Francisville.

The gala is sponsored by the non-profit West Feliciana Animal Humane Society, whose dedicated and hard-working members coordinate volunteer and donor efforts for the James L. “Bo” Bryant Shelter in St. Francisville. Before this shelter opened, the dog pound consisted of a few makeshift pens attached to the parish jail, where the four-legged inmates were pretty much on death row. Only a small percentage, 5% to 10%, were adopted out, mostly thanks to the efforts of a retired state trooper turned sheriff’s deputy, the late “Bo” Bryant; the rest met a sadder fate.

The shelter opened in August of 2012, and statistics show an incredible success rate for life-saving adoptions. Since 2014 a total of 1,651 cats and dogs have passed through, and of those, 1,242 have been adopted to permanent safe homes. Some were homeless strays, some were simply lost (over 200 were reunited with their owners), but others had been removed from abusive situations or abandoned because of owner deaths or relocations. In three years, only 87 had to be euthanized due to severe medical issues or aggression; this is very low kill. The shelter also has a Trap-Neuter-Return program in cooperation with local vets that has fixed nearly 300 feral cats. Reasonable adoption fees cover medical exams, shots, deworming, microchip and spaying.

The statistics are staggering, and the success rate is a tribute to shelter personnel and dozens of dedicated volunteers and vets. But those are just numbers. Walk through the shelter’s dog kennels or separate new cat house, and it all gets personal, with shelter staff socializing and loving each dog, cat, pig, horse, bird or snake (yes, there have been all of those in there).

SaraTake, for example, Helen, tiny poodle found wandering down a busy dangerous highway in horrible condition, severely emaciated, hearing loss, nearly blind from cataracts, yeast infection covering her entire body. Now she’s healthy and happy in a foster home, heart-worm free, spayed, and ready for a home of her own through the shelter’s Forever Foster program with all medical bills paid for life. Or Molly, spotted on a roadside by drivers who thought she was a dirty discarded stuffed animal until she moved. It took seven hours to groom her matted fur, she had a leg deformity that made her run with one paw flapping in the air, and she was so tiny that staff feared she could slip through drain openings in the kennels, so she went home with the shelter director, who fell so deeply in love with her that Molly has stayed there ever since.

Or Suzie, the cute black lab mix pup adopted and then returned by a large and noisy family when she proved unable to adjust to the dozens of children and dogs and commotion; the broken-hearted daughter of the family wrote a letter about what a wonderful dog Suzie was, but as an adult black dog, the hardest type to adopt out, she languished at the shelter for ten months with zero interest. Shelter staff gave her special time, made her “Queen for a Day” on ice-cream outings, groomed her and posted photos, but no one wanted her. Determined staff took her to the Angola Rodeo adoption event, and Suzie found new owners who love her.
The stories are endless…Cammie, who came in with two broken legs after being hit by a car; China, who has been in the shelter almost an entire year; Emily, grey and white pit bull obviously used as a bait dog and breeder, covered in scars and bruises, bite marks all over, pregnant, and miraculously sweet and gentle when rescued. Her 14 healthy puppies have gone to loving homes, her heartworm treatment is being paid by the guardian angel program, and she is ready for adoption. Pits are specially vetted, and so are the prospective adoptive homes; actually, all of the adoptions are carefully assessed to assure a good match and safe home situation.

airplaneThe shelter works with Paws4Rescue, an organization rescuing dogs from shelters and transporting them to waiting homes in the Northeast via Rescue Road Trips; twelve shelter dogs have gone to Pennsylvania, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, South Carolina and New Jersey, including a big bloodhound called Scarlet who flew via private plane to Charleston, thanks to two local pilots.

Even horses find new homes through the shelter’s efforts, like Dreamer, registered and of good stock but removed from a neglectful situation where several other horses had already starved to death, then scheduled to be euthanized when the case finally went to court. The shelter provided medical care, grooming and lots of attention, and this horse’s dream came true in a new forever home.

Shelter director Josette Lester and Gala Chairman Valerie Koubek stress the importance of volunteers of all ages and donors year-round, but the springtime explosion of puppies and kittens makes it especially essential that the community join in making a difference. For information on ways to help, call 225-635-5801 or go to www.wfahs.org; there are also a couple of wonderful Facebook page full of photos: West Feliciana Animal Humane Society and West Feliciana Animal Humane Society Friends.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Friday, May 25, 2018

Exhibits Pay Tribute To Early Black Experience at St. Francisville Museum

Exhibits Pay Tribute To Early Black Experience at St. Francisville Museum
By Anne Butler
leadbellyA couple of recently staged complementary exhibits in the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum pay tribute to the early black experience—and endurance—in the area. Conceived by society president Susie Tully and created by museum curator Cliff Deal, the exhibits may be viewed free of charge daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the museum on Ferdinand Street in St. Francisville.

One presentation focuses on the birth of the blues in the rural South and their ongoing influence on modern music. Originating on rural southern plantations of the 19th century, the blues evolved from spirituals and African chants, work songs and field hollers. Originally sung by slaves and later sharecroppers working in cotton and cane fields as well as by chain-gang prisoners tilling penitentiary fields, blues music “told the rural story of oppression, hard work, broken hearts, misfortune and struggle...From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.”

Accompanied only by guitar and moaning harmonica, the important thing about the blues was the song, for it was the song that told the story, and that story was a sad one, deeply rooted in American history and particularly in African American history.

One early blues icon with local ties was Leadbelly, whose given name was Huddie Ledbetter. Born in 1888, he spent his teen years playing music in St. Paul’s Bottoms, notorious Shreveport red-light district. His songs speak to the hard life of saloons and brothels, and he was no stranger to violence, either, serving several sentences in Texas and Louisiana prisons in the 1930’s. It was at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola that he was discovered by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, propelling him to fame in New York and recordings of songs like his well-known Good Night, Irene.

nealPresent-day blues artist Kenny Neal, son of harmonica player Raful Neal in whose band he began playing at age 13, has won worldwide recognition preserving the blues of his native Louisiana. He recently sponsored a Highway 61 Blues Festival at the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park that drew hundreds of appreciative music fans and provided a reminder of the origin of the blues.

Local blues legend Scott Dunbar was the son of an ex-slave, born on Deer Park Plantation near Woodville and a fishing guide on Lake Mary all his life. He made his first guitar from a cigar box, broomstick and wire, and lived in a rustic cabin that he tied to a tree to keep it from floating away every spring as the Mississippi River overflowed into the lake. Simple and basic, repetitive and soulful, Scott’s downhome blues provided the background for generations of celebrations and lawn parties in the Miss-Lou area.

dunbarLike many 19th- and early 20th-century black children, Scott Dunbar had little formal education. Born in 1904, he never went to school; others did, but only until 3rd grade or so. Then they were put to work in the agricultural fields, where they were certainly exposed to the rhythmic field hollers and work chants that provided the basis for the blues music, combined with the spirituals sung in the churches that were the centers of African American life back then and still often are.

So the second exhibit features a beloved black schoolteacher universally called “The Professor,” John Sterling Dawson. While many small black Baptist churches provided rudimentary educational opportunities for the children of their congregations and communities, often located on land donated by plantation owners for that purpose, secondary education for African Americans was slow to develop over the first half of the 20th century in Louisiana. According to exhibit panels, rural black schools only provided these children a seventh grade education at best, and often less. “By 1945, there were 80 black four-year high schools in Louisiana, but 13 parishes were still without approved schools. One of these was West Feliciana Parish.”

This all changed, although not rapidly, in 1890 with the arrival by train of 19-year-old John S. Dawson, encouraged to come by John Jones and C.H. Argue. His venue was the Laurel Hill School, two-story wood frame building also used as a Masonic Hall, the earliest known African American public school in West Feliciana. Some 125 students registered for classes; only 20 could read. As the exhibit explains, “Rural school were isolated and just getting to school was difficult. As most families farmed for a living, children missed school while working during planting and harvest. Rural parish school boards were poor, and the rural black schools were poorer.”

dawsonFor 30 years John S. Dawson taught at Laurel Hill School, then served as principal at Raspberry Baptist Church School and as Senior Deacon and Superintendent of the Sunday School in the church. But his dream was a real school in a real school building, a brand new high school for African Americans. He secured land donated by members of the Barrow-Richardson-Noland families on LA Highway 66 along Bayou Sara, and the high school opened in 1951; an elementary wing was added in 1962, and soon there was a gym, band building, room for home education/industrial arts, and an agricultural shop.

John S. Dawson died in 1950, a year before the school that would be named for him would open, but the legacy of learning continued with two of his sons serving as principal, John M. Dawson from 1951 to 1961, and Thomas Dawson from 1961 to 1969. That was the year the school was closed after a Supreme Court decision mandated school desegregation; all West Feliciana Parish students now go to a single campus recognized as one of the best school systems in the state.

Dawson School was abandoned for years, then functioned as a Council on Aging meal site for some time before it fell into disrepair. Now it is being cleaned up and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the John S. Dawson Alumni Association and Foundation, led by former students including one of John S. Dawson’s grandsons, Ken Dawson. The hope is to develop the property as a community center and park, a legacy and commemoration of one man, John Sterling Dawson, whose efforts and dedication enhanced and changed so many lives.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).