Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

The Sculpture Garden in Chauvin, Louisiana

by Deborah H. Cibelli, Ph.D.

 

This article first appeared as “Chauvin Sculpture Garden: The rescue of Kenny Hill’s environment,” in Raw Vision, number 53 (Winter 2005), pages 58-63, and in heartoffact: the visionary environment of kenny hill in lulu.com, 2008, pages 13-18.

To see images of the “Chauvin Sculpture Garden, go to the photo gallery or see the gallery below.

++++Lush, semi-tropical vegetation growing rampant alongside a bayou called Petit Calliou in Chauvin, Louisiana, just sixty miles south south-west of New Orleans, was rapidly threatening a landscape of sculptures created by a local bricklayer and self-taught visionary artist, Kenny Hill. In a short time, the life-size cement figures would have disappeared beneath the undergrowth, like the temple sculptures surrounding Angkor Watt. But discovery of the site by Dennis Sipiorski, then professor of Art at the nearby Nicholls State University in Thibodaux led to the initiation of a rescue plan.

++++Sipiorski contacted Terri Yoho, Executive Director of the Kohler Foundation in Wisconsin who organised the restoration and Nicholls State University committed to a maintenance programme.[1] As a result, the Chauvin Sculpture Garden–which was constructed over a 13-year period and which represents the artist’s highly individual spiritual vision–lives on.

++++In its present state, the garden still retains some of the original rose bushes and banana trees planted by Hill. It is a lush and tranquil place, but carries an undercurrent of melancholy, a skein of tension created by the profusion of sculpted self-portraits of Hill, who appears throughout the site as a humble witness to the retinue of angels. One polychrome cement figure portrays him on horseback, another represents the bearded artist quizzically listening to a sea shell he holds to one ear, in others he is suffering or afflicted.

++++Sociologist Frédéric Allamel commented on the ennui evoked by Hill’s self-image. He compared him with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the penitential characters in Marcel Proust’s novels.[2] As an ascetic type, Hill is joined by other forlorn figures, and a multitude of armed and heraldic sentinel angels and those of a more benign demeanour. The latter accompany their creator on his progress through the arched gateways and along the concrete paths that meander through the compact garden plot. Indeed, the garden possesses a revelatory quality; the angels guarding the gateways and the paths demonstrate that religious faith had a profound influence on Hill’s self-view and on the purposes of his art.

++++Born in 1948, Hill began to create this project in his late thirties.[3] A close friend and neighbor, Keith Peters, notes that Hill worked on the sculpture in Chauvin for approximately thirteen years, during which time he was employed as a bricklayer, and often working outside the state.[4]

++++Hill’s consistent commitment to the project contributed to the garden’s stylistic and thematic unity. The message he created is sometimes humorous but always moving. It is his sincere, personal vision, his freedom and his creativity as an entirely self-taught artist allowed him to develop artwork that is unique and visionary. The artist emphasized the personal significance of his environment by inscribing the pathways with the phrases “Enter into my heart”, “It is Emty (sic)”, and “Heartoffact (sic)”.

++++As a sanctuary, the site marks one man’s painful journey and his emergence as a creative artist. His quest is expressed in highly personalised spiritual terms. The lighthouse, visible from Bayou Petit Calliou, was ornamented with a painted cement relief sculpture as Hill developed the garden’s symbolism. As a monumental architectural form, the lighthouse resembles a Tower of Babel, and the reliefs represent diverse figurative types– many drawn from American history such as cowboys, Native Americans, jazz musicians, and the U.S. marines of Iwo Jima raising the flag atop Mt. Surabachi. They are juxtaposed with naked and clothed figures which are presided over by angels in judgment.

Kenny Hill Sculpture Garden

Picture 19 of 19

Kenny Hill Sculpture Garden

++++One such figure is a self-portrait, held aloft by two angels wearing haloes constructed from a fluorescent light bulb. In a self-portrait, Hill’s face is painted half black and half white, symbolically suggesting the artist’s personal struggle with issues of good-versus-evil.

++++The special significance he gives to his internal strife at the moment he is caught and redeemed by angels, serves as a reference to the Last Judgment. He develops the theme in the freestanding sculptures and in the garden architecture.

++++The American imagery contained in the lighthouse tower culminates in stars and eagles positioned under its lower roof-line. There are more than just patriotic symbols: the stars refer to the United States and are also celestial; the eagle is the national emblem of the United States as well as an evangelical motif associated with St. John, who is commonly identified as the author of the fourth Gospel and of the Revelations. The stars and eagles thus reflect both Hill’s concept of his Louisiana garden as an expression of his patriotism and also his greater apocalyptic vision and spiritual message.

++++In other areas of the garden eagle imagery is repeated in the form of sculptures placed in the arched gateways and on the columns, while five-point stars are replaced by orb-like celestial bodies which are employed as design motifs on the walkways and on the clothing of the angels and the artist himself.

++++On several pathways and on other garments–and specifically on the belt-buckle worn by Hill himself–a motif of nine circular disks representing the number of planets revolving around the sun is used as decoration. Sometimes the disks are inscribed within a larger circle, while at other times they are combined with a shield-like crest.

++++The nine orbs also form a pattern related to the garden’s overall plan: the pathways opening onto nine circular platforms. The garden format is then echoed in a repeated nine-disk motif which is used to encourage visitors to follow the artist’s own progression from one circular area to the next.

++++Within the context of Hill’s revelatory garden, the circular forms suggest constellations. Keith Peters likened the imagery to crop circles–those mysterious and controversial patterns found in corn fields in England and in the United States over the past few decades that have been attributed by some to UFOs. The myth of the crop circles has a strong appeal to Outsider artists. They were depicted by, amongst others, the painter Ken Grimes in 1992.

++++Although the identification of the cement disks at Chauvin as crop circles must remain, at best, tentative, they do provide a key to Hill’s organisation of the garden. Identified here as celestial bodies, the symbolism attests to the universal and even cosmological significance he accorded to his creation.

++++The apocalyptic theme, whether regarded as personal or universal, has engaged artists for centuries. Hill’s sculptures have qualities that are as reminiscent of medieval   traditions as they are evocative of modern approaches. They combine the elongated and abstract forms of Gothic art, with a modern palette of pink, cadmium yellow and aqua, which contributes to the vibrancy and direct appeal of the work.

++++With its arcane symbolism, the sculpture garden of Chauvin joins other apocalyptic gardens that are especially popular in the American South. Nonetheless there are significant differences between Hill’s work and the others. For example, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, near Summerville, Georgia, is highly eclectic and contains found-object assemblages. In contrast, Hill’s preoccupation with his own style and message makes his art fundamentally different from Finster’s. He has been more forceful, and even more prophetic, effectively presenting his religious vision to a local and sympathetic audience.

++++Now that his garden has been preserved, it will be possible to explore the art world’s response.   As the work of an artist with no formal training, Hill’s art tests the limits of the art world’s support by placing importance on a specific site. Nonetheless, viewers interested in visionary art are likely to find Hill to be one of the most authentic and exuberant practitioners.

 

 

Notes

[1] Crystal Bonvillian, “Art on the Bayou,” The Nicholls Worth, 22 June 2000: 5-6.

[2] Frédéric Allamel, “Robinson Dans La Cour Des Anges,” Gazogène (Fall 1999): 6-8.

[3] In 2012, during an interview with Michael Williams, the present coordinator of the Chauvin Sculpture Garden and Nicholls Art Studio, Hill’s family members provided the birthdate.

[4] Personal interview with Mr. Keith Peters, 28 May 2000.