Hidden Louisiana: Freaks of Nature

Published  July 2015

antigravity_vol13_issue7_Page_12_Image_0001I went to high school in a small suburban town named Evans, Georgia, named after a minor Confederate general. The school was new, freshly built in the far outer suburbs of Augusta. The demographics of the school were odd—a combination of Southern nouveau-riche hailing from gated subdivisions boasting ridiculous names and golf courses, and poor kids from the rural area that had been unincorporated until fairly recently. BMWs and mudding trucks mingled in the parking lot. Deep divisions of race and class were mainly ignored, and were subtly enforced by the not-  so-subtle classification of students as either “tech prep” or “college bound.”

Freshman year, I rode the bus. Our route  meandered through two subdivisions and picked up a string of teens along the side of the depressed commercial strip that was the main artery in town. Every morning, on our route between the sprawling subdivision of small brick manors and the squeaky clean suburban outpost in the middle of the woods, we passed a bizarre house on the side of the main road.

I use the term “house” loosely. It was surrounded by two fences—a rough wooden one with a chain link behind  it, barbed wire looped over the tops. Huge flowering vines, bushes, and cacti further obscured the property. Dozens of statues provided an additional barrier between the house and the viewer: a giant angel, several Hindu  goddesses, cement dogs, deer, turtles. Giant decorative lampposts dotted the yard. The house did not appear to have any windows. It seemed slapped  together out of several different materials, stone and plywood mainly. Wooden garden trellises were nailed haphazardly to the tar-papered walls. Huge metal doors seemed to be the only entrance to the building. The Statue of Liberty stood proudly on the roof.

The house fascinated me. I tried to always sit on the correct side of the bus in the mornings and afternoons just to get a look at it. I made up stories about the people who lived there, imagining how strange or sad they might be.

And then one morning, two teenagers were standing in the overgrown gravel driveway of the place. The bus stopped,  and they got on. I was floored; for all of my fantasizing about this strange house, I was shocked that people actually lived there. And then I was ashamed by that reaction, of being so attracted to something so obviously constructed by a human hand and yet repulsed by being confronted by people who lived there. The shame made me too nervous to meet the eyes of the two kids walking down the aisle of the bus towards me. I turned away, looking out the window towards the place they came from.

It was the only time that year the bus stopped at the house. The next year I lived in a different neighborhood, and didn’t pass the house every day. I never figured out who the two kids at my school were who lived there. Being confronted by their reality was not as comfortable as my fantasy about their reality, and navigating the difference  was certainly out of my depth at 14. We like freaky things, but most of the time we like having distance from the freaks who make them. We like things when they are clean, when they are removed from their context.  This is how I feel about the term “outsider art”—that it is a way to signal that the maker is odd, perhaps even unpalatable, but somehow what they create transcends the value we place on the person. The art is worth more than  the artist, a sort of divine channeling by a country rube at best or an idiot savant at worst. It is the friendlier term for what was originally referred to as Art Brut, which only referred to art produced by the institutionalized. Outsider Art refers to any art made outside of the boundaries of accepted  culture, meaning folks on the fringes of society, people who did not get formally trained by the academy, who do not know the canon of western art and are not creating in a dialogue with other artists. And since much of the South is outside the boundaries of accepted culture, there are a lot of so-called outsider artists in the South. Kenny Hill, the creator of the Chauvin  Sculpture Gardens, is one of them.

There is not a lot of information available on the man, not even his birthdate. Kenny Hill was a bricklayer  who settled in Chauvin in the mid-1980s, pitching  a tent  next to the bayou and doing construction work for a living. In his spare time, he began to build elaborate sculptures out of rebar and cement,  his only tools a fork and a spoon. He built angels and horses, archways twined  with cement roses, a blonde man holding a seashell to his ear. The centerpiece was a lighthouse adorned with scenes of Native Americans hunting buffalo, a jazz band blowing horns, bodies climbing up to the heavens. It is a beautiful, strange place, filled with sunshine. Manicured paths wind through the sculptures, small palm trees framing the life- sized angels.

Now managed by Nicholls State University, the Chauvin Sculpture Gardens (5337 Bayouside Drive, Chauvin, Louisiana) are a small tourist destination, complete with official state  signage and a visitors center. But the neighbors didn’t like the garden when it was being built, when Kenny Hill was living there and creating his work. Sure, he upgraded his tent to a shack, but he didn’t cut the grass. He didn’t allow people to come into the gardens to view the work, and didn’t allow anyone to take photos. He refused to explain the sculptures in depth, stating that they were “a story of salvation” for the town. The town evicted him in 2000 over persistent issues with maintaining the property. Furious, Hill knocked the head off of a statue of Jesus and left the town on foot. Supposedly he lives somewhere near Shreveport now.

It’s strange how divorced Hill is from his creation, though perhaps it is the way most people would prefer. It is far easier to appreciate his work without his difficult presence, his cageyness, his sloppiness. The gardens might be better without him. But it is certainly disconcerting to think of how beautifully cared for his creation is, and how little care goes into learning  anything about him, finding out where he is, figuring out how he is doing.

How do you separate the creator from the creation? Does deleting the human mania that fueled something like the Chauvin Sculpture Gardens also delete  a very necessary experiential element needed to fully understand a space?

antigravity_vol13_issue7_Page_13_Image_0002Two winters ago, I stood on the porch  of a very strange house, knocking. Located in Holly Springs, Mississippi,  Graceland Too was a 24-hour roadside attraction where, for a donation of $5, you gained entrance to a decrepit temple to Elvis built by a decrepit hoarder named Paul MacLeod. It was a dark, murky-smelling maze. Every inch of wall space was covered in images of Elvis, from record sleeves to velvet paintings to life-sized cardboard cut outs. The stairs were covered with collectible porcelain plates from his movies. The most banal memorabilia cluttered every bookcase, including a massive collection of every TV Guide in which Elvis was even mentioned. As he shuffled me and my partner through his house, Paul sang Elvis songs, his improperly glued dentures clattering in his mouth. He told lurid stories about Ole Miss sorority girls visiting him late at night, and showed off a crudely hand-  built electric chair, boasting it was an original from the set of Jailhouse Rock. The space heater kept blowing the fuses, plunging the house into claustrophobic darkness. At the end of the tour, he posed us in front of an elaborate fireplace altar and snapped our photo with a disposable camera.

Hundreds of photographs of his visitors standing in the same place, all grinning  maniacally, were glued to poster boards  around the room. It was touching to see him collecting his visitors in the same way he collected his newspaper clippings of Elvis.

Paul died in July of 2014. He had recently shot and killed a young Black man named Dwight David Taylor Jr., who may or may not have been breaking into his house, who may or may not have been a friend, who may or may not have been a poorly paid handyman for Graceland Too. The house was closed, the collections put on the auction block. A few items were donated to the local historical society, and an archive is being organized.

A big glossy art book was recently published, aiming to share the story of this “organic piece of Deep South folk art.” The “piece of folk art” refers  to both the house and Paul. All that  remains are cleaned up, curated depictions of them—glossy pictures of the house, a sanitized portrait of an eccentric that could never  accurately depict what a disconcerting experience Graceland Too was. Menace repackaged as funky kitsch.

Perhaps it’s the same way with the Chauvin Sculpture Gardens. Perhaps they are missing a vital spark without Kenny Hill present, even despite the fact that he wasn’t too keen on sharing  his weird little world with anyone else. There are moments in the gardens that are unsettling—angels with red eyes bearing swords to block visitors, weeping figures hunched in a line. But these seem like details, moments that are hard to understand in a creation myth that is hard to understand. Without a translator, and with beautiful landscaping, all the visitor feels is a sense of wonder and peace.




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