When you look closely at the paintings of renowned folk-artist Clementine Hunter, you see the cotton fields, the cabins, the big house, and the distinct structures of Melrose Plantation.
Gift shop manager Betty Metoyer says, "Clementine came to this plantation around the age of 16 to be a worker in the field, the cotton fields. She recorded, like, her whole life."
Melrose has deep roots in the Creole history along Cane River. The plantation was founded in the late 1700's by Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, who fell in love with one of his slaves.
Betty Metoyer says, "He met Marie Therese CoinCoin, a former slave who was born in Natchitoches in 1742. He leased her to be his maid and cook and they lived together for almost 20 years and they had 10 children."
Betty Metoyer is an eighth-generation descendant of this Creole family. She says, when her ancestors ended their relationship, Marie Therese acquired 18,000 acres, and her children ran the plantation until the time of the Civil War. But a new owner, John Henry, started a new chapter at Melrose.
In the early 1900's, the daughter-in-law of the new owners of the property decided to turn this plantation into an artist colony. Miss Cammie, as she was known, was college-educated and loved the arts.
Executive director Adam Foreman says, "Artists and writers, we had photographers, we had naturalists like Caroline Dormon, who was the first female in the National Forest Service. We had weavers, we had all sorts of different craftsmen here. They gave them a safe place to work and they could stay here for as long as they liked, as long as they were still working."
And that's when Clementine Hunter, who picked cotton as a child and then worked as the plantation cook, was introduced to painting.
Metoyer says, "She saw these artists producing all of this beautiful work, and one artist threw away a twisted tube of pain. Clementine picked the paint out of the garbage and painted her very first painting on a green window shade."
Writer Francois Mignon recognized her talent. Metoyer says, "He's the one who encouraged her throughout the years."
Clementine Hunter lived in a simple house at Melrose for most of her adult life. She painted scenes of pecan picking in the plantation's orchard, baptisms in the Cane River, and even herself with a paint brush and canvas.
And through her art, we get a unique glimpse of life at this historic Cane River plantation.
Melrose Plantation is open for tours six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, go online to http://www.melroseplantation.org.