By Ginna Parsons
TUPELO – At one time, Clementine Hunter’s folk art was very affordable, with the artist selling some of her work for as little as 25 cents.
Now, some of her paintings command tens of thousands of dollars and hang in the Smithsonian Institution, The American Folk Art Museum and the private collections of such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers.
Doug Gitter, a New Orleans businessman, has made it his mission to make Hunter’s works affordable again on hand-painted ceramic serving pieces.
“I spent four years designing this line,” said Gitter, 48. “On the ceramic pieces, we added relief, which is a textured surface so you can feel the passion in her work.”
The line features nine pieces, each depicting a famous painting by the Louisiana artist. In Northeast Mississippi, they are available at Reed’s in Tupelo and Neilson’s in Oxford. They range in price from $118 to $168.
Gitter began collecting folk art when he was in his 20s at the behest of his father, who collected Oriental art.
“My father told me he thought it would be a good thing for me to take a drive to meet some of these self-taught artists,” he said. “Their stuff wasn’t contrived – it was from the heart. It really spoke to me.”
The first artist Gitter visited was Bernice Sims in Brewton, Ala.
“I heard her story, how her husband deserted her and she had to raise six children on her own with no formal education,” he said. “She expressed herself through memory painting – things she remembered from her childhood.”
Gitter bought one of Sims’ paintings that day and over the years has added more of her work to his folk art collection, which today numbers in the hundreds.
He also went on to meet other folk artists, including Woodie Long of Andalusia, Ala., Jimmy Lee Sudduth of Fayette, Ala., Howard Finster of Summerville, Ga., B.F. Perkins of Fayette, Ala., and Toby Hollinghead of Opp, Ala.
“I would go to visit one artist and they’d suggest I go see another one down the road,” Gitter said. “I’ve done things all over the world and nothing has been as fulfilling as spending time with self-taught artists. They just want people to appreciate what they’ve done.”
One of Oprah’s favorites
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Clementine Hunter was born in December 1886 at Hidden Hill Plantation near Cloutierville, La. When she was a teenager, her family moved from Hidden Hill to Yucca Plantation (later named Melrose) near Natchitoches, La.
Around 1939, encouraged by a French writer who was living at Melrose, Hunter began painting, using any surface she could find. In her 50s, she began a life’s work of paintings estimated to number more than 5,000. She continued to paint until one month before her death in 1988 at age 101.
“What Clementine Hunter did was paint about plantation life in the rural South prior to mechanization – picking the cotton, working in the pecan groves, washing clothes in a kettle,” Gitter said. “She was the only American artist who really captured what life was like back then. I think the reason her work is so admired is because people are really nostalgic in this country and Clementine painted a part of history people can relate to.”
Gitter’s decision to put Hunter’s work on ceramics (and giglees, high-quality prints on canvas), has paid off in ways money can’t buy.
“My daughter Annie, who is 13, had a summer project to help me redesign my website,” he said. “Part of her education was to go to Atlanta to the gift market with me. The first day of the show, two people approached Annie and she starts telling them about Clementine Hunter and Melrose Plantation.”
Finally, Annie asked the people what retail store they were affiliated with. They told her they didn’t work for a store, but rather a magazine.
“She looked at the badges they were wearing and they said ‘O Magazine,’” Gitter said. “And Annie said, ‘Um, Dad, I think you need to talk to these people.’”
Gitter talked with the magazine’s design editor and contributing editor for about 45 minutes and one of them finally said, “Oprah’s gonna love this.”
Gitter continued to communicate with the magazine reps for a few months and even sent them some of his ceramic pieces.
“When I found out I’d been chosen a finalist, I was very honored and proud,” he said. “It was only three weeks before the December issue of ‘O The Oprah Magazine’ was published that I found I had made Oprah’s Favorite Things List for 2013 with the ‘Baptism on Cane River’ serving platter. We’re so humbled and so thrilled. In terms of the development of a product, this is the biggest compliment you could ever have.”