I am presently working on the second stage of a project which I began in 2001. In April of that year, I met Celestine Labat, a 102 year old resident of Bay St. Louis. This chance meeting was the beginning of a friendship which lasted until Celestine's death at the age of 2004, and was to have an incredible impact upon my life.
The first stage of the project was the creation of an art quilt which has been accepted into the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Following is an article written by Gene Coleman and published in the summer 2004 issue of Art Gulf Coast: A Quarterly Review of Arts Along the Gulf Coast.
Preserving A Legacy:
Artist Lori Gordon creates a quilt to tell one woman's life story.
By Gene Coleman.
While many people leave this world unsure of how they will be remembered, Celestine Labat passed away at the age of 104 knowing that her family history was preserved in a work of art. What she didn't know was that the artwork would find its way to the Smithsonian Institution.
At the age of 102, at a celebration the Hancock County Historical Society held in honor of her birthday, Labat (a native of Bay St. Louis, in Hancock County, Mississippi-) met the person who would create the artwork that would preserve her family's history.
Attending the ceremony that day was local artist Lori Gordon, who was charmed by Labat.
In 2001, the Hancock County Historical Society held a special ceremony to proclaim April 19, 2001 to be Celestine Labat Day. The Bay St. Louis native was honored for 101 years of residency in the city. It was at that ceremony that local artist Lori Gordon became enthralled by Labat's charm.
Gordon wanted to make Labat the subject of her artwork and had a friend arrange a meeting for her with Labat. Upon meeting Labat, Gordon found a relationship that exceeded her original artistic intentions.
"I called and asked her if we could get together for photos because I wanted to do drawings of her," Gordon said. "So I started visiting her on a regular basis, and she was a great storyteller, and she started telling me stories, and I knew that I had to preserve those stories."
Gordon was fascinated by Labat's stories of growing up as a woman of color in the Deep South in the early 1900s.
Taping their conversations, Gordon captured more than 30 hours of Labat's oral history. Labat also shared family photographs with Gordon. Labat: A Creole Legacy incorporates roughly 250 of those photographs and 29 transcribed pages of Labat's oral history into a fabric collage. The photographs and text were scanned into a computer, manipulated through software, and printed onto specialty paper that could be transferred onto cotton cloth.
Gordon hand-sewed the pieces onto backing cloths and adhered the cloths to an eight foot by ten foot piece of canvas. Her artistic talents then complemented her ingenuity.
"Then I painted the border and areas within the piece as well. I painted those with an African mudcloth design. I chose that because she (Labat) has African and Choctaw heritage; both of those cultures favored the use of real strong geometric designs."
Through the techniques she used, Gordon represented the span of Labat's life. The handsewn cloth represented the archaic times of Labat's youth, and the computer technology represented her zenith.
The work took one and a half years to complete. Gordon was able to present the work to Labat just two weeks before Labat's death. "Friends went with me, and we stood up on chairs and held it up so she could see it. There were lots of tears. She was so happy. She was so proud of her family and the accomplishments, and she was absolutely thrilled."
Before Labat's passing, Gordon promised that she would find a place to prominently display the artwork, thereby sharing Labat's history with the public. "A nice ending to that part of the story is that I had promised her before her death that I would do my best to see that piece end up in a museum or someplace public where the story could be shared. She would be so happy to know that her piece is not going to just any museum, but to the Smithsonian. I feel good about being able to fulfill my promise to her in such a big way."
Gordon received a response from the Smithsonian Institution just two weeks after submitting an information package about her artwork. Labat: A Creole Legacy has been sent to the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Portia James, historian for the Anacostia Museum, said that Gordon's artwork would likely be shown in 2005.
James said that the piece was chosen for inclusion into the museum because it is "visually rich" and meets the Anacostia Museum's goals for showing artwork that speaks about community and family.
"It's so rich in what it reveals and the kind of stories it tells about community and about family; generally those kinds of things are very important to us," James said.
For more information on the Smithsonian Institution, call 202.633.1000.
The following article is one I wrote upon the occasion of the send-off party for the quilt. It was published in The Focus, a bi-monthly newspaper out of Hancock County, Mississippi.
This past Friday evening, the Lumberyard Art Center in Bay St. Louis hosted a send-off party for a project of mine which has occupied much of the past three years of my life. Many friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate the acquisition of “Labat: A Creole Legacy” by the Smithsonian Institution. We were also celebrating the life of the person who inspired the whole project.
Celestine Vivian “Teenie” Labat was a friend of mine for altogether too short of a time. She had blessed this planet with her presence for 102 years when I met her, and she brought grace to the next two years of my life. The things I learned from her about graciousness, dignity and the importance of a sense of humor will be with me for the rest of my days.
Celestine was born into a world which few of us today can even imagine. As a Creole living in the Deep South, she and her family often found themselves caught between two worlds. Surrounded by a racist society which branded any person with African heritage as inferior, she lived amidst a family of exemplary individuals. Growing up during the time when women were not allowed the right to vote, Celestine expanded her horizons to get an advanced education, attaining both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Segregated by the church her family was devoted to, she lived to see that church become a beacon in the Catholic community to persons of all colors.
As I was getting to know this remarkable woman, she told me stories of her life. My experiences as a white girl growing up in South Dakota in no way prepared me for the stories which I was hearing. Celestine was a gifted storyteller and she soon had me seeing visions. I was in the yard with Celestine when, at the age of 8, she saw her white Creole grandfather staring at her. I watched along with her as her father, “Papa Joe”, won waltzing contests at the Promote Hall. I witnessed her sister Inez, an educator and principal in New Orleans, being made to sit in the back of the bus on her visits home.
In this world, I helped Celestine to rake her yard, and I worked with her to clean the graves of her siblings. I was even privileged enough to be asked to help her make her famous pecan cake. She was no longer physically able to stir the batter, but she was plenty sharp enough to see that I was not sifting the flour correctly. I wrote letters to her and called her when I was out of town, and was happy every time I heard her say “Hello” in that musical, lilting voice.
Celestine was very proud of her family, and she loved to tell stories about them. As she wove her magic in words and began showing me the faces of her people, the idea for the fabric collage project was born. Over the next year, I recorded most of my visits with Celestine. She loaned me her family photograph albums and I scanned the photos into my computer. I manipulated the images with an arts program and transformed the old black and white photos into sepia tone images that resembled paintings. I kept many of the images clear so the persons could be easily identified. Others, I allowed to become obscure. I wanted to not only present her family, but also to suggest the many contemporaries and community members whose names are now forgotten. I wanted the piece to be not only a family history, but a cultural commentary as well.
With the images in place on the collage, I began selecting the stories I wanted to include. I created the cloth “pages” of text on my computer as well, and decided to arrange the text into five general areas. In one area I presented Celestine’s personal story, and in another I told her family stories. In the third area I told her stories about living with racism, and in the fourth I presented the important place that religion held in their lives. The fifth section of the collage centered on cultural stories. When these elements were in place, my remaining task was to come up with a painted design which would pull the whole piece together and provide a border. I chose an African mudcloth design to represent Celestine’s African and Choctaw heritage. Both of these cultures favored the use of strong geometric designs in their art.
I finished the collage shortly before Celestine’s death. My good friend Ellis Anderson and Celestine’s great nephew Wesley helped me haul it into her bedroom. Ellis and I stood on chairs to hold it up for her to see. Celestine was thrilled with the collage, and talked of how it was such a wonderful testament to her family. There was laughter and joy in that room, as well as a few tears shed. I made a promise to Celestine that day; I told her that I was going to do my best to see the collage end up in a public place, so that her story could be told.
Celestine died less than two weeks later. Before her death, she told me that her great epiphany in life had happened to her in the twilight of her days on earth. She felt a deep satisfaction that the color of a person’s skin no longer meant what it had for many of the years of her life. She said that as a young person, she never would have dreamed of seeing the day when she would have so many friends of all races. I feel incredibly fortunate that she counted me as one of those friends.
And so the stories of Celestine’s life will be traveling to their new home in our country’s national museum. As I looked around at the people who gathered to bid the collage farewell, I reflected upon how happy I was to be able to fulfill the promise I had made to her. I also felt a profound appreciation for the support and encouragement I had received from so many friends along the way. Without that support, I knew that there would not have been an occasion to celebrate. I know that Celestine would be joining me in expressing our thanks to all of you.