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Baton Rouge Traditions

Folk and Traditional Arts in the Capitol Region: Sustaining Community Values Through Handcraft

By Douglas Manger

 

For many the term "folk art" stirs memories of handcraft from another time, from another era. The colorful quilt stored in a trunk in the attic hand stitched by a great aunt, perhaps. Or the folksy pencil sketch that once hung over the bread box in the kitchen, the sketch and bread box now long since discarded. With such emphasis on the past does folk art truly belong to yesteryear?

For those locked into past reckoning folk art scholarship reveals quite another picture. Contrary to a frozen-in-time perspective, when examined more closely folk art practices mirror both past- and present-day work methods. Indeed, on the continuum, those folk art practices that have stood the test of time have done so because they are ever evolving. The popular folk genre of quilting lends example. In keeping with folk/traditional art as a whole, here we observe a practice whose forward movement and continued growth along the time continuum is borne by critical tradition bearers. It is they who convey the essential "how to" knowledge from their generation to the next. Critically, of course, the folk art dynamic relies on interconnections. When the human thread is lost, the tradition invariably fades away.

Whether self-taught or learned by observation, passed down through one's family or by others in the community, the emerging folk artist—after experience is gained—may choose to deviate from the traditional way the work is rendered. A saddlemaker over time may begin to take a different approach to building a saddle, for example, staying within the proscribed boundaries of the tradition to be sure, but with subtle variations. "It works better for me to do it this way, although it's not the way I was taught," is a common refrain. In some instances this divergence may become the signature of the maker, a nuance that sets their work apart.

Approached as craft not "art" by most folk and traditional makers in characteristically unassuming ways, one might argue that the source of learning, the predictable nature of the work, its utility and accessibility, not to mention the joy it brings to both creator and observer, alike, all make for a connection between the maker and their work far more pronounced than that experienced by those practitioners in either the popular or elite cultures. Again, in keeping with tradition-based folk craft practices, adherence to traditional ways of doing is central although some variations may be introduced by makers over time as they gain experience. What folk/traditional art does share in common with both popular and contemporary art is dynamism, yet at a more measured pace to be sure. At its heart the essential dynamic for folk/traditional arts is flow. If the critical "passing down" of knowledge is interrupted the tradition may be at risk of being lost.

In the material culture or folk craft idiom the number of genres evident or not is incalculable. Given the myriad choices how an aspiring maker arrives at "the one" he or she wishes to undertake is an interesting question. It may simply be a case of growing up in a family of quilters or woodworkers so the choice is an obvious one. For others it may be more subtle, a calling perhaps based on the sensory appeal of a certain material: "Wood speaks to me." "I love the feel of the fabric in my hand." "The look and smell of leather is something I never tire of." While we, too, as observers may feel connected to a certain folk genre based on family practice or a sensory connection of sorts, it is the maker's ability to visualize what is possible within a given medium, coupled with their need to create the work (i.e. piece the quilt top, build the saddle, carve the eagle) that sets them apart. The folk/traditional artists featured in this essay are pragmatists at heart: doers not dreamers.

With this in mind we look at master folkcraft makers in the greater Baton Rouge area. Some traditions are practiced by many, while others are practiced by only a few. Together they reveal the wealth of handwork traditions practiced in the capitol region.

Ken Raye, Saddlemaker
Zachary, East Baton Rouge Parish

When referring to folk and traditional artists, the term "traditional artist" rather than "folk artist" seems more agreeable to most makers today. Both terms are apt, however, as descriptors for handwork artisans carrying on folk craft traditions with knowledge passed from one generation to the next.

Ken Raye collector's saddle built in 2009. Vasilla style tree, fully buck stitched; cantle binding is hand-stitched, fully tooled, and stamped; complete with tapaderas (stirrup covers), rifle scabbard, swell pouch, saddle bags; saddle is antique finished; 600 hours of labor to complete. Photo: Douglas Manger.

So how does one become a folk or traditional artist with a generational connection as the linchpin? To answer that question it is best to go back to the source of inspiration. In the case of Zachary-based saddlemaker Ken Raye one could say the tradition runs in his blood. His father, Kenny Raye, began rodeoing at a young age competing in local bronc and bull riding events. In 1965 he did one better by winning the Louisiana High School Rodeo Association's All Around Cowboy title. On the side Raye Sr. rode horses for the Lazy Bar K Ranch in Baton Rouge, a ranching operation owned by the Kleinpeter family. On his mother's side of the family Raye's grandfather, M.L. Clark, was an operative in the touring company M.L. Clark and Son's Combined Shows. Part circus, part wild west show, the Alexandria-based company toured extensively throughout the Midwest until 1945 when it ceased operation. "On both sides I had the Western industry kind of instilled in me," Raye observed.

Ken Raye's makers mark stamped on a completed saddle. Photo: Douglas Manger.

Although Raye's father spent his career as a pipe fitter in a nuclear power plant, he was a cowboy at heart riding colts in the evenings and selling horses on the side. Building belts with his dad at the kitchen table in the winter time marked Raye's introduction to leather work. He and his father took on other challenges, as well. "We tore a saddle down when I was about 12 years old to try to learn some mechanics of a saddle," Raye explained. "We just was trying to learn . . . . [It] really was my start to get my interest in that."

Ken Raye, Saddlemaker

Saddlemaking, however, did not play a part in Raye's life until his junior year of high school. That was the year he hired on at Mr. Harold's saddle shop in Denham Springs on Highway 16. "That got my start doing repair saddles," Raye remarked. Upon graduating high school in 1989 Raye continued to work for Mr. Harold. By the time he packed up and headed west to Texas he had 40 hand-built saddles to his credit. With the help of a salesman who sold sheep wool to saddlemakers, in August of 1991 Raye landed a job with Piland Saddlery in San Angelo. "I went there and told them I would stay a year and leave. I stayed 18 months. They was like family to me. Very lucky there. Very good to me. I worked a bunch of hours because I was craving [saddlemaking] at that point in my life. Still do." Raye commented. "I just couldn't get enough. I worked 80 to 100 hours. They finally made me quit working on Sundays. They just said you're going to burn yourself out and they made me stop." In the saddle shop John Piland took the lead cutting out the assorted saddle parts which were then delivered to Raye's work bench.

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Ken Raye talks about his early saddlemaking work experience in Texas. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

In March of 1993, eighteen months and 200 saddles later, Raye returned home anxious to build his own business. "I come home with a handful of orders . . . so I started with orders. I was very lucky. Some from Texas and I still did contract work for Piland, still. They'd send me the parts and I'd build them," Raye recalled. "The cutting horse business in Baton Rouge was pretty good and thriving in those years, and I knew most all the riders around here and got a few local orders. Started going to some shows and set up a booth at different cutting horse functions and it just kind of snowballed from there." Specializing in cutting horse saddles at the outset, Raye has now expanded his product line to include ranch saddles for the working cowboy.

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Ken Raye talks about his goal in life. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

These days Raye is always on the go. If he is not building saddles in his Zachary saddle shop he's on the road, mostly out of state, marketing his saddles at cutting horse competitions or at rodeo events. "My goal in life is to be the very best saddlemaker that I can, along with honesty and integrity," Raye confided. "I'm always trying to find that next little bitty thing that will make my saddle just a little cleaner. Not necessarily for the working guy, or the riding ability of the saddle, but just to the cosmetics of it."

Frank Land, Metal Fabricator
Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish

When it comes to custom metal fabrication work, be it a decorative table, an elaborate bedstead, or a fanciful "Old South" balcony railing, Frank Land is the craftsman of choice for many design professionals in Baton Rouge. Apart from Frank Land the master fabricator, there is also Frank Land the unschooled folk artist (the whimsical maker of folk art), along with Frank Land the gifted storyteller. To be sure Land's skill sets are as multifaceted as his personality.

Frank Land standing beside pot belly barrel from Standard Oil (Esso) stamped June 2, 1903. He and his father at one point repurposed the barrels for use as BBQ pits and sold them commercially. Photo: Douglas Manger.

By virtue of a caring father with a passion for handwork, coupled with a ferocious work ethic, Land was brought into metalwork at an early age. "He'd work eight hours up there [on his day job]," Land recalled, "and then he'd come up here and work eight hours." When he was seven his father started him out with a gas welder. When Land was ten his father moved him on to electric welding. As he tells it, by the time he was 12 and 13 he was welding pipe in the near-by oil field. "Probably be against the law today, but that's how things were back then," Land commented. A decade later, after he had finished his schooling, Land headed out for new territory to work in a professional setting. In time, however, his longing for handwork brought him back to the home place in Baton Rouge to work alongside his father in his metal fabrication business.

The home place, still in use today by Land and his wife, was built in the 1940s by his father and grandfather. Land recounted, "He (Frank's father) paid $105 for five slave houses off the Mississippi River. My sister remembers it well. She was about six years old and they pulled all the nails out and even straightened the nails and reused them." Land continued, "Lumber in this old house is probably about two-hundred years old. I mean it's really old. There's boards in there 24" wide, cypress." Once moved to his father's property in south Baton Rouge the five slave houses were joined to make one house. With a laugh, Land remarked, "I don't think there's a square room in it, though. Everything was one room at a time."

Frank Land, Metal Fabricator

The whimsical folk art pieces of Frank Land are built for a specific use (the hoot owl in his office made up entirely of welding beads is one obvious exception) in keeping with the paradigm of folk art in general. Whether it be bird houses, BBQ pits, garden tools, or planters for his flowering plants, the look of Land's folk art works is decidedly pedestrian and understated. This, of course, is in direct contrast to his custom fabricated pieces for his design clients where the visual effect is every bit as important as the purpose. Nevertheless, despite their no frills appearance—as with his wry smile—Land's folk art pieces reflect his clever wit and eye for repurposing.

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Frank Land talks about his purple martin bird houses. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

In 1960 Land began building birdhouses for purple martins. The purple martins typically arrive in February then remain through June. Miraculously, as he pointed out, every year they return to the same birdhouses. "Behind this picture on this wall my dad used to write the date when they came," Land remarked. At first he built his birdhouses out of plywood. "They'd last about two or three years then they'd fall apart," Land added. Later he switched to aluminum when confronted with the destructive nature of the local squirrel population. Land's colorful birdhouses in various sizes and shapes mirror traditional Southern architecture: plantation homes with square columns, churches with pointed steeples.

Land's other folk craft innovations include barbeque pits repurposed from circa 1903 Standard Oil (Esso/Exxon) pot belly barrels. Their success in the market place inspired Land years later to begin fabricating a numbered line of oversize BBQ pits using 5/16" (wall thickness) pipe. The units mounted on recycled steel implement wheels are complete with antique cypress sides. "We moved those wheels just forward of the center of gravity, so when you pick it up it counterbalances out. That pit weighs about 350 pounds, but anybody can almost roll it," Land commented. Yet another (re)innovation, truly a sublime pairing of utility and aesthetics, are his recycled grain elevator buckets. Repurposed as planters for his flowering plants, one three-bucket installation now creates a pleasing ladder effect on the north facing exterior wall of the Lands' home.

Apart from subtle variants folk art motifs remain the same over time. In that respect folk artists render "new" works that resemble the old. The design of a Frank Land bird house does not noticeably differ from what we have come to expect a traditional bird house to look like. Does this suggest there is no room for creativity in folk art? To the contrary folklife scholars would argue, from the beginning stages of abstract thought right through to the actual fabrication, in the absence of creativity the work would never have been realized.

Darrell Crawford, Fly Tyer
Gonzales, Ascension Parish

Beginning in the 1990s Darrell Crawford began teaching fly tying to the general public. Now well into his second decade his classes at the Ascension Parish Library in Gonzales remain as popular as ever.

Darrell Crawford holding one of his poppers made with a peacock feather. Photo: Douglas Manger.

In the folk genre of fly tying, the art is all about creating a hand tied fly that effectively mimics the appearance and action of damselflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, frogs, and other creatures that present themselves to fish. Apart from the appearance of the fly, of equal importance is how well the fly performs in the water, ideally with enough "action" to attract lots of attention. To be sure, tying flies is a highly controlled repetitive process requiring precise eye-hand coordination and finger dexterity. Given the creative challenges of fly tying in and of itself, not to mention the success rate expected by fly fishermen once in action on the water, the circle of master fly tiers in Baton Rouge remains few in number.

"Reared up" in Springfield, Crawford began fly fishing with his grandfather on the Tickfaw and Natalbany rivers when he was 13. In short order his grandfather had him a nickname. On their fishing outings together "Horsefly's" duty was to row the boat. One day things changed however when his grandfather announced, "Horsefly, this is the way it is. I'm goin' to paddle, youre going to fish, but don't get to enjoying it too much." With his grandfather's fly rod in hand Crawford was about to realize how little he knew. As one cast after the next missed its mark his frustration level quickly grew. When repeated attempts met with the same results Crawford's grandfather signaled it was time to head in. Crawford was crestfallen. Later with the landing in sight his grandfather's voice finally broke the silence, "Stretch your legs a little bit, take a deep breath, now I'm gonna' show you how to fly fish."

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Darrell Crawford's first fly tying experience. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

At a later time when Crawford had learned his way around a fly rod he and his grandfather went fishing for bull bream. Eying his grandfather's favorite "popper" Darrell asked if he could give it a try. A popper is the most commonly known surface lure. It is configured with a cupped face at the front causing water to be pushed and splashed out around the popper when it is retrieved. When worked correctly the action of the popper imitates a baitfish or other prey jumping out of the water. Casting here and there with his usual vigor, within a matter of hours Crawford had worn his grandfather's popper out. Feeling more than negligent he quickly resolved to make his grandfather a new one. With a hook, his father's vice grip pliers, and two cinderblocks to steady the work, Crawford set out to tie his first fly. Little did he realize this would mark the beginning stages of his lifelong devotion to fly tying. After two weeks of trial and error Crawford finally finished the popper. Filled with pride he presented the new popper to his grandfather. Back on the river, on the first cast, a bull bream went right for the popper. Crawford's grandfather was beside himself, "There ain't no way," he shouted. Horsefly had finally earned his grandfather's forgiveness.

Darrell Crawford, Fly Fishing Ties

The design of Crawford's poppers are all of his own making informed by his many years on the water fly fishing and observing what's around him. "You pick up little tricks, little things that you see in real life on the water," he related, "what fish chase, what fish hit." Crawford's approach to fly tying begins with "mulling over" in his mind what the fly should look like. When he is finally able to develop a mental picture of the fly it is then time to gather the materials. With a myriad of products on the market today geared expressly for fly tyers, Crawford's choices are many both natural and manmade: cork or foam for the body of the popper; synthetic string "crystal flash" to use as streamers to attract the fish; "hackle" neck feathers from a hen or rooster tied to represent the legs of an insect; bucktail deer hair, silver flash, Pearl Flashabou, peacock feathers, beads and eyes, the list goes on and on. "I'd say probably 90% I improvise," Crawford shared. His comments about his "Blue Goose Clouser" popper lend some insight:

Extremely good on speckled trout and flounder. The body is tied with bucktail deer hair dyed blue. Silver flash on the body. The Pearl Flashabou coming off the end of the popper will wiggle as the popper is pulled through the water. Painted lead eyes. Extremely good salt water bait. Can throw it with an 8-weight fly rod. (Crawford 2014)

The "eyes" on Crawford's poppers are rendered not with the artist brush itself, but rather with the opposite rounded end portion of the brush handle which when dipped in paint is dabbed on the popper. With Crawford's steady hand the result is a perfect circle. As mentioned earlier, aside from its appearance, the popper must function with sufficient action to attract attention. Crawford's "frog" popper designed for bream or bass fishing does just that. The rubber legs kick back as the popper is pulled through the water, then spring forward when the popper is at rest. The popper mirrors the appearance and moves of a baby frog right down to the color choices on the bottom of the fly.

Once the fly is tied Darrell may try it out immediately or set it aside for just that right moment. If the fly doesn't function as designed he may tinker with it a bit. In fly tying, indeed in the creation of all folk art, this act of tinkering or exploring possibilities is critical in the development of new works. Within this process a certain flow occurs: (a) reflection on how the piece has been rendered in the past; (b) conceptual thinking on what the piece should look like and how it should function; (c) selection of an approach the maker feels is right for the application.

Over the years Crawford has taught hundreds of students from young to old the how-to's of fly tying. On occasion he will cross paths with a former student. Struggling to contain his emotions Crawford recounted one such meeting at a church in Baker:

Oh, I had a young man walk up to me. He's about yay high. Stuck his hand out.
"You don't remember me, do you?"
"Say, well you look sort of familiar, but I can't place you."
"You taught me how to tie fly baits back in the 90s."
I said, "Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Crawford," he said. "I'm still tying and still catching fish."
I said, "Man, well, I'm happy for you." (Crawford 2014)

With tears in his eyes Crawford sighed then spoke in a whisper. "That's why I hate to see it die out."

Keith Felder, Wooden Boat Builder
Denham Springs, Livingston Parish

Folk craft may be appreciated on the one hand for what purpose it serves—its utility—and on the other for the sheer beauty and joy it brings to the viewer. Keith Felder's hand built pirogues qualify on both counts. But are there other dimensions to an artifact beyond the physical plane? Material culture scholars would likely urge viewers to consider the underlying "text" of the artifact; what it represents. To regard Felder's folk craft in this manner brings his work into a whole new light.

Keith Felder, Wooden Boat Builder

Felder's wooden boat building prowess represents years of continuous learning. First came introductory coursework at a Louisiana traditional wooden boat building school in Thibodaux. Once that was behind him Felder did something quite out of the ordinary. After scouting the talent at the Wooden Boat Festival in Madisonville, he then contacted those master builders whose boats were of most interest to him. When Felder reached them, he posed a question: Could he observe and work alongside them as an apprentice while they build a boat for him?

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Keith Felder shares his unique approach to learning wooden boat building. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

"It was a timing thing for me," Felder explained. "Before that, boat builders really wouldn't show you how they built a boat 'cause that was a secret for the family." As later shared by one of Felder's mentors, the thinking was to pass the craft on to the sons in the family. In the end, however, the next generation became more fixated on making money in industry than building boats for far less income.

Felder's novel approach worked. Over a period of time he apprenticed with four different master boat builders in southern Louisiana: Raymond Sedotal from Pierre Parte (swamp pirogues, lumbermen's pirogues, and Creole rowing skiffs); Rodney Cheramie from LaRose (marsh pirogues and Lafitte skiffs); Wenselaus Billiott, a Biloxi Chitimacha Indian from Pointe-aux-Chenes (round bottomed pirogues); and Tom Colvin from Mandeville (lake skiffs).

So what hidden texts are suggested by a Keith Felder pirogue? For some the concealed text is all about man's ability to think, logic, and problem-solve. In this instance, how to take cypress drift logs pulled from Lake Maurepas and shape them into a functional marsh or swamp pirogue without obvious deviation from the traditional pirogue folk craft form. In other words, "maintaining the lines" while sustaining the pirogue building tradition.

For others the invisible text relates to time and memory. Weekend outings, say, swamp fishing with a beloved uncle. For others still the unseen text is all about connectivity; how the artifact works to link the generations together. Consider the client who has gifted one of Felder's pirogues to each of his grandchildren. Crafted from 850 year old cypress logs pulled from Lake Maurepas each has been patterned after the pirogues used by the client's father and grandfather.

To many the undisclosed text is celebratory in nature alluding to treasured Louisiana water craft traditions that still persist. And to others still the underlying text is one of promise: the promise of a future where that which can be imagined can be achieved; the promise of a future where hand rendered folk/traditional crafts remain vital in a world where machine-made goods run riot.

Keith Felder remains one of the select few wooden boat builders in the State of Louisiana. To his awareness he is also the only maker in the state who keeps an inventory of boats on hand to travel to shows: a traditional cypress dug-out pirogue, swamp and marsh style pirogues, a Creole rowing skiff, an Atchafalaya basin bateau, among others.

Lingering at the end of the work day with the sun filtering through the trees, Felder reflects on what lies ahead. "I would like to have somebody to pass it on, to carry it on." With a look of resignation, he adds, "It's probably going to stop with me. There's no money in it for the young people."

Lynn Varnado, Chainsaw Sculptor
Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish

Lynn Varnado became aware of his talent for sculpting in his ninth grade art class at Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge. Challenged to sculpt an owl out of clay, the realism of his finished piece amazed both teacher and student. Years later, inspired by the 1984 movie "The Dollmaker," Varnado decided to try his hand once again at sculpting. Lacking funds to buy a set of wood chisels he picked up his chain saw and went to work. No sooner done, Varnado's owl sculptor promptly sold. Inspired by his early success, combining instinct with raw talent, Varnado went on to carve seven more sculptures that first year.

Lynn Varnado, Chainsaw Sculptor

Varnado takes a very intuitive approach to his work. As the piece takes shape he strives for a realistic rendering, not a caricature. In most instances Varnado carves what he is familiar with. "Make art about what you truly know," he exclaimed. When he is uncertain Varnado is not adverse to going to extremes to make sure his work is accurate. In one instance his dissatisfaction with an armadillo he had just carved set him on the hunt for fresh road kill. Once under foot, Varnado counted every scale and band on the armadillo to ensure the detail on his finished piece would be accurate. After three hours of carving the new work with his chainsaw, plus an additional 55 hours laying in the detail with wood burning and sanding, Varnado was finally satisfied.

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Lynn Varnado talks about his experience carving an armadillo. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

As an avid outdoorsman, Varnado's chain saw carvings range across the spectrum from Louisiana's black bear (the official state mammal) to the offshore dolphin. Varnado uses the natural coloration in the wood to bring out his pieces. As an example, for a dolphin sculpture he may elect to use aged yellow poplar with its natural green and yellow tones, and purple accents.

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Lynn Varnado describes the equipment he uses when he carves. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

To accomplish the realism he is after Varnado works with various sized chain saws. To make his initial cuts he begins by using a chain saw with a long "bar" or cutting blade. With such a blade he can section an entire tree trunk. Once the figure is roughed out, Varnado begins to render the details with progressively smaller bars, the smallest of which tapers down to size of a dime. To accomplish even strokes and to blend the detail as needed he also uses a side grinder with a chainsaw blade attached to it.

When asked about his learning process, Varnado, an experienced arborist as well, replied, "I automatically just started getting out and doing it." Now 30 years later he continues to carve wildlife sculptures on commission for clients in East Baton Rouge Parish and beyond. Varnado is also an experienced presenter. For seven years running he was the featured chain saw carver and presenter at FestForAll in Baton Rouge. In years past he has also presented at festivals outside the state as an artist ambassador for the State of Louisiana's Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism. Ultimately, Varnado's desire is to do work no one has ever done before. "My best work," he imparted, "is yet to come."

Burt Fleming, Chainsaw Sculptor
Zachary, East Baton Rouge Parish

Burt Fleming, a true bear of a man, reckons he is the only man in the state who earns a full time living as a chain saw carver. Fleming took up wood carving when he was 24. Inexplicably he recalled, "it happened," the impulse to break out his pocket knife on the night shift to begin whittling on a broom handle. For the next ten years Fleming kept at it. Then in 1984 he met Baton Rouge Pelican Wood Carvers Guild member A. B. Wilson. From that point on Fleming became a regular at the guild. "That's when I got most of my learning," he remarked, "from talking and seeing what people were doing."

Burt Fleming, Chainsaw Carver

Another chance meeting occurred in 2000 at a festival. While Fleming was hand carving a bystander approached him to ask if he knew any chain saw carvers. Although he didn't own a chain saw at the time Fleming wasn't the least bit deterred. A visit to a pawn shop soon fixed that. With four chainsaws in hand, albeit no experience whatsoever, Fleming rendered his first chain saw carving on a casino golf course.

Chain saw carving of an eagle. Sculpted and painted by Burt Fleming. Photo: Douglas Manger.

Fleming regards the chainsaw as just another tool, like a knife that turns or a grinder used to smooth rough edges. "I don't look at myself as a chainsaw carver," Fleming observed, "I am a sculptor and I use a chainsaw." Although he still hand carves for local cabinet shops his bread and butter is production chain saw carving. Once Fleming understood that "getting realistic" meant charging more for the work and selling less, he switched modes to a less time intensive rustic style. Sculpting seven to ten small carvings a day is now his norm. With nothing drawn out beforehand Fleming relies on seeing the work as he goes. "It just kind of comes," he explained, [though] I may have to change it three or four times before [I] get it right." Echoing the "honesty with integrity" values shared earlier in this essay by saddlemaker Ken Raye, Fleming explained, "See, this is Old World stuff, what I'm doing, and I've got the mentality of the Old World people. If I tell you something, I'm-a-do-it, [and] when I am carving something, it is the best that I can do."

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Burt Fleming talks about the challenges of learning how to carve wood. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

A popular presenter and gifted teacher Fleming continues to work festival venues throughout the United States. His recent commissions in East Baton Rouge Parish range from a larger-than-life bald eagle in Zachary's town center to wildlife totems carved on two oak trees in the Kenilworth Subdivision of Baton Rouge.

Billy Anderson, Bullwhip Maker
Baker, East Baton Rouge Parish

Greatest thing for any craftsmen is to make something with your own hands and somebody likes it. . . . Monies nice, but the real pay-off is to see the look in their eyes.

-Billy Anderson

He is among the few master craftsmen in the U.S. who both make and repair bullwhips. He is also among the few, as he proclaimed, "who can make a bullwhip do what he wants it to do." A long standing presenter at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Billy Anderson's singular trade, along with his way with people (the Cajun drawl, the wit, his gift for spinning a tale) give him a presence larger than life.

Billy Anderson, Bullwhip Maker

Grandfather William Joseph Anderson taught Anderson how to plait bullwhips on his shade porch in Tunica, Louisiana. "Poppy" Anderson was an old hand with bullwhips. In his younger days the pop of his whip could be heard overhead as he drove his team of eight oxen. Mesmerized by his grandfather's handwork, one day young Anderson no older than five years of age at the time found himself on his granddad's lap. Anderson recalled, "His hands would guide my hands" in the braiding process. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Poppy had wisely determined Anderson's future.

It was some time before Anderson circled back to the bullwhips, however. He didn't attempt to make one on his own until he was 16 or so. With no knowledge of splicing he resorted to sewing the strips of leather together. Later as his confidence grew Anderson began to sell his bullwhips at area feed stores. "Doesn't matter what you sell, get your name out there," he declared. "[Then] make sure you have a good name and stand behind it." Anderson was fortunate, along the way he was taught the vagaries of leather by experts in the trade including how to differentiate between various types and weights.

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Billy Anderson comments on the benefits of handwork. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

These days Anderson strives for a quick turnaround. An hour and a half is his norm for completing a bullwhip. Hand-braided cow leather bullwhips and nylon parachute cord bullwhips for the working cowboy are his specialties. Over the years, he shared, customer tastes have changed. Given the ease in care (i.e. rot resistant, no routine oiling needed) his nylon whips now outsell his cow leather whips 20-to-1. Custom made-to-order from $60 to $80, it is a cost Anderson figures most working cowboys can live with. This doesn't suggest a slight on materials, however. To the contrary, his bullwhips are available in both premium grade "Indian tan" latigo or "oil tanned" leather. Anderson breaks into a smile, "Don't sell junk to the public. If you sell second-rate [bull]whips, you're a second-rate whip maker."

Tim Medlin, Horseshoer
Slaughter, East Feliciana Parish

Well into his second decade shoeing horses Tim Medlin remains ever a student of the tradition always open to new changes. As for his title Medlin favors the terms "horseshoer" over "farrier". Given the demand for his services a six day work week is his norm. Although Medlin prides himself on the level of service he offers to all his clients, shoeing horses for the Baton Rouge Police Mounted Patrol continues to be one of his greatest thrills.

Tim Medlin uses a rasp to blend the outer hoof wall with the profile of the new horseshoe. Photo: Douglas Manger.

Medlin's sense of obligation was obvious from the outset. Uneasy with starting his own business right out of shoeing school, he instead opted to work with two experienced farriers: Linzee Perez of New Iberia, and later, Curtis Windham of Springfield. For two years running Medlin shod horses under their supervision. For Windham the horseshoeing trade is generational with skills passed down from his father. And like his father Windham for the longest time didn't carry pre-made horseshoes. Instead he shaped flat bar into horseshoes using a forge, hammer, and anvil.

Tim Medlin, Horseshoer

Is forging horseshoes from flat bar a dying art? In keeping with the changes that occur in all folk craft, Medlin indicated few shoers do it today. For one, most customers can't afford it, he explained. As for the younger generation of shoers coming up, Medlin added, they aren't interested in it. In today's practice shoers typically purchase "keg" or pre-made shoes which they then modify as needed. A keg shoe is a neutral pattern ready to be shaped into a front or hind pattern. A keg shoe is not made to put on a horse's foot without adjustments, but as Medlin pointed out, shoers do it all the time. Customers often assume wrongly that is the way it is done. By contrast, Medlin goes to great lengths to ensure every keg shoe he nails on is a good fit. "Almost every shoe I put on is put in the forge," he explained.

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Tim Medlin relates the challenges of his craft. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

"This is a craft," Medlin stated. To many of his customers that translates to offering services as both a shoer and a healer. Of course, he affirmed, horses "never go by the rules." An approach that works one time will not necessarily work the next. It is in the process of attempting six different ways to find what will work that makes the job so interesting to Medlin.

One horse Medlin worked with had been shod so wrong for so long its feet didn't know how to grow properly. He problem-solved the situation in two ways. First Medlin fit the horse with four normal shoes. Then with a tool that resembles a caulking gun he created synthetic soles to cushion the horse's feet. With the added cushion, most of the imperfections "put into the horse" by a misguided horseshoer were gradually erased. "That's what makes this business fun. It's just different every day," Medlin exclaimed.

Lorraine Bergeron, Heirloom Sewing
Port Allen, West Baton Rouge Parish

Although Lorraine Bergeron's mother wasn't a sewer, her grandmother was. "I can remember sitting on her lap putting little quilt pieces together," Bergeron recalled. "She really instilled a love of sewing." Out of necessity Bergeron began to sew when she was 12. Her first attempt was a dress for her sister made of flower sacks.

Lorraine Bergeron with a copy of an antique Christening gown. The original is over 100 years old. Worn by her father, children and grandchildren, Bergeron has now made copies for her great-grandchildren. Made of Swiss batiste with 50 yards of lace and entredeux in it. Photo: Douglas Manger.

Today Bergeron has come full circle specializing in "heirloom" sewing, a traditional craft genre she defines as "beautiful clothes, either fancy or plain, made of fine fabrics with fine lace." "To me," she added, "heirloom is sewing by hand." Bergeron points out the tiny flower accents on a smocked day dress. "That's a bullion rose. I'm called the bullion queen of the area." To be sure, Bergeron is known to have sewn hundreds of bullions on a single dress. "That's one of my signatures," she declared.

Smocked baby dresses are also Bergeron signature works. To begin a project Bergeron typically cuts out three dresses at a time then sews each one together with tiny, fine seams. Next she takes a dress and runs it through her pleater, her only concession to machined work. She then pin stitches the lace. Afterwards she pulls the thread up to form the small pleats, ties off the threads, then in turn straightens out the pleats one by one. Bergeron's description of one of her day dresses provides more detail:

The day dress is made of pink Imperial batiste fabric smocked with shading on the thread. The flower bullions are sewn [on the smocking as added decoration] with my signature colors. The sleeves are edged in entredeux and tatting. The generous hem can be let out so the child can wear it longer. (Bergeron 2014)

Dressing her daughters and granddaughters in exquisite handmade smocked dresses has been a longstanding tradition in Bergeron's family. With her preference for what Bergeron terms "mod" clothes, there is that one great granddaughter, though, who may be setting a new direction for future generations.

Lorraine Bergeron, Heirloom Sewing

Dressing a newborn in an elaborate christening gown remains another time honored tradition in the Bergeron family. The christening gown worn by Bergeron's father is over 100 years old. After Bergeron's children and grandchildren were christened in the gown, she painstakingly replicated the gown numerous times over for her great grandchildren. Made of Swiss batiste or handkerchief linen, at times with cording around the edges, embellished with as much as 50 yards of antique lace and entredeux, Bergeron's christening gowns are true heirloom pieces.

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Lorraine Bergeron talks about the impact of her handwork on her family. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

Bergeron's love of hand sewing has never waned nor has her insistence on perfection at every step. "I can't make myself do it incorrectly," she confided. In this age of mass-produced machine sewn garments Bergeron's exquisite smocked dresses and christening gowns stand out as true artisan masterworks.

Jared Riddle, Leatherworker
Baker, East Baton Rouge Parish

Driving north on Plank Road toward Zachary the Riddle family homestead lies on down to the left just beyond the point where commercial storefronts finally give way to open country. Passing through the gate under thick tree cover it immediately feels like home. Jared Riddle's grandfather lives in the first house on the right. Step inside then bear left. If it is late in the evening, Riddle, dressed in jeans with a button down shirt, will most likely be bent over his work table tooling a leather belt.

Jared Riddle, Leatherworker

Riddle is an emerging talent in the leather working trade in East Baton Rouge Parish. It all started with a phone call from Zachary saddlemaker Ken Raye when Riddle was but 16. Would Riddle be interested in taking his brother's place as a part-time worker for Raye? When Riddle agreed he soon found himself cleaning horse stalls on the one hand, edging and riveting cinch connector straps on the other. Now six years into it with far more responsibility Riddle continues to work alongside Raye, one of the few Western saddle makers in Louisiana. In his understated way Riddle remarked, "Leather just kind of stuck with me."

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Jared Riddle talks about carving, stamping, and tooling leather. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

With Ken Raye "over his shoulder" Riddle built his first saddle when he was in his late teens. Eager to help out, Raye opened his shop to Riddle for the many late nights and weekends it took to complete the work. The result was impressive: first in show in the beginner class at the 2010, 22nd Annual Boot & Saddle Makers Trade Show Round-up in Wichita Falls, Texas. Back again the following year Riddle took the runner-up spot in the next category up. "I don't like slacking," he declared, "if I'm going to do something I'm going to give it all I got."

Seeing and doing are Riddle family traits. Riddle's mother quilts, crochets, and knits. His father, a welder/fabricator by trade, is an avid hunter. "We kill a lot of deer here," Riddle let on. "We have probably 15 or 20 mounted in my house where I live next door." A traditional artist in her own right, his grandmother's folksy landscape paintings along with her colorful saw blade art are spotted about the walls in the workshop. Riddle believes his love for drawing stems from her.

To be sure Jared Riddle has the fire for leather work. Now the true test. Is he willing to follow in Ken Raye's footsteps with all the uncertainty of the saddlemaking trade? With his own work space, a high-end sewing machine, an ever growing tool kit of Made in USA carving and stamping tools, along with a stock of Hermann Oak vegetable tanned belt leather, Riddle is off to a good start. In his soft-spoken manner Riddle reflects on the Western leather working tradition in the parish, "[It's] not as strong around here, but we'll keep it going the best we can."

Joe Vincent, Vincent Dezigns, Custom Paint, Airbrush, Pinstrip Artist
Prairieville, Ascension Parish

When he first encountered the airbrush artistry of Brett Guidry, Joe Vincent was spellbound. "[His work], it captured me. . . . [I] couldn't take my eyes off of it." Here of all things was an artist creating photorealist works using an airbrush tool instead of a conventional paint brush. From that point on Vincent began spending his weekends at the local mall watching Guidry and his partner create mesmerizing airbrushed images.

Joe Vincent pinstriping a design. Vincent is insistent on using the best brushes available; handmade brushes by MAC, and brushes designed by legendary pinstripe artist Steve Kafka. Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Dezigns.

When Guidry realized that Vincent's interest was more than just a passing fancy he offered to take Vincent in and train him in airbrush techniques at his home. Although still in high school living with his parents Vincent jumped at the opportunity. His boot camp training under Guidry's watchful eye lasted six months.

Despite the many hours bent over an easel working on practice drills, Vincent had no complaints. "From the moment I picked up that airbrush for the first time, I couldn't put it down," he recalled. The more Guidry pushed, the harder Vincent pushed himself. The tedium of Guidry's teaching approach, however, did raise some doubts. "Why am I doing these silly drills over and over," Vincent asked himself. "All I did was eat and airbrush for six months." Mastering thin upstrokes, thick down strokes, dagger strokes, and loops in endless variations became his life.

Vincent's photorealistic American flag rendered with an airbrush. Vincent currently owns 48 different airbrushes each designed for a specific purpose. Photo: Courtesy of Vincent Dezigns.

After the initial training period Vincent began working in a local flea market airbrushing t-shirts making more money than he ever imagined. Curiously, as with his mentor, when Vincent airbrushes or pinstripes in public today he, too, is often surrounded by teenagers hanging on his every move fascinated by the art form. "It's a passion," Vincent offered. "It's an awesome thing to be able to do. . . . I was just very lucky that Guidry, in the position that he was at, recognized my passion for it and was able to hone it."

Vincent's initial foray into airbrushing was soon sidetracked, however, by a call to report to another boot camp. At the age of 17 with his GED in hand Vincent entered the Army as a new recruit. During his time in [the Army], Vincent served both stateside and overseas. When there was down time he continued his airbrush work on the side. "That was my release," Vincent shared, "escape from everything and be creative." When his artistic talents became known, he was called upon to paint wall murals and crests. Fifteen years would pass before Vincent's return to civilian life.

After his discharge from the Army, Vincent made the leap into the custom industry as an independent contractor. Sink or swim, his chosen canvas would be sheet metal—painting, airbrushing, pinstripe. The pinstripe aspect harkened back to his days as a teenager hand-painting letters on shop windows to earn extra cash. Yet this time around it would be with C curves, S curves, and dagger strokes. Apart from the hands-on, books and videos helped Vincent jump on the learning curve. "Lot of old schoolers recommend getting a brush and a gallon of One Shot paint to practice with," Vincent joked. By the time the gallon is emptied "you'll be a pinstriper artist."

Joe Vincent, Vincent Dezign, Custom Painter, Airbrush, Pinstrip Artist

Once early on in his business career Vincent decided to attend a pinstripe/airbrush car show in Gonzales. That decision led to yet another fortuitous meeting, this time with Steve Kafka and Tom Kelly, two legendary names in the world of pinstriping. At the show when Kafka and Kelly walked over to look at Vincent's work they were astounded; even more so when they discovered he had only been pinstriping for six months. At that point Tom Kelly sat Vincent down to give him a never-to-be-forgotten earful on pinstripe technique.

Despite his comparatively late start in the custom business, Vincent, now based in Prairieville, has made impressive inroads into the field. Today he is recognized as one of the leading airbrush/pinstripe artists in the Capitol Region. Most of Vincent's business today is generated through word-of-mouth. "I cannot keep up with the demand for my custom work. I'm sad that I can't get to everyone," Vincent admitted. "There's a lot of people that want me to do work for them."

Vincent's career success is no surprise. Whenever he has wanted to up his game, he has sought out the experts. Drew Blair, the internationally known photorealist airbrush artist, remains Vincent's greatest influence. Since attending one of his workshops, Vincent remarked, "his words echo with me daily when I am in there painting on a bike."

"My wife will tell you. I am very competitive. I love challenges. I think I love to challenge myself more than anyone ever can. . . . I am always competing with myself, internally." Stretching himself to learn more, always attempting to top his last project, are impulses at work in Vincent's everyday psyche. "That's the thing in art and craftsmanship, is that you can never stop learning," Vincent commented. "[You're] always evolving as an artist. . . . All your passionate ones are just like that. They constantly evolve. You can look at their style change. Their styles may change based on influence, based on mentors that they have. . . . The media may also change their style," Vincent added. "It really depends on what they decide to allow into their mind."

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Joe Vincent talks about custom rebuilding a motorcycle. Field recording by Douglas Manger.

From airbrushing spiders on a Cam-Am Spyder; to rendering a flawless glassy-smooth candy paint job on a '49 Mercury; to giving it his all on a one-of-kind Vietnam Veterans "Never to Be Forgotten" Tribute trike (paint, airbrush, pinstripe) complete with the names of 350 soldiers from Baton Rouge and New Orleans area killed in Vietnam—Vincent is always at the ready for new challenges.

"Craftsmanship travels really deep in our family," Vincent observed. His mother was a sketch artist. One of his grandfathers was a furniture maker, the other a model shipbuilder. Surely on the other side they look down with immense pride at their young soldier turned artist.

 

 

Sources

Anderson, Billy. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, February 14.

Bergeron, Lorraine. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, August 13.

Braggs, Judith. 2014. Interview by Laura Marcus Green, Month Day.

Crawford, Darrell. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, August 16.

Felder, Keith. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, August 2.

Fleming, Burt. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, February 18.

Land, Frank. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, February 28.

Medlin, Tim. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, March 1.

Raye, Ken. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, February 17.

Riddle, Jared. 2014. Interview by Douglas Manger, February 23.

Varnado, Lynn. 2014. Interviews by Douglas Manger, February 12 and March 3.

Vincent, Joe. 2015. Interview by Douglas Manger, February 8.

Douglas Manger is a folklorist based in Canyon Lake, Texas. These profiles were prepared in 2014 as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.