Clementine Hunter-inspired ceramics among Oprah’s favorite things

Clementine Hunter-inspired ceramics among Oprah’s favorite things

Annie Gitter stood at the counter of the Gitter Gallery booth at the Atlanta Gift Show, chatting up would-be buyers and introducing them to the line of Clementine Hunter ceramic pieces that her family had developed. One pair of prospective customers seemed especially enchanted.

“I asked them where their store was, and they told me they weren’t with a store, that they were with a magazine,” the 13-year-old entrepreneur from Metairie recalled. “When I read their name tags and saw ‘Oprah,’ I couldn’t believe it.”

That was just the beginning. The scouts took their find back to Oprah Winfrey, who named the Gitter Gallery’s Clementine Hunter line one of her “Favorite Things” for 2013 and included pictures of one of the pieces in the December issue of Oprah Magazine.

Since then, Entertainment Tonight, USA Today, the Huffington Post, CNN, the “Rachael Ray Show” and US Magazine have all come calling, enthralled by the work of the renowned folk artist herself as well as by their careful translation into accessible ceramic platters, plates and bowls.

Doug and Cathy Gitter, Annie’s parents, developed the line after receiving permission from Hunter’s estate in Natchitoches. Doug Gitter had become immersed in the culture of self-taught artists 25 years ago when he was a law student at Loyola University in New Orleans.

“Other guys in my class would be going on hunting trips on weekends and I would be going to rural Alabama to meet a self-taught artist I had learned about,” Doug said. “It was my father who got me interested in art way back then.”

Doug Gitter’s dad, Dr. Kurt Gitter, is a prominent art collector who specializes in Asian art, some of which is on display in the dining room of the Gitter home on Sycamore Drive in Old Metairie. Thanks to his father’s encouragement, Doug discovered a genre of art that moved him deeply and then set out to learn as much about it as he could.

“That meant visiting the artists at their homes and talking to them about their lives,” Doug said. “I visited Bernice Sims in Brewton, Ala., and Toby Hollinghead in Opp, Ala. I visited Jimmie Lee Sudduth in Fayette, Ala. I met Malcah Zeldis when I was a second year law student and had a clerkship in Manhattan. I got hooked.”

Today, the Gitter family home is filled with works that Doug purchased from some of the artists he met. Sudduth, Sims and Hollinghead (who makes Christmas ornaments for Annie and her brother Chase every year) are all well-represented. Howard Finster’s “Elvis at 3” hangs on a wall leading from the kitchen to the entry foyer, and one of his Coke bottles is on the kitchen wall.

“Finster was a preacher, and he said God spoke to him. He realized that no one was listening to his sermons, so he starting painting to convey the Lord’s word,” Gitter explained. “That is why his art is inscribed with Scripture and every piece is numbered.”

What emerged for Gitter through decades of visiting, meeting and studying self-taught artists is a deep-seated reverence for their passion for artistic expression.

“It didn’t matter that they couldn’t buy canvas or oil paints; they used whatever they had available,” Gitter said, “Take Jimmy Lee Sudduth.

He used mud, mixed it with house paint and used his fingers to paint. They didn’t even think of it as making art, just expressing themselves.”

One of the best-known and most respected folk artists, Clementine Hunter didn’t begin painting until she was 50 or so and living on Melrose Plantation in the Africa House, but once she got her hands on paints and brushes, she couldn’t stop.

“Most of her pieces were memory paintings — images drawn from her experiences as a young girl, working in the cotton and cane fields in the late 1800s,” Gitter explained. “Her paintings depict life in the south before farming became mechanized, when everything was done by hand. She would paint narratives that would show cotton being picked, then baled, then going to the gin, all on the same painting. No one else painted that, and certainly no one who had actually done the work.”

In the process of coming to know her works and those of other self-taught artists, Gitter began to feel a sort of calling himself and made it his mission to find a way to spread the word about the artists and have their work appreciated. There is no better way to see to it that their works live on than to make them available affordably, not just in museums or private collections.

“I started by going to all of the estates of artists whose works I had come to admire and getting a license to reproduce some of the works as high quality giclée prints, each created with nine layers of archival inks,” Gitter said. “Sometimes that meant chasing down dozens of heirs, but the result was a collection of canvases that are affordable and make it possible for more people to be able to get to know and appreciate the work.”

Then Gitter got the idea of moving away from canvas to ceramics, a concept that took a while for Hunter’s estate to embrace.

“I was intrigued by the idea of taking something that was two-dimensional and making it three-dimensional, finding the right shapes for the right piece,” Gitter said, “The estate finally agreed as long as they had complete say-so and veto rights.”

Thus began a five-year quest to develop pieces that met with the approval of the Hunter estate and fulfilled Gitter’s own meticulous expectations.

The result is a group of nine pieces that celebrate the artist and offer an intimate look into her life.

“Celebrations were important in life on the plantation — weddings, baptisms, funerals — and all of those she painted many times,” Gitter said. “All you have to do to do is study each piece in the collection carefully to understand the stories she is telling.”

One example is “Pecan Picking.” It shows women with baskets catching the pecans after a man with a stick beats them out of a tree. In the tree on the far left, a youngster hangs upside down, shaking the tree to improve the harvest. Another, “Fish Fry,” reads from right to left and shows the fish being cleaned, then battered, then cooked. The small details of everyday life depicted in Hunter’s paintings and their ceramic counterparts offer insights into history more richly conveyed in images than in words.

Chase Gitter, Doug’s son, is on board with the art collecting and also participates in the Gitter Gallery business. But he has marked off his own territory with a poster on his bedroom door of clown zombies, a warning that it is a no-folk-art zone.

Almost any other place else is game, though, and therefore many arresting works are on display in the two powder rooms downstairs.

Doug Gitter laments having to keep some of his folk art collection in a downstairs closet for lack of wall space, and recently came up with an idea that would yield more room. But Cathy Gitter has quashed the notion.

“What he wants to do is to brick in the two windows in the living room,” she said. “He told me, ‘We don’t really need those windows,’ but I had to draw the line somewhere.”

To see images of the Clementine Hunter Collection, go to www.gittergallery.com

R. Stephanie Bruno is a contributing writer. Contact her at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com.