Louisiana folk artist Mary Walker, painter of rural childhood memories, died March 5

John DeSantis/Special to Houma Courier

Within the walls of a brick Labadieville renthouse, near cane fields and Bayou Lafourche is a sun-drenched kitchen where the eyes and hands of a humble woman transformed memories of family and community into colorful, folk-art paintings.

The hands of the artist, Mary Walker, went still forever on March 5, said family members who had gathered that day at her hospital bed. They and the many people her life and works touched in Terrebonne, Lafourche and Assumption parishes say there is comfort in the knowledge that her oils on canvas will stand as a legacy of her artistic vision and her great religious faith.

“Her paintings and everything she did were mostly involved some with kind of spirituality,” said a cousin, Galeice Thomas of Schriever. “She was a loving, caring person, a spiritual person, and a Christian woman who had patience with everybody.”

Most of Walker’s paintings focus on memories of a rural Assumption Parish childhood such as family gatherings and bayou baptisms, a style reminiscent of Black artists such as Clementine Hunter and others of the primitive school. Walker’s work, aficionados say, bears charming and unique signature characteristics.

Napoleonville artist Mary Walker in a photo by provided by her daughter.

“She was brave enough to paint in such an innocent way, in an open manner with great authenticity,” said Montegut author and educator Laura Browning. “There is no pretense to it, and it is all an expression of her. Much of what she has painted is of a time we don’t know any longer, a step back and a reminder of almost an innocence lost. “There is an iconography to most of her work, the tiny little things that were important to her, and a reflection of relationships,” said Browning. “The art has a clarion kind of appearance, a message of what was within the experience of her own life, at her own doorstep.”

The former Mary Ann Williams was born in a small shotgun house on a dusty, unpaved Napoleonville road in 1953, relatives said, and was primarily raised by her great-grandmother.

The modest homes in that neighborhood were occupied almost exclusively by relatives.

She wed a local man named Alfred Walker, now deceased, but the marriage ended in divorce.

In her later years, Mary Walker devoted herself to charitable works and worship at the House of Prayer Church in Thibodaux.

In 2017 Walker was moved to paint scenes inspired by an account of the 1887 sugar cane strike and related massacre that occurred in Thibodaux, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 30 to 60 Black people at the hands of white rioters, and disturbing images relating to Louisiana’s pre-emancipation sugar industry. That work, displayed during a special event commemorating the incident, contrasts with her bucolic renderings of spiritual and social life.

One of Mary Walker's paintings depicting family life.

 One of the grimmer works depicts chained slaves suffering at the end of a lash; Another particularly poignant painting shows a white plantation mistress reading in a canopied bed while a young Black wetnurse suckles that woman’s child, drawn from a Lafourche Parish slave narrative.

Relations noted that a number of Walker’s works feature people without faces. Some suggested that difficult periods of her life may have been responsible for that.

“There were things in her past that she suffered with,” said her daughter, Deshun Walker, an only child. “I believe she started to mask what she was feeling on the canvas with her paintbrush, masking some of the pain and some of the people.”

“She was a wonderful mom,” Deshun Walker said, recalling a visit to an art fair where her mother sold her paintings, and how she used her kitchen as an art studio. “Instead of seeing pots and pans, you saw easels and paintings and paint supplies. That was her painting area.”

Retired Thibodaux journalist Murray Dennis greatly admired Walker and counted her as a cherished friend.

“She was fun, she was interesting, she was delightful and very talented,” she said. “When I look at her work in general, I would say it’s got a life in it. When we talked about her art, she would tell you it was God-given. I don’t think she saw herself as anything but one of God’s children who wanted to do good in the world, and one of the ways she would do this was through her talent.”

For Walker, another way of doing good in the world was through sewing of clothing for children in Uganda, a place that is a focus of mission work for the House of Prayer.

Church member Estella Billiot Sanders is well acquainted with Walker’s donations to that cause, and is among worshippers there who now mourn the loss of the artist.

“She just loved the Lord and she loved people,” Sanders said. “And she was such an example of Christ, so welcoming.”