I am going to jump a little ahead on my pilgrimage for a day. I had never been to Louisiana before I walked through it – and did not expect to like it. But Southern Louisiana was fantastic, my favorite of all the places I have been. Every town I walked through was nicer and more welcoming than the last. In true Louisiana style, the very best (which is saying something, given how good the state was) was saved for last.
The last town I went through was Vinton, right on the border with Texas, separated by the Old Sabine River. I won’t sing all the praises of Vinton just yet, saving it for when I get to it in my regular narrative. But I met the most talented and prolific artist of my life there, a fellow named Don McCaughey. He works in all media – paints, carves, sculpts, does woodwork, builds furniture. While visiting his home I noticed several metal statuettes. One particularly struck my eye and I asked where he had gotten it. I should have known. He launched into the description of how he made those and the others and cast them.
I toured the swamps with Don in one of his many boats and met his buddy, an authentic swamp man, named Curly. (Curly is rather shy so I won’t give his full name here). When we got back from our swamp tour, Don started showing me a portfolio of Curly’s intricate drawings as well. One had a photo of the most beautiful, delicate painting I have ever seen. Turns out, it wasn’t a painting at all. It was a pencil drawing done on cypress board by Curly. Because of the fineness of the lines and the grain of the wood, it looked like a very delicate painting with a certain tintype effect. It literally took my breath away. I asked if I could see the original in person. But alas, it had long since been sold and Curly only did one in that metier. He had not worked on cypress board since. It truly grieved me, because I was utterly captivated – and I told Don he really should encourage Curly to do some more like that.
When I got to Houston, Texas, my best friend from high school, John Bailey, flew out to spend a few days with me. I had made arrangements earlier that we would backtrack to Vinton for this visit, tour the bayou and spend some time with Don and Curly. John and I stayed at a cabin Don has on the river. The furniture, the paintings, the carvings, even the patterns on the wallpaper and the floor tile were originals by Don. After we got back in from a day exploring the bayou, Curly brought something in from his truck. He was indeed working on a piece on cypress board again. Though barely begun, it was more beautiful in person than a photo can capture. He showed me various lines and how he used the sweep of the grain to help determine the lines in the picture. He lovingly showed me the early details, asking me eagerly if I liked them. I responded with equally eager awed enthusiasm. There is something about this that just captures me…it is the single most beautiful artform I have ever seen.
Well, sharp as I usually am, sometimes I can be a bit slow on the uptake. My buddy, John, saw what was coming, but I was clueless. Curly and I had hit it off very nicely on my first visit. After I had cooed over the nascent painting for a while, Curly told me with great pride that it was for me. I was truly flabbergasted, just stunned. I told him I would have to get together some money to pay him after I finished my pilgrimage, but to not dare sell it to anyone else. He said quite firmly that it was a gift – that I had inspired him on this one and the only reason he was doing it was for me. I stammered that, well, we could let Don decide on a fair price and that way we would both be happy. Curly got mad and stormed out of the cabin. John told me it amazed him that someone as smart as I am could sometime be so obtuse. Don told me that sometimes people in town were standoffish with Curly because he looks intimidating – he could easily be mistaken for a bouncer at a biker bar. But Curly and I had hit it right off and it had pleased him that I sensed his essential gentle heart from the start. I felt like an ass – because I had been an ass.
I walked outside with sorrowful shame. I apologized to Curly and told him I had just been overwhelmed, that such a beautiful gift, such a stunning work of art made for me and inspired by me, it just overwhelmed me. I didn’t have to speak too eloquently to convince him as I was choked up and visibly fighting back tears. I told him it is the finest gift I have ever gotten on this earth and I would cherish it and keep it in a place of honor the rest of my life. And so we went back into the cabin, friends anew.
After it was finished, Don held the painting for me all this time. He was in touch with me the other day, and is going to ship it to my sister at the family homestead where it will hang until I have a suitable place for it. It is entitled “Waiting” – and I can’t wait to see the final piece in all its glory for the first time, as I will in a few weeks.
We will return to Vinton later in the Pilgrimage Journal I write installments of here. When we get there, we will linger and savor it, for Vinton is a special place, a place of grace and epiphany – and oh, the marvelous art I will show you!