Jean Lake’s art crossed all lines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Features Editor

Talent may develop in solitude, but character is developed in society.

– Anonymous

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Jean Lake was an avid collector of quotations and colloquialisms. Perhaps, none of them gives a more insightful picture of Jean Lake the artist and Jean Lake the person than the one above.

Jean Lake was a natural artist, who was born in Troy. Her talent was developed in the solitude of her small kitchen on Orange Street.

As she painted on the kitchen table, family members and friends would often sit beside her, amazed at her ability to capture, with such great feeling,

the rural South that she knew and loved.

During her early years, Jean Lake painted wood plaques. Later, she became widely known for her realistic primitive paintings.

In 1960, when art shows were mushrooming and the Civil Rights Movement was simmering, Jean Lake went to market with her painting.

The subjects

of her paintings were varied – birds, cats,

mushrooms, homescapes and portraits of salt-of-the-earth people – many of them her people were black.

The time hardly seemed right for an artist whose paintings included black people at the wash pot, hanging out clothes on a line, sweeping yards with stick brooms, toting clothes on their heads in a basket or slicing a watermelon in the front yard.

In modern

terms, Jean Lake’s art would seemingly have been "politically incorrect."

But, Jean Lake’s art was not "politically incorrect’ because her character would not allow it.

"Jean Lake was a nice lady," said Johnnie Mae Warren, who was a leader in the voting rights movement. "People liked her. Everybody liked her and what she painted was the truth. We were at the wash pot and in the cotton fields. I was born in a cotton field in Josie. We lived in a little old shack with cotton all around us. Jean Lake painted what she saw and what she knew. We knew it, too."

Warren said she was not offended at Jean Lake’s portrayal of African Americans then and she is not offended by it now.

"I think she was trying to capture a piece of history and she did," Warren said. "Times have changed and they keep changing. I think Jean Lake knew the times we were living in were passing and she wanted people to see how it was. She painted it like it was. Like we were. Sometimes she painted it even better. Some of the houses she painted looked better than the shacks some of us were living in."

Jean Lakes paintings of the rural South had an almost whimsical look to them. The people appeared to be happy as the went about the mundane tasks of everyday life.

"I can’t say we weren’t happy," Warren said. "We got along alright. People were friendly to each other and Jean Lake was a friendly, happy lady. And, she was very nice. She saw the good in things, simple things. I liked her paintings then and I do now."

Jean Lake was able to capture life in the rural South and the spirit of the people on canvas in such a way that

generations from now, people will be able to find value in the simplicity of the land she knew and loved.

On May 5 and 6, the annual Jean Lake Festival will be held at the Pioneer Museum of Alabama. The setting is perfect for a trip back to the simple, friendly times of the rural South and the artists and craftsmen bring a mix of today’s world through their "solitary" works. The Jean Lake Festival promises to be a great event and everyone is encouraged to attend.