Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2015

The Bayou Michelangelo and his Lighthouse

By Grace Ballentine


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There is a lighthouse hidden among the bayous of Louisiana, a beautiful lighthouse that, among its many mysteries, conceals the secret of the empty lantern room. This bayou beacon has no candle, no lamp, no Fresnel lens within its lantern room. Instead, on the balcony surrounding that empty room stands a cowboy.

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He is leaning down over the railing and, by using a rope held in his hands, is pulling his cowboy buddy, together with his horse, up the side of the lighthouse tower. Maybe that’s why that lantern room is empty. Maybe it is waiting for the cowboy and his horse to arrive there and take their place in the spot where the lighthouse heart usually resides.

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Or perhaps there is yet another explanation for this scene. Perhaps the cowboy on that balcony is the lighthouse keeper and he is doing what lighthouse keepers have been doing throughout centuries and millennia – saving lives, both human and non-human. After all, where is it written that a cowboy couldn’t be a fine lighthouse keeper?

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Of course the three figures in that bayou lighthouse scene – the cowboy being rescued, his horse, their rescuer - are not made of flesh and bones and blood. They are all made of paint pigments and of cement, that mysterious concoction of steel mesh, rebar, sand, water.

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These three life-size figures are not the only ones clinging to the sides of this enigmatic lighthouse, this lighthouse that never guided ships into the safety of the harbor. There are angels and demons wrapped around the facade of the beacon. Along one of the surfaces of the tower there is a biplane flying into the sky, and, not far from it, a sailing ship sailing along the curved edge of the lighthouse. A herd of buffalo grazes along yet another spot on the tower. On another side there are soldiers echoing the actions of the marines who planted the flag on Iwo Jima. In yet another place, a Native American sits on his pony, both the man and his steed reaching the end of their trail. A cement waterfall is cascading down the back of this lighthouse and, at the bottom of the cascade, there are two long-haired bathing beauties: one light-haired, the other one dark-haired.

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On the top of the beacon, on the very top of the ball of the vent, there sits an eagle, his wings spread as if the cement bird were getting ready to take flight and perhaps circle high in the sky above the lighthouse.

This lighthouse with its sculpted creatures, with its plethora of sculpted objects clinging to its outside walls, stands in the middle of a cement garden, a garden that is full, not of trees and flowers, but of even more cement figures. There are more than a hundred life-size statues in that mysterious garden, statues not only of heavenly visitors, but also statues of eagles, of horses, of music players, of bearded men, of women and children: white haired, black haired, and yellow haired. And among them all are still more angels, the heavenly guardians standing, sitting, kneeling, playing musical instruments, hefting swords, or gently holding an hourglass or a tiny blue bird.

This mysterious lighthouse, surrounded by all the enigmatic figures sealed within this enigmatic landscape, is the work of Kenny Hill, a man who, after creating this sculpted masterpiece, simply walked away and disappeared. But he did not walk away willingly from this patch of Louisiana soil. He did not own this piece of land; he had lived there through the kindness of the land’s owner. After the kind man died, Kenny was kicked off this bit of Louisiana world for not keeping it up, for not mowing the lawn, for not cutting the weeds.

Who was Kenny Hill, this Michelangelo of the Louisiana bayou, this hermit artist who mysteriously disappeared into an unknown life path?

Kenny was not a lighthouse architect; he was a bricklayer. A magnificent example of his craft can be seen when one steps into the interior of the lighthouse. Passing through the tall, beautifully arched brick doorway, one can see the building’s thick brick structure, where more than seven thousand bricks are layered carefully, evenly, not a single one out of place, all the way from the bottom to the very top, to that empty lantern room. All the brick tiers are curving and gracefully forming the backbone of the lighthouse, whose classic cylindrical shape echoes the shape of so many lighthouses – wider at the bottom and gently narrowing toward the top.

Not much is known about the mysterious builder of this bayou lighthouse. He was born in 1948 and arrived in Louisiana bayou country around 1988 after he and his wife parted. He settled close to the Little Caillou Bayou in Terrebonne Parish and built a small cabin on this hard-scrabble patch of land.

Then, around 1990, something happened, something that transformed Kenny from a bricklayer into Michelangelo of the Louisiana bayou.

For about ten years following that mysterious 1990 spark that jump-started Kenny’s creative mission, he worked on his masterpiece, building his lighthouse, sculpting his angels, sculpting his self-portrait among the many Biblical and non-Biblical figures in his cement garden. He did not want anyone to see his work. He and his work were hidden from the eyes of strangers behind the fence surrounding his property.

Using salvaged, scrounged, and donated materials, this quiet genius used all his spare time – weekends and the hours and minutes before and after his regular bricklaying construction jobs - to continue in his never-ending physical and spiritual quest to add yet another figure, yet another detail to his magically beautiful hand-built lighthouse and its surroundings.

Kenny’s mysterious lonesomeness came to an end at the turn of the century, in January of 2000, when the parish evicted him from his little bit of paradise for not maintaining it.

He never returned to his beautiful bayou lighthouse. He never returned to his cement bayou garden.

Where did Kenny go after he lost his lighthouse and his garden? No one really knows. Perhaps he went to live with his brother, someplace in Arkansas. Or perhaps he went to live with one of his relatives, somewhere among Louisiana’s meandering bayous.

Today, his garden and his lighthouse are no longer abandoned. Due to the hard work of Professor Dennis Sikorski, who brought Kenny’s work to the attention of the Kohler Foundation, the lighthouse and its surroundings are being lovingly cared for and restored. In 2000, with a generous grant from the Foundation, the Chauvin Sculpture Garden (as Kenny’s masterpiece is known today) became the property of Nicholls State University.

Best of all, Kenny’s lighthouse is no longer hidden behind the fences and grasses and trees of the Louisiana landscape. These days, Kenny’s lighthouse can be visited by those willing to traverse the labyrinth of Louisiana bayous to discover this beautiful lighthouse, this beautiful work of art that, all those years ago, was created out of the magic of bricks and sand and water by Kenny Hill – the reclusive and enigmatic Michelangelo of the Louisiana bayou.

Footnote: Map and directions for finding this lighthouse treasure, located at 5337 Bayouside Drive in Chauvin, Louisiana, can be found at this website: www.nicholls.edu/folkartcenter/map.html

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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