The Mysterious Man of Bayou Petit Caillou
The reclusive Kenny Hill left an artistic legacy in Terrebonne Parish.
An unusual garden sits on a small patch of land along the east bank of Bayou Petit Caillou in Terrebonne Parish. It’s not the typical beds of flowers and shrubs or even vegetables. It is a garden of one man’s spirit and self-reflection where life-sized images of concrete angels and monuments rise from the banks of the bayou like some apocalyptic Old or New Testament struggle between damnation, redemption and salvation. It is, borrowing the words of poet W. B. Yeats, a garden “where a soul is at ease” – the soul of bricklayer Kenny Hill.
Hill is a mysterious figure with immense natural talent who showed up in Chauvin in the late 1980s to find work on local construction sites. There, a local landowner let him settle on a little plot of land along the bayou where he first pitched a tent and then built a small cabin from materials he found and salvaged from the local countryside. That is when Kenny Hill’s story in Chauvin begins.
Over the next decade, Hill fashioned his garden of angels and spiritual figures from concrete, mortar and paint that he found or local people donated. All the while, he remained a mystery to his neighbors. They knew little about him, and he never talked about himself or why he created his magical garden. Yet, long after he was gone, they described him as a “genius” but a loner and a quiet person who worked in his sculpture garden from sun up to sun down before and after a day on the job and on weekends. Then one day in January 2000, Kenny Hill walked away with nothing but the shirt on his back, never again to be seen in Chauvin. After the kindly man who owned the property where Hill lived died, the parish evicted him from his little plot. He sat in front of his house for a couple of days and then left as mysteriously as he arrived. Local folks, however, remain grateful for the spiritual but enigmatic gift he had given them.
Thanks to a 1993 article in the Houma Courier and local court records, however, we learn a bit more about this curious man. Hill was born in September 1948 and grew up in Springfield. He once had been married and has children living somewhere in Louisiana. Before settling in Chauvin, Hill lived on a houseboat in Patterson. After leaving Terrebonne Parish, some people think he went to live with a brother in Arkansas and eventually with other family members in Louisiana.
Fortunately, the sculpture garden was saved from neglect or destruction by former Nicholls State University art professor Dennis Sipiorski, who now teaches art at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. He was out photographing the sculpture one day in 1999 when he struck up a conversation with Hill. Trying to understand why Hill created the garden and what he was saying with his Biblical allusions, Sipiorski asked Hill what the garden meant. “Kenny wouldn’t allow me to peg him in a category,” Sipiorski recalls. “He said it was about everything in his life. He wanted people to bring their own knowledge and experiences to the garden. I wanted him to talk about the pieces, but I couldn’t break through. He didn’t think explaining it would help people understand it any better.”
Hill’s motives were pure, Sipiorski explains. “He never wanted to be celebrated for what he did. All he wanted to do was to serve God and the people of his community. He did it for reasons way beyond money and fame.” This, of course, did little to abate the curiosity of some neighbors. As one Chauvin resident stated in a 2002 video about Hill and his garden: “I don’t know what Kenny had in his mind. I’d certainly like to know, though.”
Like the bayou that meanders through the nearby countryside, a narrow path winds through the garden on some cryptic and mystical journey. One can’t help but wonder what he was saying about himself and his world. Along the walkway, stand small monuments, temples and life-sized angels with swords raised in a battle of righteousness over evil. And then there is Christ and the crucifixion and two sword-bearing angels standing at the gates of hell, cautioning all those who pass through the portal to the tongues of fire belching up from the ground. Further on, a weeping angel with an hourglass cradled in her hands reminds passersby of the impermanence of life and time. Off in the distance stands a 45-foot-tall lighthouse that Hill constructed from over 7,000 bricks. Decorating the exterior of the towering structure are bas relief images of jazz musicians, WWI German ace fighter pilot, Native Americans on a buffalo hunt, a sailing ship near some tropical island, and U.S. Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima (the flag blew off in 2002 during Hurricane Gustav).
A few feet from the lighthouse, the figure of a little girl dressed in a pink and white dress with a pink bow in her hair kneels and looks at her reflection in a pond. According to Rocky McKeon, a docent at the sculpture garden, the little girl came to Hill in a dream one night. The next morning, he created this little scene. Hill often placed in the garden images of himself with his long blond hair and beard. In one, he is riding a horse and in another he is carrying Christ’s cross for the crucifixion. Lying on the circular floor of a fanciful Greek-like temple with angels flying above, Hill’s outstretched arm points to the road of salvation.
To create his figures, Hill first sank steel reinforcement bars, known as re-bars, into the ground. Then, with the help of a neighbor’s son, welded and formed steel mesh wire around the bars in various desired shapes. To the mesh, he applied mortar and concrete that he sculpted with his hands and wet sponges. He had two other tools that he used extensively – a large spoon and a fork. He raked the fork through the wet mortar to create strands of hair in a figure’s head. The spoon was the perfect tool to create the illusion of cupped feathers in the wings of angels. In 2007, art conservators cleaned, repaired and sealed the sculptures to prevent the sculptures’ metal re-bar “bones” from rusting and falling apart. Another major refurbishing is scheduled for October 2014.
After Hill left Chauvin, Sipiorski and others immediately went into action to save the property. The Wisconsin native contacted the Kohler Foundation in Kohler, Wisconsin, about securing a grant to purchase the garden. The foundation, which is keen on preserving folk art and the work of self-taught artists, sent representatives to Chauvin to visit the garden. Impressed by what they found, Kohler came up with approximately a half-million dollars to buy the land, build a visitors’ center and to make other improvements.
The gift, however, came with the stipulation that another organization must maintain the garden. The president of Nicholls State University, who had just read a newspaper article about Hill, stepped in and gave Sipiorski permission to work with the foundation to buy the land and have it donated to the university. The garden, now overseen by a volunteer board, has a visitors center and classrooms for art students located just across the highway. Inside, faded photographs of Hill hang from a wall and a few of Hill’s carved wooden pieces greet guests as they enter the building. Yet, Hill himself remains a mystery to most.
“I’ve dedicated my life to preserving the garden for what Kenny did,” says Sipiorski, thinking about Hill and his work for a moment. “I wish I was as good an artist as Kenny Hill.”
For more information
For more information about Kenny Hill and the sculpture garden, which is free and open to the public, visit nicholls.edu/folkartcenter/park.