Sunset sculptor Annie Hendrix spent decades bringing life to lumps of clay until a severe stroke suffered a year ago took away that gift…temporarily
Though it is wet, though it is cold, though it temporarily stains Annie Hendrix’s talented and tired fingers there is a comfort in holding clay.
Inside a room that looks like all the other rooms in this cookie-cutter, senior-living community in Sunset, Hendrix squeezes the gray clump in her left hand, an act so simplistic it doesn’t really warrant description until you realize she can’t do the same with her right.
Once the loquacious general to an army of customer-adored figurines, and a regular vendor who sold what she sculpted at festivals and art markets throughout the Gulf South, Hendrix hasn’t added to her fleet in more than a year. In December 2015, after selling out of her supply at a two-day art festival, Hendrix had a stroke. When paramedics arrived at the scene, Hendrix was not responsive. Eventually, she came to, but the entire right side of her body was “frozen,” as she puts it.
The long road back has been like a freeway on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — tiresome, maddening, stop-start-stop-start, progress measured in feet not miles.
“I still don’t quite understand this stroke,” Hendrix says, somewhat defeated, somewhat determined. “I had never met anyone with a stroke, so this was all new to me, for sure. I’ve had problems before. At 60, I had open heart surgery, which wasn’t great but it let me do more shows, ya know? But this, this I can’t really do anything with one hand. It’s frustrating, but I’m going to do it again.”
The deep attachment Hendrix formed with this for-now lost love of making clay figurines originated on a night Annie took a musician home. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. Sure, back in the day, the bands at Maison Bourbon — when the French Quarter was really the French Quarter — knew her by name and often invited Hendrix on stage to sing, play guitar or pound a few bars out on the piano. But this has nothing to do with that.
No, this musician was the short, quiet type — four or five inches tall, Hendrix reckons, sporting a kiln-hardened perpetual expression. They met, Annie and the “laidback musician” as she’d called him and hundreds others over the years, at a continuing education class at then-named University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1987. The focus of study: ceramic art.
The way Annie tells it, she decided to enroll when she was 42 years old, doing so on the recommendation of a friend who suggested Hendrix stop messing around with children’s clay and graduate to the real thing. On the first day of class, the instructor proudly pronounced that she’d teach everything — including how to “throw” on a spinning wheel.
Annie stood up.
“Oh, I’m not interested in throwing on the wheel,” she said. “I make things. It’s different.”
Surprised, the teacher responded, “Well, that’s what I teach, so you’re gonna have to learn to throw on the wheel.”
Annie pauses now (not then) and laughs a little at the retelling.
“I said, ‘That’s fine, but I just wanna know about clay.’ So I took the class and threw on the wheel a couple times and I said to her, ‘You know, I really make things. Maybe one day in my life, I’ll throw on a wheel but I really just wanna make things.’”
Perhaps exasperated, the teacher said, “OK, Annie, go make something.”
So she did — the aforementioned musician, to be specific. His nose was perfect. His hair was slick, even after it hardened under the 1,450-degree heat. His hat was tilted, all cool-like. He’d be the first of many — jazz musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, cowboys, chefs — that Annie’s skilled hands would bring to life over the next 28 years.
She showed the instructor the finished project. The teacher looked the musician over a few times before surrendering by saying, “Annie, you know what, you do make things.”
Without missing a beat, Annie replied, “Yeah, I do.”
Six months later, Hendrix secured a booth at Jazz Fest. It was a thrill. Strangers handed her money. People whose names Hendrix didn’t know gushed over her little creations. Single purchases morphed into full collections as Hendrix expanded her figurine list to accommodate a receptive customer base. Equal parts sad and beautiful is the fact that other than a few holdover figurines, Annie is pretty much out of inventory.
For now, she says. For now.
“As far as working with clay and sculpting again, I’ve told that it could be never or I’ve been told it could be years,” Hendrix says. “I’m not so sure about all that. They say, ‘Annie, it’s a long road. You’re just gonna have to keep working at it.’ And that’s fine. Trust me, I’m trying real hard.
“But right now, it just feels good to feel the clay in the hand. It’s just nice to have that connection to the thing I loved doing above anything else in life. You can ask anyone here and they’ll tell you, I’m full of determination.”
To learn more about Annie Hendrix and her work, visit anniehendrix.com