Les artistes: Lost History Found on Four Legs
Lafayette artist Marshall Blevins’ Church Goin’ Mule series has captured the hearts and minds of locals and preserved fading aspects of the region’s culture
For Marshall Blevins — the brains behind the brush of the captivating Church Goin’ Mule painting series — geography was the mother of invention.
“I actually started drawing mules in college, because when you go to school in Kentucky, people have seen enough horses, you know?” Blevins says.
Oh. That makes sense.
But what the mule lacks in cool backstory, it more than makes up for in its creative symbolism — an omnipresent vehicle that doesn’t dominate, but rather complements Blevins’ work and ties scattered moments of time and place into an artistic collective. From its autumn 2015 social media debut — a time in which Blevins was creating content at a painting-a-day pace — the Church Goin’ Mule has appeared in “Southern Outsider Art” pieces designed to illuminate forgotten or overlooked snapshots of our past.
“As an artist, I didn’t really know where I fit in, anywhere,” Blevins says. “So the mule got to be that grounding rod.
“When you look back, mules have done everything everywhere for everybody, and it didn’t matter what kind of money you had, or where you lived, or what kind of work you did as a person — oil, tobacco, corn, cotton, timber … mules pulling streetcars — people had mules,” Blevins says. “They were ubiquitous. They worked six days a week and took people to town on the seventh. So in my paintings they belong to everybody, and as an artist, it belongs to me.”
Scan through Blevins’ Church Goin’ Mule catalog and the evolution of the series in terms of style and substance becomes apparent. And other than there always being a mule present, the series affords Blevins the opportunity to experiment, like her recent decision to include written words and old sayings and phrases which she says makes her pieces “approachable” and oftentimes connects in unexpected ways with observers whose older relatives might have said the same things.
“I don’t think art necessarily needs to be decoded,” Blevins says. “At the same time, people take away different things from each painting. And people see the mule differently — different moods, different expressions and what they might mean. It’s just all in how you look at it.”
How big of a leap was it for you to commit yourself to doing art as a full-time profession?
It was very scary. I mean, when I went to school in Kentucky, I sold some paintings online to people I didn’t know, but that was about it. I really had no intention of doing art full-time; my focus was equine photographer. But I took the plunge (in October 2018); we had just closed on a house, so the timing wasn’t necessarily the best, but I just hoped everything would somehow work out, and it has.
How has your relationship with the mule as an artist changed over the years?
As I’ve gotten more comfortable with the mule, the mule is doing crazier things. As I’ve studied other artists, I’ve gotten more comfortable with shape and movement. At first, it was just the head. Then, I did the body of a white mule. But now it’s different colors and doing different things. Now, are there times I step back and wonder, ‘What the heck am I doing?’ when I try something? Yes. But I’m branching out a little bit these days.
Why are these lost episodes of history that you capture in your paintings important?
It shows our path as people. So much of our way of life isn’t retained generation to generation. You know, I don’t know how to farm where as my grandfather grew grapes and apples. I can’t hardly grow a tomato plant. They fed their family. They built their house. They built their barn. And I don’t have any of that knowledge. So through my work, I kind of like the idea of showing those lost traditions and remembering those people we’ve forgotten back to the forefront.