Long before going, I had this deep fascination with the bayou communities of southern Louisiana. There has always been that dance between the known and the unknown, between reality and imagination. I spent so much time thinking about the place that driving through it brought simultaneous feelings of recognition and bewilderment. Arriving in Chauvin, as the sun was rising, you were greeted by the elevated homes held up by sturdy stilts along the banks of Bayou Petit Caillou and Bayou Terrebonne. The roads mimic the contours of the landscape, the water sitting precariously close to the street, and the prominent shrimp boats that define this community seem to dwarf my little Pirus. It was love at first sight at that water as the narrow channel meandered along at its own unhurried pace.
The reason for my visit was Chauvin Sculpture Garden, an art environment comprised of over sixty life-size concrete sculptures created by Kenny Hill between 1990 and his disappearance in 2000. There are disputing accounts of his biography. He was said to have been born in 1950, though there is no birth certificate. His formative years were in Springfield, Louisiana, where he made a living as a bricklayer. At the age of twenty, he married and had three children. In 1988 he showed up alone in Chauvin and rented this large empty plot for $250 a year. Hill initially pitched a tent while gradually building a modest cabin.
Without warning or explanation to anyone, including his landlord, in 1990, he began to transform his piece of this world into a fantastic voyage through good vs. evil, a mix of Biblical references and internal struggles, and attempts to balance hope with the despair of loneliness. He constructed a brick-lined path that takes you through earthly pleasures, temptation, damnation, and, God willing, salvation. In many ways, it is his version of “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” He created these sculptures with metal piping, wire mesh, and two-dollar bags of quick dry cement he would get from the Chauvin lumberyard. Reminiscent of the 14 devotions, or stations of the cross, a reoccurring symbol around the garden is a circle with nine dots (five in a line, two straddling the line, and two serving as the gates). This is an aerial view of the garden’s layout but also demonstrates Hill’s symbolic language.
The centerpiece of his work is a 45-foot-tall lighthouse composed of 7,000 bricks with dozens of life-sized sculptures that hang from it. This is where Hill most masterfully weaves together bizarre and fantastical elements, combining cowboys and Native Americans, God and his lamb, a rocking jazz band, bikinied women, soldiers Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, and various angels ameliorating penitents; they all swirl around the cylindrical building in a surreal scene that blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination.
Hill himself is a reoccurring figure around the garden. One moment he stands before us looking haggard and tall, his long blond hair merging with his scraggly beard. His hat is in hand, down on his knee, his other hand over his heart, solemnly swearing the pledge of allegiance. Suggesting a stigmata crucifixion wound, a deep red paint spills from the hand down his blue jumpsuit, leaking to his shoes. The sculpture was completed with no eyes. Hill appears as a martyr, something who gave everything, including all of himself, to teach us all that he learned throughout his life. Hill’s connection to the transcendent continues with him sitting high on a white horse, leading a procession of sinners away from their misdeeds or himself down and out, suffering on the ground, only a celestial angel there to tend to his afflictions. The most quizzical self-portraits portray Hill with a smile, holding a seashell to one ear. It’s a gesture often associated with a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder. Listening to the ambient sound of air rushing through it or the soothing sounds of the ocean, Hill seems entirely at peace. Holding a horseshoe in his other hand, luck has finally turned around. The shell brings good news from the vastness of the universe.
In real life, things weren’t so peaceful. There are various accounts, but it is believed that Hill needed to understand his tax responsibilities and stop working so he wouldn’t have to give his money to the government. After his landlord passed, the children who inherited the property were less understanding of what Hill was building. No longer able to rent, in January 2000, Hill was evicted for not keeping the grass. He knocked the head of Jesus off a statue and walked away. Various neighbors stopped him to ask if he needed a ride, but he declined. He replied that he was going to see his brother in either Arkansas or Missouri. His whereabouts remain unknown.