LaVon’s art reflects rural life

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 2, 2002

Jessie LaVon’s art could be called primitive or country or folk, but she prefers to refer to her work as reflecting "southernality."

Even as a young girl she showed an interest in art, drawing in the dirt or on any scrap of paper she could find on the farm where she lived with her Nanny Pearls.

Seeing the child’s interest, Nanny boiled rabbit bones in water and dipped pieces of cloth in the mixture to make canvas. Paints she made with a mixture of mud, berries, herbs, flowers and anything else she could find. LaVon didn’t get her first "store bought" oil paints until she was 14.

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But LaVon doesn’t remember much of that time. In fact, she remembers little of her life at all until about 11 years ago when she work up from a coma and brain surgery caused by a genetic condition called arterial vascular malformation.

Whatever she knows of her life growing up has been recreated for her through family stories and photographs. Her art reflects memories as a child from the only part of her life that she remembers, about the age of 10 or 11.

Recuperation from the surgery took nine years. During that time both her personality and her art took a different direction.

During that time, she had to relearn how to read, write and care for herself and her four children as a single mother.

It helped that her children "all had a sense of humor. They laughed, we played, we cried. I would get so tickled at children trying to teach me." She still has no sense of direction and will not drive out of Demopolis by herself.

A "jack-legged" (self-taught) artist, LaVon never had formal instruction. "I just always wanted to paint the way I wanted to paint," she explained.

Oils had been her medium of choice before her surgery, but during recuperation, she switched to acrylics. She finds them brighter and bolder than oils.

To go along with her personality change, LaVon also changed her name. She took her grandfather’s name. "I had it legally changed. It just suited me better." Anyone who calls her by the name she was born with gets ignored.

Her paintings reflect more than media and color changes. Her style shifted from almost realistic scenes to stylized, scenes reflecting day-to-day, often humorous existence of rural life. They have such titles as "Paw traded the cow for an indoor toilet," "Catching lightning bugs," "Digging sweet taters," and "Catching chicken for Sunday dinner."

Her paintings no longer stay within the boundaries of a frame. They now extend to the frame itself. Usually found in her pictures or on the frame is the Snake Tree, depicting a ceremony she learned from some of her great uncles to induce rain.

At one time she had produced a series of polymer sculptures, reflecting the same "southernality" theme of her paintings. Now, however, she focuses primarily on her paintings, and her reputation is growing.

For the past three years she had won a spot at the Kentuck Festival in Northport. Her work is in galleries through the United States, Canada and Great Britain and in several museums. Several of her paintings were shown in January, along with those of legendary primitive artist Grandma Moses, in the 21st Century show at Huntsville.

The painting "Bluemoon Honkeytonk" won a play in Raw Vision Magazine’s Summer 2001 issue, and her art was at Atlanta Folk Fest 2002, shown next to artists she terms "the big dogs," Woodie Long, Lonnie Hollie and Charlie Lucas.

But LaVon hasn’t stopped there. She recently completed her book "Suthern Accents," a collection of country recipes, art and folklore. Green Apple Crosstitch Company has licensed several of her paintings for patterns.

With her two younger children, B.J. and Cissie, both students in Demopolis schools, she has begun Rooster Creek, a collection of birdhouses, angels, Christmas ornaments and southern sayings.

Four other books are in the works. Among them are a volume of children’s stories, autobiographies of several folk artists and family stories of growing up Southern during the Depression. Six generations of her family were born in Marengo County. "We all grew up here, and nobody’s really left."

The fourth book will be an effort to "debunk" some claims surrounding near-death experiences. She doesn’t discount them, but some of the explanations are too much for her to let ride.

LaVon believes in her own near-death experiences. "I know without a doubt that for six weeks (of her coma) I was cradled in the arms of God. There’s nothing anyone can say to convince me otherwise."