Miss Cammie’s Dinner Table, a new Tri-Centennial Exhibit celebrating the art community at Melrose Plantation, will be open to the public on Saturday, August 9th from 10:00 am till 4:00 pm at the Lemee House. Sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches the display will focus on the artists, photographers and writers that worked at Melrose during the first half of the twentieth century.
The Mistress of Melrose, Cammie Henry, opened her home to a host of important figures who painted, photographed and wrote in the quiet solitude she offered. As early as the 1920’s the Dallas Morning News was reporting, “It is safe to say that the handiwork emanating from Melrose can be found in almost any library, art gallery or museum in the country.” There Lyle Saxon wrote “Father Mississippi,” “Fabulous New Orleans,” ”Old Louisiana,” and “Lafitte the Pirate.” Newberry Prize winner Rachel Field worked there on “Hitty – Her First Hundred Years” as did Ada Jack Carver Snell, the celebrated author who won the Harper’s Prize for “Redbone.” The internationally known historian Henry Chambers compiled his voluminous history of Louisiana there. There also John P. Coleman wrote his “Old Home of New Orleans.” Caroline Dorman, the forestry expert called Melrose her workshop, as did Irma Sompayrec who founded the art colony at Natchitoches.
Doris Ulmann elevated photography to the level of art while working at Melrose. Alberta Kinsey, the noted artist, called the plantation her “home port.” Kinsey is credited with beginning the preservation of the New Orleans French Quarter, and is also the artist that left paint tubes and brushes in a Melrose cabin that Clementine Hunter used to create her first painting. Hunter, whose worldwide acclaim has now eclipsed all other Melrose artists, got her start watching the Melrose artists paint as she worked as a domestic servant in the Big House.
There were three rules for those creating at Melrose. First, you must work. Second, you must not disturb others in their work. And third, you must do as you please, so long as you obey the foregoing two. Every day at the dinner table, each guest was expected to share with Miss Cammie the work that he was doing. If she was not satisfied with the guest’s productivity, she would soon let them know it was time for them to move on. The dinner guests and visitors were invited to sign the tablecloth. Pat Henry, grandson of Cammie Henry remembers, “My grandmother had me sign the tablecloth. Then I sat beside her as she embroidered the signature.” There are two such cloths in the Melrose collection. One will be on display at Saturday’s exhibit.
Melrose was also an early destination for those who wanted to learn about history. From school groups to club ladies, many found their way to Melrose to soak up the art and history. Henry compiled hundreds of scrapbooks on a wide range of subjects that now form the foundation of the Cammie G. Henry Research Center at NSU. Inquiries from around the world come into the center every year as scholars continue to take advantage of Henry’s huge volumes of work.
As part of this day-long celebration of Natchitoches art heritage, local Natchitoches artist Ellen Howell will present an original oil painting of the Lemee House to the APHN at 2:00 pm. The painting will become part of the permanent collection of the Lemee House. Howell makes homes of historic interest the subjects of her paintings and has been a member of the Natchitoches Art Guild. She also paints traditional still life and nature scenes, and currently works in her studio located in Tres Bien Antiques on Rue St Denis. “The history of Melrose and the APHN is one of support for the arts and the promotion of art history and education. We are honored to receive this beautiful painting by such a talented local artist,” said Gary Cathey, APHN Tri-Centennial Committee Chairman.
The exhibit is free and open to the public. Support has been provided for this exhibit by the Tri-Centennial Steering Committee. After its viewing on Saturday at the Lemee House, the exhibit will be installed for permanent viewing in the Big House at Melrose.