Most sculptors seek inspiration from their environment. Clyde Connell of Belcher, La. finds her materials there. Out of the tangled underbrush of a Louisiana bayou, she has created works in cedar, cypress and rattan that are at once sophisticated, primitive and as beguiling as her weathered face. Though she’s been turning out her constructions of natural and found objects for 30 years, Connell is just now, at 81, gaining national recognition, with exhibits scheduled this year in Texas, Florida, Mississippi and New York. “Her work is incredible!” raves Leo Castelli, the Manhattan dealer and arbiter of what’s hot in American art. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t place it in any context. I would rank it very high.”
Connell’s towering eight-foot obelisks and totemic Posts and Gates, with price tags up to $8,000, are fashioned from skeletons of trees found in the bayou, covered with a sheath of macerated paper and glue, which hardens into a skin. She sometimes implants rusted chains, gaskets or bolts in a geometric pattern.
Though Connell has earned a living from her art and has averaged five exhibits a year since the mid-’50s, she was largely unknown outside of Louisiana until 1978, when Murray Smither, co-owner of Dallas’ Delahunty Gallery, took an interest in her work; two years later he began exhibiting it. “She’s someone whose work has long been overlooked, but that’s always been a problem with artists so removed from art centers,” explains Smither. “If the artist isn’t commercially oriented and isn’t out there pushing her stuff, she doesn’t get recognition. I’m delighted that she’s getting attention now because people need to see Clyde’s work—it’s that far along.”
Clyde Connell is a tiny woman whose independent, free-thinking opinions often scandalized the hamlet of Belcher (pop. 485), where she was born Clyde Dixon in 1901. The eldest of nine children of a cotton planter whose family emigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland, she and the firstborn of four other Scottish planters were all named Clyde, regardless of sex, after the river in their homeland. “My mother was a real old-time Southern lady, very dignified and serious,” Clyde recalls. “She had breakfast in bed every morning, and work was not in her vocabulary.”
Clyde attended classes in a one-room schoolhouse until eighth grade and quickly discovered her major interests were art and music. After a year at Georgia’s Brenau College (“It seemed to me I was just wasting my time”), Clyde dropped out in 1920 and two years later married T.D. (for Thomas Dixon) Connell, a cotton planter who had moved to Belcher.
She had wanted to go to art school to continue her studies, “but that just wasn’t done by young girls in those days,” she says. Instead, while raising two sons and a daughter (“We had servants then”), she trained herself in art by studying catalogs and painting. “I didn’t announce it. I just did it,” she recounts. She was equally determined about civil rights, doing volunteer church teaching in black communities, even in the ’30s. “I was ostracized in Belcher,” she says. “One of my brothers called me a Communist. It was rough. But it didn’t take a lot of courage, because that’s what I believed in.”
Her civil rights work sent her to cities outside Louisiana where she saw museums, galleries and, in Manhattan, Abstract Expressionist painting by Pollock, de Kooning and Kline. Under their influence in the mid-’50s, she shifted from representational character studies to Abstract Expressionism. Later she turned to sculpture, first in plaster, then in steel, which she found to be too expensive. “I had to look around for something I could constantly work with and handle myself,” she explains. The answer was nearby in the various woods, vines and Spanish moss of the bayou country.
At one time Connell worked in an abandoned milk house on the Caddo Parish Penal Farm, where her husband was superintendent for 10 years. When he retired in 1959, they moved to a roomy stone-and-log cabin on Lake Bistineau, 25 miles southeast of Shreveport. Each morning she still rises at dawn and sits alone on their pier with a cup of coffee, planning her day’s work. By 8 a.m. she is either hammering or sawing in her studio or tramping through the forest with a ladder and outsize clippers searching for the perfect piece of rattan.
Clyde has hired an assistant who helps to construct the basic form from her verbal instructions. “I have an idea when I start. I never draw it first, it’s all in my head,” she explains. “An artist keeps things as simple as possible to be able to spend time on the work. I always encourage young artists to do their work in their own way, even if it never sells,” she adds. “But of course, I was always lucky enough to be able to eat too.”