Cate Root | Photos by Ryan Sparks
It would be better if you didn’t know anything about Kenny Hill.
When you know the real story of a thing, communicating that story accurately becomes the aim. You are no longer discovering, you are building, and construction requires order.
Discovery is just playing inside of chaos.
The garden feels like the wildest thing. How was it created? Make up a myth. Later, you’ll find out that Hill used whatever he could get free or on the cheap. He made this makeshift Eden with chicken wire, rebar, and concrete mashed into place by forks and spoons. The garden dizzies with symbolism: God and Kenny Hill cling to the same lighthouse. The pièce de résistance of the Chauvin Sculpture Garden is this 45-foot brick beacon along the Bayou Petit Caillou. All along its sides are characters and archetypes: a biplane, a ship with blooming sails, angels and musicians, bathing women, an eagle, a buffalo, cowboys, indigenous Americans, U.S. soldiers. His back against the lighthouse, a concrete representation of artist Kenny Hill is flanked by two angels, one brunette and one blonde. His face is divided—half white, half black. He clutches his stomach, like he might be feeling sick.
But back up, and start at the beginning. There is a path. It is marked HEARTOFFACT, spelled out on the first stone. You’ll find out later that the stone’s symbol, nine circles within one larger circle, is a map of this space.
Pilgrims to the Chauvin Sculpture Garden see Hill everywhere. Follow the path into the garden, and before being greeted by the angels, consider dear Kenny. An eyeless figure surrounded by knockout roses, he holds a ballcap with a heart on it at his side. His other hand is on his chest, blood all down his front.
Would this place feel holy if it weren’t for the winged creatures everywhere? A tiny house a tall pole bears a sign: “Room for rent if you are a bird.” An eagle on a pedestal spreads its wings; the circle surrounding it reads ENTER IN TO MY HEART. And the angels. Angels pointing the way. Angels playing bugles and harps. Angels sitting in reverie. Angels in flowing dresses and in fringed tops; angels with flowers in their hair, birds perched in hand; angels with swords drawn.
When your interest starts to flag, that’s when the helpers find you. A kind woman with a Batman symbol tattooed on the top of her foot tells you about Hill, points out all the pieces of the story that now you’ll have to try to order. She invites you across the street to the de facto Kenny Hill museum, a preservation project by Nicholls State, stewards of the site. Inside, you find a 2007 postcard from Hill’s ex-wife, Maxine Hill Sparks, who writes that her ex-husband is alive and well. She says Hill “is not a hermit—he was only a lonely man.”
You knew this already.
Cate Root is a writer who lives in her own mind, but her body has resided in New Orleans for more than ten years. She co-produces the Dogfish Reading Series, a monthly literary salon. Follow her on Twitter @cateroot.
Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary. Follow him on Instagram @instasparks.
This essay first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Southern Glossary. Order in print or PDF here.