Beauty queens or mud paintings? Baton Rouge, La., has both just now.
The Miss USA Pageant will be broadcast Sunday from Baton Rouge, but Henry Neubig’s works are just as pretty to look at and available for close-up viewing all year long. Simply follow the highway signs or directions on tourist office brochures that shout out "Louisiana MUD Painting."
“My hook word is ‘mud,’” said Neubig, with an ever-so slight smile on a face dominated by craggy gray brows over Paul Newman-blue eyes.
Mud painter? “Sure, it was a gimmick when I first did it," he said. "It’s still a gimmick.”
It's a gimmick that works. These artworks look like watercolors done in trendy earth tones.
“You don’t see the subtlety of the colors until you see the real paintings,” said Linda, his wife, who is also an artist.
The “real paintings” are typically Southeastern scenics: swamps, birds, fishing villages, a woman with a hound dog walking down a country road.
Wait a minute. I looked more closely at the print of the woman with the hound dog. That stooped figure looked a lot like Naomi Marshall, my late mother-in-law, but she never had a big dog.
“Yes, it’s Naomi,” said Linda, who had worked with her. Undiscovered personal connections are so common here it's known as two degrees of separation.
“We call the painting 'Tante,'” Linda said. Tante is French for elderly aunt; this painting was on the poster of Neubig’s 1998 show in Paris.
Having a Paris show suggests that mud paintings are several steps — perhaps thousands of steps — beyond a gimmick.
The story of how he came to paint dates to 1989. That year, Neubig, who has taught watercolor classes, was invited to submit paintings for a Louisiana Department of Agriculture Show. He thought it might be interesting to create pigments made from earth and mud around the state.
“We did a lot of camping, and I’d save different colored rocks I’d find,” he said. “The first pigments came from the earth, you know. So I thought this might work. I never intended it to be more than that one exhibit.”
The paintings sold quickly, and the local media recognized a good story. So he continued with the mud, giving rise to his favorite headline in a British tabloid: “Artist becomes famous from dirty pictures.”
Prices range from $35 to $350 for prints, and $350 to $15,000 for originals (the most expensive being a 5-by-10-foot commission for a civic center, which took three months, and was so big Neubig painted 80% of it with a mop).
The Neubigs don’t keep track of how many paintings and prints they’ve sold, most of them are from a gallery in their Tudor-style home.
In a 1999 newspaper story, they estimated 5,000.
When I asked Linda recently to estimate, she replied “About 5,000,” then said she wasn’t really sure.
“We’re creative people,” she said, “not numbers people.”
Info: Louisiana Mud Painting Gallery, 16950 Strain Road, Baton Rouge; (225) 275-5126. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.