November 18, 2010

Hell Is Here, Welcome: Kenny Hill's Garden of Salvation

Leaving behind a wife and three children, bricklayer Kenny Hill up and moved to the gulf coast town of Chauvin, Louisiana in 1988.  With less than 3,500 residents, the Cajun shrimping community along Bayou Petit Caillou was scarcely aware of the reclusive Hill when he began renting a plot of land there for $250 a year.  While living out of a tent, he built a unique, one-room home and earned money as a construction worker.  In 1990, he quietly began making sculpture, combining paint and cement with wire mesh.  Within the decade, Hill made over 100 individual pieces of sculpture and an ornate lighthouse made with over 7,000 bricks.

Angels feature prominently throughout Hill's "Garden of Salvation" in a variety of forms.  There are some angels who help while others condemn.  Paths wind their way to visions of heaven and hell.  Cowboys, New Orleans jazz musicians, angels with shrimping boots, and many self-portraits give the sculpture garden both a broad sense of Americana and a personal story of despair and redemption.  His self-portrait on his lighthouse centerpiece [seen above] depicts Hill with a face half-white and half-black, denoting his own struggle with good and evil.  Under a self-depicting sculpture of Hill with his heart bleeding, an inscription reads:  "It is emty [sic]."

Around 2000, some who knew Hill said he'd lost faith in God, and with it, the desire to work on his creations.  "This part of my life is done," he told one man.  When parish officials demanded he clean up the property or leave, he disappeared overnight, leaving several works unfinished.  When faculty from the Nicholls State Art Department visited the property, they found Hill had knocked the head off one of his Jesus statues, and left a note behind which read, "Hell is here, Welcome."

The sculpture garden has survived four major hurricanes in the ten years since Hill vanished.  Neighbors who knew him say he's living in Arkansas with his brother.  Others say he found a job overseas.  The fact that there has been little damage to his Garden of Salvation is testament to Hill's superior craftsmanship.  Within 30-50 years, the entire gulf coast of Louisiana will most certainly be underwater.  There's always the chance that, some two hundred years hence, Hill's expression of his inner turmoil may be rediscovered largely intact in some future archaeological excavation of submerged Cajun country.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I had visited it right after Nichols Uni obtained it and not much was said about it. I always wondered.