Monday, February 8, 2010

Iron Eyes

Thursday, February 4, 2010. Kaplan, Louisiana.

I'm scheduled to go to the Kaplan Museum, Le Musee de Kaplan, this morning. In preparation for the visit I check out Kaplan on Wikipedia and discover a wonderful bit of information no one has mentioned heretofore. Kaplan is the birthplace of none other than Iron Eyes Cody, the Indian with the tear running down his cheek in the Keep America Beautiful public service commercial from the early 1970s. Iron Eyes, born in 1907, acted in a many movies, going back to 1930 or earlier. He was in a couple of episodes of The Cisco Kid in the 50s. But that tear on his cheek made him one of the most iconic Indians of my generation, second only to Jay Silverheels, the guy who played Tonto on The Lone Ranger. But here's the kicker. He wasn't an Indian at all. He was Sicilian, born Espera Oscar de Corti. His parents had a store of some kind in Gueydan, the next town west of Kaplan. Most of his life he dodged the rumors of his non-Indian heritage, doing it up to the hilt--he married a Native American woman and they adopted several kids, all of them Indian. He even chanted in the background on a song on a Joni Mitchell album. Quelle blague, as they say in French. Old Iron Eyes died in 1999 and is buried out in Hollywood. (By the way, Iron Eyes must have grown up crying over all the trash in the ditches here in Louisiana.) Well, in the immortal words of Doug Keeslar, "I can't make a full-blooded Indian out of any of these farts."

At the Kaplan Museum I meet Shirley Landry and Vicky Betts and Vicky gives me the grand tour. Lots of local artifacts and historical stuff. Kaplan has its own telephone company, and Vicky remembers when you'd pick up the phone and the operator would answer, just like on the old Lassie shows. Over the display on the local Catholic church, Holy Rosary, there's a double barreled shotgun. Vicky explains to me that back in the 20s and 30s one of the early priests, Father Brise, used to fire it in church over the heads of rowdy parishioners, yelling "Kneel!" Hearing that anecdote I can't help thinking about Abrom Kaplan, the town's Jewish founder. It must have taken some fortitude to live in an overwhelmingly French Catholic town where the priest wielded a shotgun and probably taught from the pulpit that Jews were a bunch of Christ-killers. And small comfort that Michael the Archangel was Jewish before he became a Catholic saint.

Also at the museum is a display of about a dozen paintings by local artist Tony Mayard, from Abbeville. As I'm admiring them, none other than the artist himself comes in. Tony is also the curator of the Abbeville Alliance, and had heard about my walk from Cheryl. With him is Jean Frigot, the curator of the Erath museum. So I spend some time chatting with them. With Mr. Mayard's permission, I have attached photos of three of his paintings. The top one is a portrait of Clementine Hunter, a primitive painter who lived on a local plantation. Tony has painted the buildings in the background in her style, as a tribute to her. Next is a portrait of George Rodrigue, known as the "blue dog painter." Here Tony has inserted a few blue dogs onto the cow in the background. And the third one is my personal favorite, called "Penelope." I'm particularly impressed by his use of color. And thanks for your time, Tony.

Vicky mentions that Kaplan, like Franklin, had a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, one of several in this region.

Later in the afternoon I happen to be driving through Gueydan and stop in their museum. Tony Mayard and Jean Frigot are there. Tony has a painting on display, one of ten versions of a photograph of three women in a boat, fishing. By now I'm quite biased in his favor, but I do believe his rendition of the photo is the best, for his technique and use of color. I don't know if they're judging the ten paintings, but he gets my vote.


Anonymous said...

It was a pleasure to have your company for the last few days. Your determination to finish this walk is truly admirable. To all who read the blog I must say that Pete is in great health and humor. jowcar

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Thanks again to you and Joyce for your generous hospitality.