Glimpse Into a Soul: Artist leaves behind mystery and a monument to his struggle for salvation

Voila! The magazine of Nicholls State University, 15th September, 2004

Kenny hill

Kenny Hill arrived in Chauvin, La. in 1988 and lived in the small town along the bank of Bayou Petit Caillou for a dozen years. Then, after being evicted for not maintaining his lawn, he suddenly walked away from his home wearing only a T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes.

He taped a sign to his kitchen sink that claimed “hell has arrived."

Few people would have paid attention to his vanishing act if he had not left behind something more than just his vehicle and personal belongings. Hill, folk artist with no formal training, created more than 100 brightly painted cement and wire mesh sculptures. The imagery is abundantly biblical in theme, with angels holding swords, Jesus Christ carrying a cross, figures of lost souls and the gates of hell holding forth.

The Chauvin Sculture Garden has a mixture of Cajun colors and show the pain and struggles of the artist's life in his pursuit of spiritual salvation. The thin-shaped Hill, with long blond hair and a beard, placed himself in many of the scenes: he rides a horse, carries a cross,holds his hand over a bleeding heart and shows his face painted inblack and white. His art suggests a struggle between good and evil.

"It's structurally well made," says Ross Jahnke, professor of art at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. "With a few exceptions, the site is one story about Mr. Hill's struggle with religious salvation and his search for it. It's very cohesive.”

Perhaps Hill's most recognizable piece is a 45-foot lighthouse adorned with cowboys, soldiers, angels, God and Hill himself. Hill built the lighthouse with about 7,000 bricks. Hill once told former Nicholls State University art professor Dennis Sipiorski that "the sculptures are about living and life and everything I've learned.”

Site Becomes ‘Jewel’ For University

Sipiorski, who visited the site a year before Hill disappeared, admired Hill‘s work. Sipiorski called on the Kohler Foundation in his home state of Wisconsin to save the property after Hill fled. The property’s landowners planned to destroy the entire sculpture display. The Kohler Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving folk art environments and collections, did just that in 2001. It spent more than $500,000 buying the property, sealing cracks in the sculptures, adding lights, building a bulkhead near the bayou to prevent flooding and constructing a visitors' center across the street.

"There was true beauty in the art,” says Terri Yoho, executive director of the Kohler Foundation. “We went there and were so in awe that we were going to do whatever it took to save it. It is the most emotionally driven and thought-provoking environment I've ever seen."

After renovating its first site outside Wisconsin, the Kohler Foundation donated the property to Nicholls State University. When Sipiorski left Nicholls in 2003 to become the head of the art department at Southeastern Louisiana University, he told a local newspaper that initiating the successful preservation of Kenny Hill's sculptures was the biggest accomplishment of his life. The site became known as the Chauvin Sculpture Garden in 2002, and Nicholls has also added an art studio near the site.

Jahnke describes the site as "a jewel in Nicholls' crown. It's a unique folk art site with a very high quality that can rarely be found anywhere else in the world." Those opinions are not only echoed by Nicholls andthe Kohler Foundation, but they are also shared by leaders of various national folk art institutions.

"It's a wonderful asset for Nicholls State University, says Michael Howes, former professor of art at Nicholls. "I think it's also an asset to the community to have not lost it to a bulldozer. It's such a unique treasure for the state of Louisiana."

The Life Of Kenny Hill

The now 60-year-old Hill, a divorced father of three, led a secluded life while he lived in Chauvin. Many people say he wasa troubled man who not only left his home and artwork, but he also abandoned his passion for religion. Before he left, he knocked the head off one of his sculptures of Jesus Christ.

Hill reportedly had consistent feuds with his family early in his life. Later, his three children never visited him during the 12 years he lived in Chauvin. He had a solid relationship with his mother, but he suffered depression after she died in the late 1990s.

While little is known about Hill's background, a couple of his Chauvin neighbors knew more about him than most. Debra Cunningham remembers a man willing to help her when she needed it.

"He was a keep-to-himself kind of guy, but he also was a handy man,” she says. "One time the handle broke off of my pot, and I brought it to Kenny to fix. A short time later, it was like brand new."

Cunningham says before Hill moved to Chauvin, he lived in a wooded area near his mother in Patterson, La. But, after becoming acquainted with a few of his co-workers at a local factory, Hill moved to be near them in Chauvin. Shortly afterward, however, he quit his job as a bricklayer and secluded himself from social activity.

Hill rented a lot filled with trees from a local elderly couple on the banks of Bayou Petit Caillou. He cleared out a small area between the maple trees that filled the property and set up a tent to live in and a parking area for his truck. He built a small, basic house made of wood just a year later.

"He lived simple,” Cunningham says. "He had a kitchen, a living room and that was about all. As time went on, he added some bedrooms and had an air conditioner. But he could've lived without it."

Then, one day in 1990, Cunningham said she walked outside and saw Hill carving a human statue with an eagle over its left shoulder. A couple days later he started building the 45-foot lighthouse.

"He just suddenly started creating things,” Cunningham says. "He must have learned how to build things like sculptures after working with cement and bricks at his job. He never told us if he was into art before."

According to his neighbors, Hill, who was blind in one eye, never considered selling his work for profit. Cunningham says Hill claimed the work was for himself, but he wanted the garden to be a symbol of salvation for the community. He never wanted his work to be publicized in the newspapers, websites or by photographers.

For years, no one knew where Hill went after he left Chauvin. However, his neighbors say they contacted him recently, and he is now living with his brother in a wooded area of Arkansas. While Cunningham does not know Hill's current occupation, she believes he is creating another site like the one in Chauvin.

"We told him about all the publicity he's getting, but he doesn't care and wants nothing to do with it," Cunningham says. "It's kind of a sad story, but that's just like Kenny. He never wanted the attention he‘s now getting."