For all to see Briarfield teacher opening doors through the art realm

Published 11:46 pm Saturday, May 29, 2010

LAKE PROVIDENCE — “It’s just another canvas,” is the way Cherie Thornhill described a recent art endeavor by some of her students at Briarfield Academy in Lake Providence.

There are 11 canvases, not just one — and they’re large, about 3 feet wide and 7 feet tall.

And they’re not even canvas or cloth, they’re metal. The gallery is the Perkins Door Museum on Main Street in the northeast Louisiana town.

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The only criterion was that each painting had to have a Louisiana theme. Some look much like the shoreline along the lake from which the town got its name. Others depict crayfish, deer, a pelican, the Saints, catfish, a sailboat and Mardi Gras masks, along with docks, flowers and cypress trees. Of course there’s a fleur-de-lis.

The colors are bright and vivid, but before those oil-based hues could be applied there was a lot of cleaning to be done.

Then the metal was primed, much like the floodwall murals in Vicksburg. Painting on the doors was not easy, Cherie said, and the students did preliminary sketches with grease pencils after the backgrounds were applied because they could be easily wiped off. Once the paintings were finished — and it took a long time to dry — they were sealed with clear varnish. In most cases, Cherie said, the students mixed the colors; they didn’t just come straight out of a can.

The doors look like they might have come from a motel, Cherie said, “and my students had to paint around handles and peep holes.”

The paintings were completed in early May, and Cherie said it began with Lynn Thom, a math teacher at Briarfield, who asked her about getting students to get involved in the project. Evelyn Kelly, who had the inspiration for the display “to help pretty up the town,” had the doors. Right now, they’re leaning against the walls, but Pete Peterson plans to hang them for permanent display.

Nine students participated “because I offered them bonus points,” Cherie joked, but she thinks all had a good time, and each signed his work. Several helped clean, prime and paint backgrounds. The designs and scenes are the works of Aryn Brown, Sara Jo Brown, Ridge Creech, Katie Frith, Kaylyn Hernandez, Samantha Patrick, Mary Roland, Sha’Nikqua Ward and Tyeeta Williams.

Cherie grew up in West Carroll Parish, and lives on the farm her family has owned for over a century. She and her husband raise horses and cattle. She earned a degree in journalism at Northeast in Monroe, and returned for a second degree in English with a minor in art. She did all the work for a master’s in counseling with a major in psychology — except write her thesis, “when I found out it would be only $30 difference in my salary, and I just didn’t see it.” Besides, she said, she was expecting her first (and only) child.

She taught at Pioneer (her alma mater), at Kilbourne and at Oak Grove before retiring after 33 years.

“I retired, but I didn’t stop,” she said, for she went right on over to Lake Providence and Briarfield Academy, “where there are small classes, no tension, and the state doesn’t tell you what you have to do or what you have to teach. Any teacher who stays in it after they retire has got to love what they do.”

Cherie believes that talent can be natural — or it can be acquired — for “it’s like any other subject. It just takes practice to perfect it. One has to have an interest in art, be willing to devote time to it, and be willing to practice, practice, practice. The more one works, the better one gets.”

She starts her students with pencil, then goes to charcoal, color pencil, watercolor, pen and ink, then oils.

“I really have some talented students,” she said. “Most of them came into my classroom saying, ‘I can’t even draw a stick man.’ I told them what I tell my classes each year: ‘You may not be good at everything, or even like everything, but there will be something that I teach that you will do well.’ All anyone has to do is go and view their work.”

What’s next?

“I think I’ve knocked a domino over,” Cherie said, “because now they’re talking about painting a mural at the school next year.”

She also mentioned painting benches because, “I like hands-on art. You do, you create.” But, she laughingly added: “I may have created a monster.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.