Out on the River Road

November 18, 2011


Tuesday morning, our Tours By Isabelle guide, John, drove us from the French Quarter to a plantation called Oak Alley. Oak Alley is about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and on the way there, we took a road running along the Mississippi, lined with sugar cane fields and old plantations in various states of repair.

Sometime in the 1700s, an unknown settler built a small house, where the plantation house now stands, and planted two rows of 14 live oak trees, forming an alley leading from the house towards the Mississippi River. In 1839, a wealthy Creole sugar planter bought the property and built the home that now stands to please his young wife. However, according to our Oak Alley guide, though the planter himself loved plantation life, his wife preferred town living and escaped back to New Orleans every chance she could. Eventually, after the planter died, his wife and then his son tried unsuccessfully to run the plantation. It had to be sold to cover the family’s debts, and later fell into disrepair. (We were told that at one point, cattle broke into the home seeking shelter!) In the 1920s, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Steward began the restoration of Oak Alley, the first example of ante-bellum restoration along the River Road. Oak Alley is now a National Historic Landmark, run by a non-profit organization. The land around it is still working acreage, leased to local farmers. In addition, a number of movies, videos, commercials and TV shows have been filmed there (for instance, Oak Alley is Louis’ homeplace in Interview With the Vampire).

View of alley from second floor balcony
After our tour and lunch, we had time to sketch. We scattered over the grounds, set up our stools, and began. (We were not allowed to sketch or take photos inside the house.)

Oak Alley was my first real taste of artistic frustration on this trip. I still consider myself a beginner at sketching on location, but found myself disappointed by my lack of ability to produce the images I had in my head. I know that is something that will come with time and practice, and I tried to adjust my expectations to fit what I was able to accomplish right then. I loved seeing my fellow travelers’ journal pages, trying hard not to be embarrassed by my own, while holding out hope that someday my own pages would look something like theirs. It’s hard to accept limitations—hardest when you think you should be able to perform a certain way. (I finished one page, and began another, so at least I didn’t give up!)

Kettle used to boil sugar cane
Oak Alley’s graceful house and peaceful grounds made a great contrast with the brilliant modernity of Mardi Gras World the day before. Maybe next time I visit, I’ll be able to do the sketch I visualized!

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14 comments

  1. Its so amazing to think that I took practically the same pictures when I visited there :)
    Did they tell the story about how pineapples were used to welcome guests and also notify guests that they had overstayed their welcome?
    And don't be so hard on yourself about the sketching! Your hands and eyes were probably so busy taking in the sights that they didn't feel like communicating with each other.

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  2. Yes! They told the same pineapple story when we were there. It's such a beautiful place, and I'm not surprised we took the same shots. Some photos practically beg to be taken. Thanks for the encouragement--my hands and eyes were certainly busy!

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  3. I've seen your sketches and while they may not be what's in your head, they're still good. Also, they still serve as a "portal" to the day we spent at the plantation...strolling on the veranda, drinking praline coffee, dodging rain drops!

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  4. Oh, what a wonderful trip it must have been! To tell the truth, I still consider myself very much a beginner at sketching as well. First, there's the "blank page fright". Then, just as you say, it doesn't translate well from brain to paper, not coming out as I actually saw it. However, this is all your interpretation of the moment, not someone else's, so it will have your personal imprint and style. Eventually, your hands will learn to obey your brain more and your sketches will start to look like you intended. I like Possum's comments too. I think it's doubly hard to sketch under limited time constraints, but good for you for doing it! Will you be posting any of your sketches from the trip?

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  5. Laure--True--I'll remember that day even better because I spent time really looking at things, and I have sketches as well as pictures to remind me. They're certainly "good" enough to do that, and that was the whole point!

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  6. Krista--Thanks for your encouragment. Isn't is funny how scared a piece of paper can make us?? I would like to share some of my sketches from the trip, but I have to work out a white balance problem with my camera so I can post pictures of them. I've been meaning to deal with that for weeks now, so guess now's the time to take care of it!

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  7. Hi Kathy, this is so neat. I'm sure that practice will make perfect someday.

    We went to the house that the Sears Family owned (???) ... there was a bunch of handpainted murals on the walls and an elevator near the stairs.

    Glad you had a fun trip.

    Kathy M.

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  8. I am not good at remembering and painting later so I understand your frustration. Maybe if you painted it in your head while you were looking at things inside would help. But then, if I did that, I'd not have time to really look around or talk to anyone about what I was seeing. I guess it just takes practice but this would have been really hard to do! Maybe I'll start practicing it occasionally so if I'm ever in this predicament won't feel totally out of my element. I knew some places didn't allow photos but thought sketching would be okay. Thanks for the heads up on that!

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  9. Kathy--Was the house you described in New Orleans? There are several "house museums" you can go through. That's not one I've seen.

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  10. Timaree--Sometimes even when I am taking photos, I feel like I'm missing out of the experience right then and there. It's a fine line, I guess.

    At Oak Alley, I "cheated" and bought a set of postcards, so I can sketch the interior if I want to! But actaully, the exterior had more than enough things of interest to paint. It's certainly different painting on location rather than from a photo!

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  11. What a fun and interesting visit that must have been! Love those oak trees.

    I share your frustration with painting on site - my things NEVER live up to what's in my head. They always seem a poor reflection of the sights, sounds, and smells and depth that I try to translate onto a 2 dimensional piece of paper. I have to remind myself that its only part of the experience...

    That said, I really enjoy seeing other people's sketches because they show THEIR experience as colored by their personalities, choices, and perceptions as much as their skill levels.

    We are all on a learning path. I think that beginners can capture an essence of a place and experience, because to me theirs is a process at work, and that's what I notice. An artist can produce a skillful drawing or painting, but if it lacks heart, it has no interest for me!

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  12. Elizabeth--Laure makes a good point that regardless of how "pretty" your page turns out to be, it is still a portal back to that moment and experience. I also love your point about a drawing that lacks heart--Heart makes up for a multitude of technical weaknesses.

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  13. What a lovely place--I love old trees. I have only been to the South once, but I thought it was so beautiful there! This sounds like a fun and inspiring trip. I also often get frustrated by my limitations--mostly with blogging and trying to write about a book in a way that I can imagine in my head but that totally doesn't end up on the page (or screen) the way I want to. The weird thing is I am not a writer and don't even aspire to it, but I guess I still want things to turn out as good as I expect--whatever I happen to be doing. I would love to see your sketches sometimes, too. I think we are often harder on ourselves than we should be (me included!:) ).

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  14. Danielle--Our own expectations can often trip us up, can't they? I think it's good to aspire to do well, but then not beat ourselves up if we come short of what we "think" we should accomplish. Hard balance to find.

    I do plan to share some sketches when I get the white balance issue figured out on my camera.

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