But in the late 1940s, one of the many artists who visited the plantation left behind some tubes of paint. Plantation curator Francois Mignon encouraged Hunter to try her own hand at painting. During the next four decades, she created thousands of paintings. Hunter worked all day at the plantation Big House and took home washing and ironing to be returned the next day. Once home, she took care of her worthless husband.
It was often midnight before she was free to ''mark some pictures,'' as she once said for her painting; using cardboard, paper bags, lumber scraps, milk jugs, the insides of soap boxes and other throw-outs. Almost all of her works were ''memory paintings,'' showing plantation life as she remembered it: picking cotton, gathering figs, threshing pecans, weddings, baptisms, funerals and other scenes of everyday life. Her titles were often intriguing, too.
Some simple ones were selected by collectors and were merely descriptive of their content: Watermelon, Flowers, Ducks and etc. When collectors did asked for a title, Hunter gave her own, such as Trying to Keep the Baby Happy, She's Not Pretty But She's Strong and Saturday Night at the Honky Tonk. Visitors to the plantation would buy her paintings, starting at 25 cents and 50 cents in the 1940s. Contemporary collectors consider these early works her best. Eventually, her various patrons were able to get her work into shows, the first big one being the New Orleans Arts and Crafts Show in 1949.
A June 1953 article in Look magazine brought her to national attention. In 1957, some critics dubbed her ''the Black Grandma Moses.’’ And, in 1979, Robert Bishop, director of The Museum of American Folk Art in Washington, called the artist, then in her 90s, ''the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.’’ By the 1970s, there were large public and private collections of Hunter's work, and by the 1980s, several important traveling exhibitions featured her paintings. The prices for her work had risen from 25 cents to several thousand dollars.
In the last years of her life, Hunter left her rented cabin and moved upriver, living in a trailer she bought with money from selling her paintings. She painted until the last few months of her life, dying at the age of 100 on January 1, 1988. Hunter was more modest about her abilities. ''God puts those pictures in my head and I just puts them on the canvas, like he wants me to,'' the artist said.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York