Henrietta Mantooth and I met in the late ‘60s when a mutual friend brought her to my house for dinner. Many years before that, Henrietta had read a piece about me, illustrated by the large wood sculptures I was doing. She was living in Brazil at the time, and she felt such affinity with my work that she promised herself she would look me up in New York. But that hadn’t happened, and when our mutual friend invited her to come to my house, she said, “Let’s go!” That is how we became sisters.
Henrietta’s work continues to surprise me. She has a great ability to take risks in order to touch and be in touch with the human condition and to remain intimate with her materials. These risks are primarily emotional—but they translate into technical risks as she works. The painting installation entitled Griot Cloth: Oral History (shown in this issue) is an example of this risk-taking. The large wall painting depicts six watching children in Darfur, surrounded by flying or landing birds. The painting seems to liquefy as the canvas turns out on the floor and makes a 9 foot “stage” for story telling. Henrietta says that when people finally overcome their reluctance to walk on a painting, they seem to step from ordinary life into a place where they become free to speak out.
Over the years I have felt Henrietta’s influence on my work mainly because of her sense of freedom. She makes no effort to be cool, or romantic, or artistically calculating. She once was described as “an artist who uses freedom to express freedom.” This statement helped her understand for the first time that her way of working was valid, and she was able to accept her own random process.
One summer, when she was visiting me in the country in Lake Hill, New York, I built a kind of rustic wigwam for her to sit in and play the comb, her musical instrument since childhood. Her maternal grandmother was Cherokee and Scotch Irish, and she lived on a family farm in the Tennessee hills. Too poor to have a proper church, the people there would get together and build what was called a brush altar—branches and brush piled as high as they could go—then stand in front of this altar to worship.
Eventually Henrietta and her husband bought a small cottage near ours in Lake Hill. We often walked hand-in-hand down the wood pathway that connected us, delighted and unbelieving that we were neighbors. Once, when I inherited some money, I gave her $1,000 to fix up the old garage she used for a studio. She had been running two fans to keep off the gnats and mosquitoes, and she propped her large paintings against the tall pine trunks to work outside. She told me that the gift had so affected her ideas about money and her being an artist that she realized she needed a big space to work. Eventually she built a large studio on the property.
Henrietta was married to her journalist husband for 43 years until his death. She has two married sons and five grandchildren to whom she is closely connected.
She says her energy at age 84 derives from vanity and denial.