Tradition redefined

John Darling Haynes and the Southern landscape by John R. Kemp
Like alchemists, artists use canvas and palette to create imagined or real images of the world, its beauty, drama or the play of light upon the land. Others paint to visualize the landscapes of their inner angst, while some put brush to canvas simply to explore color and form. Baton Rouge painter and filmmaker John Darling Haynes creates intensely bright and contrasting images that are more like memories of a place, a sound or motion that sways with the rhythm of a Delta blues riff.
Haynes is one of those artists who help others see the ordinary world around them differently. He finds his art in ordinary places and in ordinary life such as the blackened patches of a Louisiana sugar-cane field after the annual burn. Overalls and shirts hanging from a clothesline dance in the wind or a ceiling fan cranks above a red piano in a deserted room. His paintings are without people, yet you know they can’t be far away. They seem lonely, as if you are entering a room only moments after someone left.
In “Entre Vous,” for instance, you feel that you are about to intrude upon two lovers just beyond the closed door. The scene is an empty room filled with symbols of life. The piano is quiet, ceiling fans send a cooling breeze through the room. Sitting on top of the piano is a champagne bottle with two glasses. A lit cigar in a nearby ashtray sends a thin curl of smoke into the musky air. The entire scene is painted, perhaps symbolically, on two doors fastened together, as if the story continues behind them.
In another painting, “Stories,” we see a large room, perhaps a nightclub or juke joint. Again, a piano painted a fire-hot red. Ceiling fans are scattered about the ceiling, tables and chairs around the room. No one is there, only the stilled sounds and rhythms of the night before.
To Haynes, ceiling fans “evoke peacefulness. They remind you of a rocking chair sitting on the front porch. They have a sentimental warmth of home.”
That’s the thing about Haynes’ paintings. You see stories in them. They may not be the ones the artist intended or his own, but like good music they set the imagination adrift to create your own drama or impressions. “I want clients to see my paintings and evoke some memory they are pleased with.”
To help that inner journey, Haynes paints not only on canvas, but also on an odd assortment of found and unrelated objects. His intense, often surreal, images can be found on Masonite, doors, antique wood panels from old houses, the footboard from a Victorian bed and even the tailgate and hood from a 1966 Ford pickup truck. “I like to take the old and make it new again to bring back fond memories,” he says. An example is “Americana,” a laundry line painted on a Ford truck hood. What combination could be more symbolic of a trip down a dusty country road in the Deep South?
The 32-year-old artist, who lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and business partner Joanna and their 2-year-old son Blue, is a storyteller. “For me, the joy of breathing life into a lonely place with color and brush stroke is overwhelming at times,” he says. “I look back and ponder such thoughts who sat in that chair or what conversation transpired over that table? I find it a privilege to wander into the forgotten places of daily routine and rearrange the furniture. To some degree, my paintings offer a bit of immortality to the places we have left behind, changed or forgotten.”
Haynes puts his paintings and stories into the Southern storyteller tradition. “There’s lots of Southern character in there,” he says, pointing to the painting “Entre Vous” that hangs in his living room. “There’s the large antique piano and the ceiling fans.” Referring to his paintings of outdoor laundry lines, he described an automobile trip he once took across the country. “The laundry lines seem to start in the South. They are truly artwork, all these colors blowing in the wind. Capturing those moments are fun for me.”
Haynes comes by that Southern tradition naturally. Though he had formal art and filmmaking training at the University of North Texas, he says his true understanding and art education came as a child traveling the South with his mother Darlene Haynes, who was an artist and photographer. “We traveled the Gulf South, visiting galleries and meeting other artists. Whenever we took a vacation, we would find the local gallery strip. That was an inspiration for me, traveling around with a camera and paint and learning how to make a beautiful picture with one frame. It’s composition. I learned lighting and developed an eye, so to speak, and how to make an image work. That was my education in art.”
Like the Southern literary tradition, Haynes’ paintings are often about the land and tradition. The Baton Rouge native spent his childhood Sundays, visiting his paternal grandparents’ farm in Clinton, La. “Slowly, I began to appreciate what my Dad loved, the land, cattle and the farm.” When, as a boy, he traveled with his parents, “Mom would say, ‘Look at that beautiful old church, that would make a good photograph.’ Dad would say, ‘Look at that forest.’ I got that appreciation from both.”
Now, the Haynes’ family – John, Joanna and son – often pack a picnic lunch and explore the land in southeast and south-central Louisiana. “We love to go to the levee and look out at the beautiful patchwork of colors. People have no idea of what’s 10 to 15 minutes from home.”
In his painting “River Harvest II,” Haynes captures a levee view of a sugarcane field west of Baton Rouge. “It really speaks for itself,” he says, his finger running across the landscape burnt cane fields and patches of corn and soybean like a passing cloud. “The natural beauty and patchwork of what farmers created. These landscapes tell a story. They had homes on them, mills, families. They all had stories and all are very interesting.” Haynes loves to paint these scenes in the late afternoon sun. “Sugarcane fields in the late evening have great orange colors and the burnt sections are so beautiful when you hit it right. I have such a passion for this state and this area.”
The interiors of old homes and building are as much a part of the Southern landscape as the land itself. Haynes and his wife enjoy antiques and the lyric gracefulness of Victorian architecture. “Joanna and I say we’re old classical people. We love old places and stories. Friends and family have old plantation houses that we love to visit. They inspire me. Look at that staircase (pointing to a painting leaning against a wall in his studio). How many stories were told in that room? People laughed in there, children played on that staircase.” He calls these paintings his “interior portraits.”
Haynes has a driving passion for icons of the rural South and Louisiana such as the heavy live oaks and old country churches. “I have a passion for it,” he says. “I love it. It’s carved a niche in our character. The food, music, the landscape – it all comes together.”
Finding a label to identify his work in art terms is difficult. He describes himself as an abstract impressionist. Such terms, however, are not really necessary. Haynes simply loves to see the artist at work in creating a painting. “I love artwork that when I look at it, I can see movement and brushstrokes,” he says. “I’ve then seen the hand that created it. It’s alive.”
When he’s not painting, Haynes and Joanna are making films. To his growing list of film credits, they co-produced with actor Nicholas Cage “The Dance,” a documentary about Billy Roth, a boxer in the 1940s and ’50s, who went into prisons to teach young men how to redeem their lives through boxing. Haynes said the documentary will be made into a commercial movie, starring Cage himself. Cage’s Saturn Films and Haynes’ Geadelmann Pictures recently signed a deal with Universal Studios in Hollywood to do the movie. Production is scheduled to begin this fall or in the spring. Haynes and partners also wrote and produced “In Search of Coon Ass and Found a People,” a documentary about Cajun life in Louisiana. Other films, stage plays and children’s television shows are also on the drawing board.
“I’m a storyteller whether on canvas or on the big screen,” Haynes says. “I love to paint stories and People love to hear stories. It’s a conversation.”
As he finished his comments, a woman walked up to him in the gallery to tell him how much she enjoyed his work and then asked him to autograph her invitation to the show.
He smiled, signed the card and she left. Once she was out of hearing distance, Haynes turned to say: “You just have to paint from the heart and hope people will appreciate it.”
Haynes’ paintings can be seen at Brunner Gallery at the new Shaw Center for the Arts in Baton Rouge and at its gallery on North Columbia Street in Covington.