Artist molds mud for White House tree

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 15, 2001


PHOTO 1: Lorraine Gendron displays the ornament she designed and made for the White House Christmas tree, reflecting the origins of Hahnville. (Staff Photo by Leonard Gray) HAHNVILLE – The White House Christmas tree will have one adornment which will bring to mind the history of St. Charles Parish. Hahnville resident Lorraine Gendron, renowned for her mud sculptures, paintings and other works of art, was recently invited, along with five other Louisiana artists, to provide an ornament for the White House’s Christmas tree. “I was excited, naturally,” Gendron said with a broad smile. What Gendron chose is a bust of Republican Gov. Michael Hahn, shown with his home, which still stands (although now remodeled) on Elm Street in Hahnville. The guidelines for the crafting and design of the ornament included inclusion of a historic home, use of lightweight materials and with a gold cord attached. Also, the non-returnable ornament will be added to the White House’s permanent collection. This will join the Easter Egg she provided in 1985 to the White House, which is now preserved at the Smithsonian. PHOTO 2: Gov. Michael Hahn, founder of Hahnville and a former governor, is remembered in this Christmas ornament being donated to the White House by Lorraine Gendron. (Staff Photo by Leonard Gray) “I wanted to keep it simple,” she said. “I thought of balsa wood or styrofoam, but decided on this.” Hahn, founder of the town bearing his name, had a varied career including attorney, school board member, police juror, newspaper editor, director of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans, Louisiana governor and Congressman. A native of Germany, specifically Bavaria, Hahn and his family came to New Orleans in 1840. By the time he was 22, he was on the Orleans Parish School Board. He opposed secession while the public spirit favored forming the Confederacy. After Louisiana surrendered to the Union forces in 1862, Hahn was elected to represent “Union” Louisiana. In February 1864, he was elected governor. In postwar years, Hahn served as a district judge, state representative, state registrar of voters and was re-elected to Congress. Hahnville, proper, is that portion upriver from Home Place Plantation with streets Hahn laid out on his sugar plantation. His house, which once fronted River Road, is now at 141 Elm St. and owned by the Raymond Ledoux family. Two doors down, Gendron lives in her living work of art, her own house. Each wall and interior door is adorned by murals she has painted, along with cabinets and several other furniture items. Every nook and cranny appears to be stuffed with her works, from mud-sculpture dolls to paintings. A workshop behind the house is stuffed with more works in progress. Gendron, a native of Los Angeles, came to St. Charles Parish when she was 11 years old. She later married a local man, Louis Gendron. When her husband lost his job as a pipefitter, Gendron went to work, using Mississippi River mud, rinsing off the sand and using the clay as the raw material for a host of uses. Her artwork and sculptures went on display and for sale at the Jazz and Heritage Festival and at the 1984 Louisiana World Fair, where her talent captured widespread attention. Now, fans of her work range from Aaron Neville and Pete Fountain to Paul Prudhomme and John Goodman to Ed Bradley and Jimmy Buffet. The exquisite dolls, ranging from six to eight inches in height, reflect a folk-art style depicting children and celebrities, angels and second-liners. Her paintings also reflect a deep appreciation of Louisiana folk-art styles, including one series on the 1811 slave rebellion. One day, Gendron said, she would like to see Hahnville’s town recognized as a historic district. “Hahnville has some of the oldest houses in the parish,” she said.