Coffee, a Kitten, and Poison Ivy Everywhere: a Thibodeaux Assemblage Sculpture

  • top – Burlap sack fragment “Café do Brasil”
  • . . . 1930s newspaper fragment and copy, Creole Belle coffee
  • . . . Graniteware coffee pot
  • . . . China coffee cup and saucer
  • center right – Charles Parker no. 60 coffee grinder
  • . . . fragment, same burlap sack, bean and leaf design
  • bottom – collection of many coffee pots and a demitasse cup
  • [inset w/white china shards – represents archaeological excavation of the Belleisle Acadian house foundation in today’s Nova Scotia, explained in its own post]
Right wall, C,K,PIE at far right, middle

Some parts of this assemblage are as straightforward, requiring little explanation, as others are complex – stories all over the place. The coffee section is simply that, all about coffee.

coffee pot parts on middle shelf and floor

Good strong café au lait is such a part of the old Louisiana world. Well, everywhere on the Thibodeaux property, there were things having to do with coffee . . . . . . . in Thelesphore’s kitchen pantry . . .

Pieces of red enamel coffee pot on lower shelf, upper shelf with someone’s nest – Look close at the yellow jar, lower left corner, and you can tell its contents were corn Anna canned over 50 years ago.

. . . in his shed out back . . .

. . . and as we’ve already seen, on his bedroom walls . . .

And at Paul Hypolite’s barn across the street . . .

Paul Hypolite’s barn
See the barrel? It was full of woven plastic rice bags and such, but a few at the bottom were old burlap
Two burlap sacks – left, printed Café do Brasil, with a nice coffee leaf and bean graphic, and right, stamped “washed beans from Honduras”. These barely made it out of a delicate handwashing, but they did. Such a wonderful old texture and smell (after they were washed).

. . . . and under his wagon . . .

Paul H’s wagon behind the barn
coffee cup and milk bottle under P Hypolite’s wagon
Paul Hypolite’s small shed –

. . . and in his small shed . . .

small shed – yellow coffee pot, center

Okay, a bit of orientation here. See the shot of Paul Hypolite’s small shed?… and the grove of trees in the upper right? The highway runs in front of those trees, and Thelesphore’s house is in the middle of those trees, in the shadows all the way to the right. By the way, that’s sugar cane growing across from the house, which is pretty close to being ready for harvest. You want to get it up before the first freeze.

. . . and in his big shed . . .

Paul Hypolite’s big shed
big shed – blue graniteware coffee pot in the oval washbasin
big shed – broken stoneware coffee cup, china saucer

. . . and back at Thelesphore’s, outside the kitchen window

Thelesphore’s kitchen window, the back of the house
kitchen window, china coffee cup
my new partner


And now that we’re back at Thelesphore’s, we can get to the poison ivy and kitten, both of which were as ‘everywhere’ as coffee things were. One of the coldest weekends Sylvia and I spent in Breaux Bridge over winter of ’14/’15, it was hitting 29° at night. And one of the first things I noticed when I pulled the car into its spot beside the forest patch around the shed, huddled up in a sun spot, was this. I’ll let the captions take over from here.

Is it feral?
Ah, well . . .
. . . that answers that.
Have you ever heard an airboat, the kind with the big propellor that’s up out of the water?

Well, this little baby had belonged to someone, was raised and loved by people. That whole weekend, I walked up and down the highway, knocking on doors . . . “Are you missing a kitten? You want one?” No, and no. This kitten had been well-fed, had never hunted a day in her life. And she’d been out here for days; her ribs told me that. She also drank a whole cup from my water jug. Did she not know there was a bayou just down the slope? Had she been let off by the side of the road by someone? . . . “Here, this is good. A house in the middle of a patch of woods with lots of mice. She’ll learn”. Let out into a foreign world of danger, hunger, and fear, and then the loneliness , because she would remember what life had been like, those first fleeting weeks of her life, when she’d been safe and loved. I couldn’t bare to think about it. Now as I write this, I still can’t.

Maybe that’s not how it happened, and she did somehow just get lost.

Wait! Where ‘ya goin’?

After several hours, I saw Raymond from next door (Paul Hypolite’s grandson) and he consented to taking me across the street and showing me his grandfather’s place, his barn and sheds. But I had a problem. Little furry girl was going to follow me across the highway, a lone two-laner that passed through farms and fields as it followed the bayou, occasionally dotted with the bodies of pet cats and dogs. So I zipped her in my coat and brought her with us, hoping she wouldn’t panic and leap out in the middle of the highway. She didn’t, and from the time I put her down she never left my side, exploring everywhere Raymond brought us. I begged Raymond to take her; told him he needed to take her in. “No… I… don’t!”

The old animal pen beside Paul Hypolite’s barn, with a twin size iron bedstead

She was just as fast running after me at the end of the day when I was trying to leave. I couldn’t back up fast enough to keep her from getting under the wheels of the car. So I brought her home (two doors down) so that Josie could meet her, and figured I could walk her back before nightfall. I always left early enough in the day to be able to wash all the day’s stuff under Josie’s hose in the carport, something I loved doing, figuring out what things were as they emerged from beneath clots of mud, scrubbing everything down to their clean surfaces and details. Don would come from across the street, and between the trio, they’d often be able to identify things for me.

Josie is not much of an animal lover and doesn’t allow animals in her spotless, well-ordered house, but I think she was a little charmed, once, when I was stooped over scrubbing something and the little baby jumped up on my back, climbing up to my shoulders and looking down at what I was working on. So instead of walking the kitten back to Thelesphore’s house, precious Josie told me I could let her spend the night in her laundry room, which had been built at the back of an open driveway that my bedroom window had once looked out over. That window . . . Little furry girl didn’t understand why she couldn’t get to me. For an hour, she rubbed and called to me from the top rim of the dryer. More than once I teared up, but she was safe. I wouldn’t have slept knowing she was back under Thelesphore’s house, shivering, and thinking maybe she’d find a better place . . . maybe at a house across the highway.

I know, baby, but you’re safe and warm and fed, this one night anyway.

The next day went much like the first, her watching what I was doing, or sleeping in her ‘bed’ in my inside-out fuzzy coat, or darting up and down trees after things, or eating (I always bring ice chests of sandwich makings with me on these jaunts). The agenda that day was to try to figure out how to get to the patch next to the shed which everyone said had been the trash midden for as long as they could remember. It was thoroughly inaccessible, covered by an old wringer washer that had been grown into, around, then back out of again by a vine that was a good 6 inches in diameter by the time it turned upward toward the canopy to get some sun. I spent half a day pondering it, raking the leaves away from it to see just where the trunks emerged from the ground and how many vines I was dealing with. My machete would’a taken me a week and my tree saw just got gummed up with the juices. There was no breaking it; I swung on so many times, jumping from on top of the washer.

Can you find the kitten? Left center, background.

I’ll just leave you there for a minute, our heroine frozen in mid-swing, and tell you the inevitable ending of this visit. One photo should say it all.

Yes, of course I took her home.
Just as before, she was with me everywhere.
“Ok, what’s next?”

Well, I’ll tell you what’s next. Unfreeze our heroine, send her and her new furry friend home, and then we find out why she’s always itching with a rash after she comes back from these trips. Poison ivy. It took me awhile to put 2+2 together, but after this trip with the kind of exposure I’d had, I had a complete systemic reaction. That 6 inch-thick vine? . . yep. So I did alot of googling on how to remove poison ivy in the woods (and how not to; bad stuff!), bought some hazmat suits and the recommended chemicals, and the next time I rolled into Breaux Bridge, I stopped at an equipment rental place and got a gas-powered chain saw on an extension pole. I’d thought I’d have to sacrifice the whole weekend to its removal, but the chain saw went through it like butter. I stacked 4′ logs of poison ivy at a safe distance (you can’t burn it, the smoke can kill you!), painted the stumps with the chemical, covered them from rain with plastic, and taped them around with hot pink duct tape that I’d have no trouble finding and tracking throughout the growth seasons, and still had several hours of daylight with which to explore what had been underneath the wringer washer. I wish I could say I did a good bit of digging, but there were too many tree roots. Still, that mound produced many interesting finds, including my favorite ‘coffee thing’.

Okay, let’s back up to “next time I rolled into Breaux Bridge”, because the next time I rolled into Breaux Bridge, I not only had hazmat suits and poison ivy things with me, but I had Liddubit, as she had been named. Besides its obvious derivation, Sylvia decided that Liddubit was a diminutive of Elizabeth, fittingly, and that’s what she called her.

When we got back to Thelesphore’s house, Liddubit knew right where she was. She was a bit timid at first, staying in her new bed right by me, but eventually, she ran around and played, always coming whenever I called her. She even helped find the piece that ended up being my favorite, which in turn decided the tone of the coffee sculpture section.

Liddubit’s at left, at the business end of the chain saw, a little too curious about that toxic saw blade for my liking. The pink spots are the treated stumps. And I can tell you, writing this 6 years later, that it worked completely.
Practically a solid tangle of roots
When I stood up for a stretch, Liddubit took up where I left off. She’s pretty well camouflaged. See her?
Part of a wall-mounted Charles Parker coffee grinder no.60, manufactured from 1860s til WWII
The befores and afters can be such fun.

Sculpture process: ————————-

Funny how memory plays tricks on you. I just finished telling you that finding the coffee grinder was what dictated the design of the coffee sculpture, but looking back over my photographs and the sequence of events, this isn’t so at all. I found the grinder in Thelesphore’s trash midden the day after clearing the poison ivy, in early March, when the whole assemblage was still designed to stand against a wall, seen only from the front. But the coffee sculpture only came about as a function of the Acadian excavation inset that had to take up the lower half. And the Acadian house excavation, together with its African counterpart, only came about when I had a two-sided design. And I didn’t change my against-the-wall design until the Breaux Bridge library, where I’d been hoping to exhibit the Thibodeaux assemblage, told me that it had grown too big, that they couldn’t sacrifice that much wall space needed for book shelves, and could I make it free-standing, so it could be in the middle of a room. And that was in July of ’15, 3 months after I found the coffee grinder.

Actually, I remember it as one of those fun ‘Aha!’ moments. The minute I had a two-sided design, something with binary potential, I saw in my head the Belleisle house foundation diagram from my favorite excavation up in Nova Scotia, and thought, “wouldn’t it be something if I could find an African counterpart and put them opposite each other, large, running across and through half the sections of each wall, like a jacquard weave, depicting what the two homes might have looked like that Onesime’s ancestors in 1760s Acadie (Nova Scotia) had been evicted from by war, and Elizabeth’s ancestors in 1790s Congo, Africa had been kidnapped from by the slave trade.

in the coffee post
Belleisle Acadian house foundation excavation

Sure enough, my photos from between March and July showed that a section devoted to coffee wasn’t yet a twinkle in my eye.

Early April, 2015 – The coffee grinder’s being tested with similarly shaped things. Sorta washes out the uniqueness of it, though.
Late April 2015 – Still a one-sided design, though expanding so much that I’m spreading more and more blankets and sheets out across my good wood floor. I can see (lower left corner of the photo) all the round, ‘loose-end’ coffee pot pieces that I had just pushed aside, eliminated.
May 2015 – I had only just started gathering things into categories, what room they belonged in, occupation, aesthetic similarities, like that, because it was becoming more than I could keep track of. I don’t think it had occurred to me to make the categories official, in stacked boxes like Louise Nevelson. At the top left, near the center, I can see my favorite coffee pieces (the grinder, china cup, & Belle Creole newspaper ad – top, left of center) will have their own spot in the kitchen section, but . . .
May 2015 – Other coffee things stay mixed in with the rest of the kitchen (white demitasse, blue graniteware pot, blue drip basket) except . . .

So if the grinder was not the driving force behind the coffee sculpture, what was? Honestly, I don’t remember, but again, I think my photos do.

Laying out the Acadian foundation was simple enough using white china shards and black tar chips. I made it large so that it would span several sections, which meant that the design of the sections involved, and the artifacts they’d contain, had to be coordinated simultaneously.

July 2015 – Okay, I’ve got the footprint of the Acadian house foundation (white china shards & black tar chips). Bedroom and kitchen are covered, and my coffee favorites can move up into a section of there own off the northeast wall of the excavation, freeing space in the kitchen But how to depict the cellar that would be in the remaining right-hand corner?

I figured that I’d design the kitchen sculpture to go at the bottom to incorporate the excavation’s round oven, such a signature feature of Acadian architecture, and the bedroom section would go at the upper left, at the side of the house farthest from the busy kitchen, dining, and otherwise utilitarian area, as well as the cellar steps. It was the cellar cavity and stairs that were going to be a trick. Something could be put in the cavity, half-buried below the level of the china shards. But what artifacts worth including would I be willing to half-cover up?

Meantime, coffee things were becoming one of the most numerous artifacts, enough to warrant its own segment, and putting it beside the bedroom section where it would contain the cellar at the right of the excavation would keep coffee on top of the kitchen as an offshoot. The iron coffee grinder though, being one of my favorite pieces, deserved to be showcased without a lot of design and distraction. At the same time, though, the sheer number of coffee-related pieces indicated a significance to the culture that merited representation. It turned out to be something in the bedroom section, not related to coffee at all, that tied the whole thing together. The first weekend in September, after I thought I’d had the whole bedroom section laid out, I found the moss mattress hiding under the stack of bent-over mattresses in Thelesphore’s bedroom that had collapsed in on itself and half disintegrated into something powdery that I avoided breathing on, let alone turning over. But one brave day, I did, and found the moss mattresses beneath it all, still semi-encased in its blue-and-white ticking.

I set Liddubit to work on the little graniteware coffee pot and china cup, who said she needed to sleep on it, and I began recreating the moss mattress, which unfortunately had to go where half the excavation’s cellar site was supposed to go. The cellar cavity was supposed to be split between the bedroom segment and the coffee segment, shared between both, but now the coffee section would have to bare most of the task. By the end of that month, my photos show me that while I was mulling over how to put the moss, ticking and pillow feathers together where half the cellar cavity section was supposed to have gone, I had come up with the idea of burying some eliminated coffee pot parts in what remained of the cellar cavity, and was experimenting with ways to squish several pieces together into the cavity and far enough down to really look the way it would in an excavation if only the top had been exposed.

Sept.30, 2015 – Experimenting with both the bed design and the pot pieces as filler for the cellar cavity, which are squeezed into a sardine can as a potential burial position.
Nov.2015 – Cut the cavity space so I know how much room I have to work with, then . . . .
Nov.2015 . . . . attach the pieces to the back, with all but the tips hidden behind the false back.
Nov.2015 – . . . attach ‘char-filled post holes’ (depicted by chips from a hardened tar ball) from the earliest level of the excavation (it burned down, excavation to be explained in its own post), then . . .
Nov. 2015 – . . . above that, the stone foundation of the later house (depicted by shards of broken dishes), together with a top layer of baulks at ground level. But what to do with the pieces we aren’t burying?
Nov. 2015
Jan. 2016

In the end, it was Liddubit who solved it. Simplicity itself, no design, no distraction. The tea pot pours into the cup with your Creole Belle in the background like a picture on the wall, a scene in a life. Then, you can partition off the grinder in the pointed section you can’t use for much else anyway, on a burlap-draped pedestal on its own like you’ve wanted it to be from the start . . . says she.

_________________________________________ Next up, “Kitchen” ________________________________________

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