DECINTER CARAWAY FARLEY: PAINTER AND STORYTELLER
BY YVONNE FARLEY TURNER
With an eye for color and a memory rich with details, DeCinter Caraway Farley painted memories of her childhood on her family’s Claiborne Parish farm in stories and pictures. DeCinter’s artwork, which began as “something I have always wanted to do, but didn’t think I could,” was a source of pleasure and relaxation. She was delighted and surprised with the interest in her work, saying, “I can’t believe it, I just can’t.” Born August 7, 1913, DeCinter describes her artwork, saying, “I just paint from memory. When I start one, I don’t really know what I’m going to end up with. I guess you could say that I paint by trial and error and turpentine — the turpentine is to fix the mistakes.”
Her paintings are filled with activity, full of purpose and direction. She says, “The farm was a busy place, and I like to show as much of it as I can.” Whatever she deems is important is large; perspective is discarded, and the significant achieves its proper place. Tables have four legs and usually are the same length and always visible. Trees sometimes float in the air, other times they are anchored in the earth. She is particularly interested in trees that have lost their leaves and their way, hulks that have wonderful shapes and climbing, twisting limbs. As she works the dark branches with her brush this was and that, she remarks, “I like to have a monster tree in each one.” Beds stand on end, the better to appreciate the quilt design. Mules have blue eyes and curly lashes, and yards are clean and without blemish because “every Saturday, we children would make sage brush brooms and sweep the yard clean and pull all the grass.”
The home place is a favorite subject of her paintings, and there is frequently a cape jasmine by the corner of the house or the porch perhaps. She fumes with her brush as she frames one of the houses, saying, “You know how tin has that rusty look…” And “I want to show how we brushed the flies away from the table. One of us would go pick a peach tree branch, and that one would stand by the table and shoo away the flies. We didn’t have any screens on the windows.”
DeCinter’s parents were Eugene and Martha Gathright, who settled near the community of Ruple in Claiborne Parish in 1914 when she was “just a crawling baby.” She describes the house as “hand-hewn logs and notched at the corners, no floors just dirt. This was a fort during the Civil War. My daddy floored the part of the house that was there and sealed it, and then built more onto the house. This is where Mamma and Papa lived until they died. I lived there until I was married.”
DeCinter was the “Baby” of the Caraway brood. The title was not only the acknowledgement of her status as the youngest child; it was her name for the first six years of her life. She says, “We were going to have a Christmas tree at Ruple School, and that afternoon, Papa was smoking hams and bacon in the smokehouse, and he called me. He gave me a little piece of paper and said, ‘Baby, this is your name.’ Of course, I couldn’t read, so I ran to Mama and said, ‘This is my name.’ She said, ‘Your name is DeCinter.’ I was named for a school teacher who used to board with us, Mrs. DeCinter King.”
Chores were unending, but shared by the eight surviving children. Acres of peas, corn, and cotton demanded attention. Sugarcane was planted, and its tall, lanky growth cut and milled. Mules, cows, chickens, and geese brayed, mooed, crowed, and squawked for feed and water. Meat was preserved either by smoking or salting. Vegetables were canned, onions and potatoes limed and mounded for the winter. DeCinter points to a teepee-like structure in The Snowball Fight and says, “That was the potato mound. Papa would dig a big hold, and then cover it with lots of corn stalks, and the potatoes would keep until spring.”
Clothing was washed at the spring or over a boiling wash pot. Water was carried from the well for drinking and cooking. Cotton was picked, weighed, and baled. Beehives were tended, and then robbed of their chewy cones with the liquid gold encased. Fruit trees yielded luscious offspring for making jams and jellies. Fruit drying preserved some of the bounty for pies and cakes. Like the hog killing, the annual syrup making was a celebration partly because of the gathering of neighbors and friends, and partly because it produced a dark, thick wonder that hesitantly left the pitcher, and over hot biscuits had a taste like no other.
From her memories comes a bittersweet footnote as she sums up her childhood: “I guess we mush have been very poor people, but looking back, I feel we were very rich.” DeCinter Farley died on November 15, 2008 at age 95. She is buried in Vienna, Louisiana, where she spent many years after marrying Cecil Farley. She served as postmistress of Vienna, where she began painting, and later lived in Farmerville on Lake D’Arbonne.