A communion of spirit.
Story by Carolyn Males
Artist Louanne LaRoche sits at her easel with the salt marsh and May River at her back. Dipping her brush into acrylic color, she adds detail to the canvas, a whimsical portrait of a blue bird in a richly patterned cage. Here in the studio she’s carved out from her living room, spirits surround her. Winged dog sculptures dangle overhead. A Central African fertility totem keeps watch on the red grand piano, the latter a legacy of the Hilton Head art gallery she once owned. An old telephone embellished with beads and domino pieces created by her friend, the reclusive artist Aldwyth, cozies up to its music stand. One is tempted to pick up the receiver, adorned with a taxidermied alligator head, and dial up a fantasy world.
On the big pine table to LaRoche’s right, alongside tubes of paint, lie stacks of photos the Bluffton painter has taken on her journeys across five continents. These images, her memories, and collected folk art have inspired a body of work that attests to a life of adventure and interest in people across the globe.
What influenced your art and your interest in cultural connections? [Louanne LaRoche] I grew up in Pittsburgh, a great cultural town with museums, libraries, and galleries. And when I began to read, my own natural curiosity drew me to mythology and folk tales from around the world.
I was interested in art from an early age but I was not a colorer inside the lines. I was just all over the place. But I loved it. Carnegie Melon offered Saturday classes for kids by invitation only but I didn’t make the grade. So I started with paint by numbers. But I didn’t paint inside the numbers either. Eventually, though, I did get a fine arts degree from Carnegie Melon.
(click on gallery thumbnails for larger photo)
What brought you to the Lowcountry? [LLR] My ancestral roots in the Lowcountry and Georgia date from the 1700s. My parents were attracted to Charles Fraser’s vision and Hilton Head was close to family, so in 1972 they purchased a home in Sea Pines. Meanwhile I’d taken off a semester and went on a four-month African camping trip in a big overland truck with an international travel group. The trip was supposed to end in Johannesburg but after three months I got too ill to continue and ended up flying home. Immediately I tried to figure out a way to come back. And I did. But instead, I headed to Kenya for nine months. Then after graduation I returned and got a waitressing job at the Calibogue Café. Over the years I continued my travels in Africa and around the world.
You’ve led a fascinating life. You owned The Red Piano Gallery (1980-95), founded the Red Piano Too on St. Helena, married and became a mother. Then you built a house in Belize and discovered some interesting Caribbean-Lowcountry connections. And through it all, you continued to document everyday moments in paint, charcoal, ink, and mixed media. [LLR] An interest in outsider artist Sam Doyle brought me to St. Helena which connected me to the Penn Center where I joined the board. It was here that I discovered my family’s Beaufort roots. Later on a trip to Belize in 1991, I was struck by the interconnectedness of tradition from the Caribbean and the Lowcounty with their shared Sierra Leone heritage. Those glimpses of everyday moments in both cultures energize me to channel that experience in the process of making my artwork.
Find more of Louanne LaRoche’s work online at larochecollections.com.
Her work is also on display at Camellia Art Gallery and Four Corners Gallery.