The following is a collaborative piece: Interview conducted by Mary Margaret White at Market Cafe in Louisville, Mississippi, photos by Susan Liles, narrative by Molly Knight.
The walls of the Market Café in Louisville, Mississippi are decorated with colorful painting of faces of men, women, and children of the South. The artist is Katrina Estes Hill, a painter and storyteller from Louisville. Hill describes her paintings as “folk pop art” depicting “colorful characters, a little bit rough around the edges” painted on various types of recycled wood.
Hill finds the subjects of her paintings everywhere she goes. She was forty-one when was inspired by the colorful characters she met during her time as a traveling saleswoman and decided to try her hand at painting them. One of her very first paintings was inspired by a man who sold her a watermelon on the side of a Kentucky back road. Their interaction was brief, but Hill found herself drawn to the man’s vibrant personality. “I said, ‘You are a beautiful sight. Can I paint you?’” she recalls, “and he said, ‘Yeah, you ain’t ever painted nobody this good-lookin’.”
From there, she started rifling through her family photo albums and painting her relatives just as they were in the photographs, baseball caps and missing teeth included. Hill prides herself on capturing “a different kind of beauty” that preserves the personality behind each face in an honest way. “When I painted my mother, of course, I didn’t flatter her at all, but when I backed up and looked at it, I said, ‘There’s Mother!’ And that’s how I like to paint people, just who they really are.”
Hill paints “mainly southern folks” and divulges her passion for Southern culture. “I grew up in the rural South; why not share that?” Years ago, Hill left her hometown of Louisville for the big city and was away for about twenty years, but she inevitably found her way back to the family farm. “I don’t think you can ever not be a Southerner when you grow up in the South,” she says, “It becomes part of you.”
When her work is on display, Hill likes to write a story about her characters to accompany each piece. The stories are usually about a paragraph or two in length and they are displayed alongside the paintings to add dimension and history to each character. “I’m hoping that people will look at these and see somebody that they knew at one time in their life in these characters,” Hill explains.
Besides painting, Hill is also a storyteller with audiences ranging from age five to one hundred and five. She tells about “the things that we used to do in a simpler time in America”. A prominent character in all of the tales from her childhood is her grandfather, Fat Daddy, a man of over three hundred and fifty pounds who she describes as “the most colorful of the characters.” Hill remembers fondly that he “sat on the front porch all day long, did nothing, just told jokes and fussed and cussed.” She has compiled a collection of stories from her lively childhood that she calls “Fat Daddy’s Watermelon and Other Tales from the Hollow.”
Hill’s family is not only her inspiration for her stories, but also her motivation for writing them down. “These stories may not go anywhere,” she says, “but one of these days my son will be cleaning out his attic, and he’ll call his child, my grandchild, over to him and say, come over here and sit in my lap, I wanna read you what grandma wrote about when she was a little girl. And I’ll live forever in those, through the paintings and through the pictures that I’ve painted with my words.”