"TOOTS" LUTE: CAMERON PARISH'S ARTIST IN CLAY
© By W. T. Block
(click here for W. T. Block web page)
In 1925 "Toots" Lute of Contraband Bayou
came into his own as an unusually gifted artist in clay. His animal figurines
were all so lifelike that they astounded everyone who saw them; every detail of
hair, bristle, or bridle rein looked so authentic. "Toots" was a
half-breed Attakapas Indian and he grew up in Cameron Parish.
Toots was perhaps in his late 20s when his work first
gained recognition. He was born near Pecan Island, and he believed that his
mother and grandmother were the last 2 Attakapas squaws in the parish. Born
into poverty, he had not attended school except for that acquired at the
"college of hard knocks." He did have a photographic memory though;
he could look at a duck or fish and remember every feather or fin in detail and
the shade of its color.
Toots could not remember how old he was when he first began modeling
in clay, but his first figurine was modeled after the first automobile brought
to the parish aboard the old Rex Boreallis. His only tool was an old pocket
knife, and after he had whittled out the spokes and fenders, he baked it in the
ashes of a fireplace. Later he painted it with colors his grandmother made by hand
- purple from mulberry juice and orange made from hematite found on the river
bank. During many of his teenage years, Toots had picked cotton in Grand
Chenier to eek out his meager livelihood.
Once when Toots was out of
work, Anthony "Tony" Scales invited him to work on his dairy farm
south of Lake Charles, where Toots was to remain for several years. One day
while digging post holes, Toots discovered a mound of brown-yellowish clay,
ideal for modeling figurines. Once Tony took Toots to a circus in Lake Charles.
While others eyeballed the acrobats and highwire acts, Toots' eyes concentrated
on the animals in the cages.
Toots worked on the dairy
until Tony sold his cows and began raising cotton. He let Toots farm several
acres on shares and allowed him to live in a tenant shack with a fireplace.
Toots soon married, became a father, and too poor to afford many toys, he
turned to the clay mound and fired figurines for his toddler to play with. He
had one new innovation though; his wife bought him some oil paints in town to
decorate the figurines.
Although loots modeled lions and tigers, his
favorites were barnyard animals, particularly horses. He had never owned an
oven, so he continued firing his freshly-carved models in the hot ashes of the
fireplace. Many of them were of Texas or Mexican cowboys, and whether a
sombrero, a saddle pommel, or a horse's mane, everything, every hair or other
feature, was carved in exquisite detail. And after each one had been fired, he
painted each item, every ear or eyeball, with the care of a Dutch master.
For some years Tony Sales had no inkling of Toots'
artistic prowess until one day he saw the toddler playing with a figurine. Tony
then showed him his fireplace and shelves, each one lined with all manners of
cowboys, lions, barnyard animals, paint horses with white stocking feet, even
turkeys and roosters. Tony immediately recognized that Toots had a talent that
needed to be displayed. And at one time in 1925 Toots had figurine displays at
Hollings and Kraemer Jewelry and the library at the same time.
Soon afterward, Tony built Toots a small store beside
the highway to exhibit the wares, and people drove down from Lake Charles to
buy them. Toots soon earned enough to buy his little cotton farm, but he did
not allow his newfound fame to alter his or his family's lifestyle. Toots
chopped and picked his cotton in daytime, and at night he modeled his figurines
and fired them in the fireplace. And his wife continued to sell them in the
little store whenever the folks from Lake Charles drove out to purchase some of