My visit to Charleston coincided with very sad news: local artist Charles DeSaussure passed away on July 16. He was known for his vibrant murals and paintings. I was lucky to encounter his work during my visit to collect oral history interviews at Martha Lou’s Kitchen and Bertha’s Kitchen, both in North Charleston.
Martha Lou Gadsden received the call from DeSaussure’s niece just before I arrived at her restaurant for an interview. She was processing the news as we spoke. Her manner was quiet and somber.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now because he’s the best thing I ever had,” she said. “Anytime I want anything done, painting, anything, he was here to do it. I’m gonna miss him.”
We talked while sitting in a booth next to one of DeSaussure’s large murals depicting historic downtown Charleston. On one of the buildings, he painted a little sign that says, “Martha Lou’s Kitchen,” even though the restaurant is in North Charleston. To the right of downtown, he painted Atlantic Beach, the only beach open to blacks in South Carolina at one time. DeSaussure most recently painted a large mural on the side of her little pink restaurant that includes a portrait of Martha Lou.
DeSaussure also painted the glass inside the front door of Bertha’s Kitchen, a portrait of Bertha Grant and her three daughters: Sharon Grant Coakley, Julia Grant, and Linda Pinckney. They told me that DeSaussure painted the glass using a portrait of the four taken after church. The photograph hangs on a wall across from his painting.
According to a press release from an art gallery in Beaufort, South Carolina, called The House of Ahhs, DeSaussure was a native of Yemassee, South Carolina, a descendent of Senegalese slaves. He started his career as a sign painter but became well known for his vibrant, colorful murals and paintings depicting life in the Lowcountry.
Find out more about DeSaussure, as well as Charleston’s fading restaurant-mural tradition, here.
Sara Wood, our newest collaborator, just returned from Charleston, South Carolina, where she collected three new oral history interviews. Next week, she’s in Atlanta to document female farmers.