Man behind Houmas mystique: Craig Black

Halen Doughty

What do a painter, a poet, and a particle physics expert have in common? Craig Black is all of them. Black, 64, has been the groundskeeper at the Houmas House in Gonzales for 44 years, and he's honed a variety of skills during his tenure at the plantation home.

The artist lives on the grounds in his studio known as Art Noir. He is truly living the dream, as he says every day is a new adventure. Some days he wakes up and paints, others he works on his poetry, and if he's not in the mood to create, he may catch up on the latest discoveries in particle physics. If you ever run into him, ask him about how we know there are 11 dimensions. You won't be disappointed.

He frequently paints in his studio, but you won't find any of his work for sale on a shelf. He says he paints for himself and for the joy of creating a masterpiece. His subject matter ranges from landscapes to people, depending on his muse that day. It seems he finds inspiration in just about everything. He doesn't have a favorite piece that he's done, saying the best painting is always the one on the canvas.

Black and his six assistants maintain the 38-acre grounds that surround the mansion. The exact number of plants there is unknown, but Black wagers it's well over a million. Forty thousand of those are seasonal and have to be changed out according to their growing seasons. Plants out of season are grown in one of three greenhouses on site, so they'll be ready when their time comes.

The gardens are a mosaic of colorful plants expertly placed like pieces of a puzzle. Black says putting it all together takes careful consideration because the flora is grouped based on how much sunlight and water it needs. There's never a vacant spot in the gardens, as dying plants are quickly uprooted and replaced.

Even as the head-honcho of the garden, Black still works closely with his helpers and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. There's even a garden filled with zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and other things used to feed the staff. He also helps care for the ducks, chickens, and peacocks on the property.

A true jack of all trades, Black learned at a young age that being hands on is the best way to learn. His dad put tools in his hands as a child, and Black figured things out from there. He said if you can understand the logic behind something, it's just a matter of putting it into practice. That's even how he became a gardener - lots of practice.

"If you kill enough plants, eventually you learn what works and what doesn't," he said.

The sculptor carved the stones that make up a 12-foot fountain behind a Monet-inspired bridge over a pond filled with lily pads. The whole scene looks like something straight out of a storybook. Looking at the water feature, you'd never guess it was anything but a work of Mother Nature herself. Black says that's the idea.

He also sculpted a fish that acts as the mouth of another fountain closer to the mansion itself. He says he's had a hand in every fountain on the property at some point or another. The same can be said for the plants, all of which get a once over from Black every day.

A man of many talents, Black puts his skills to good use at the Houmas House. He even redid the stucco on the outside of the home, something he had never done before. When asked if he could take on the daunting task, Black simply replied, "Tomorrow I can." He phoned a friend with experience in stucco and asked how to mix it. The very next day he did it, and it looks incredible.

In the past few years, he's gotten into writing, stepping out of his visual comfort zone to write poetry and hopefully one day song lyrics. He said he's already written thousands of pieces, including poetry and short stories.

Black is a wealth of knowledge on everything you can imagine. He's well-read and takes an interest in just about everything there is to be interested in. Life is a series of moments, he said, and it's about seizing all of them.

On Mondays, Black can be found at the lunch restaurant on site, where he's greeted by the wait staff and has become a familiar face to some regulars. Wednesdays are his drinking nights, as he says, and he's usually at the Turtle Bar also on the grounds. He rarely leaves the Houmas House, only taking a monthly visit to town for grocery shopping. When asked why he stays on the grounds 24/7, he gestured at the beauty of the garden, the magnificent mansion, and his humble studio and said, "Why would I?"

Moreover, if you're familiar with Gonzales, you've likely seen the "House on 44," a colorful home with walls entirely sculpted into faces with a giant sun on the forefront. Although he's never lived there, Black is the mastermind behind the livable work of art. He began working on the house when the plantation home changed ownership and his future residence on location was uncertain.

But things worked out well when Kevin Kelley bought the property 14 years ago. The two have had a working partnership ever since. Black brings the artistic aspect to the relationship, while Kelley provides the resources and business mind. The two have added a variety of new features to the home, including an amphitheater currently under construction behind the house, which is expected to be the new home for live music on the grounds in the next year.

The Houmas House is constantly being upgraded, which means there's always something new for visitors to see. Perhaps the most interesting thing to see, however, is Black himself. He's full of entertaining stories, words of wisdom, and a unique perspective on life that will leave you with a renewed sense of wonder.

More photos of Houmas House here.

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