A Harvest of Artistry – Point of Vue August 2023

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Brunella Luke Portraits 2023 (Photo by Misty Leigh McElroy) [date}

Tradition runs deep on the bayou. Perpetuating the state’s local customs and cultures is a part of everyday life for so many of our neighbors and friends by continuing to pass on those traditions to the next generations.

Mrs. Brunella Luke has worked for more than two decades to create beautiful, intricate dolls from corn husks, silk, and cloth, and will be receiving a state award for her work this fall. Despite being retired for more than 20 years, the magic of Mrs. Brunella’s corn shuck dolls still captivates and inspires the bayou community– keeping the culture alive for decades to come.

Mrs. Brunella was born and raised in Chauvin, and has continued to reside here her whole life- – eventually raising three sons alongside her husband. “I was born here and never left,” chuckled Mrs. Brunella as she recalled those years. An essential part of life in Chauvin, and for Mrs. Brunella particularly, was “Lagniappe on the Bayou,” a large, 3-day, volunteerproduced festival which ran from 1969-1994. Lagniappe on the Bayou brought thousands into one of the southernmost regions of Terrebonne Parish to enjoy authentic cajun food, drinks, crafts, and more. It was during this fair one day that Mrs. Brunella encountered her first corn shuck doll. “I worked at the Magazin during the Lagniappe fair, and I had an elderly friend, Mrs. Thelma Duplantis, who was making the dolls at the time,” said Mrs. Brunella. “We never had enough of them to sell– we would always sell out so fast. That was my first introduction to these corn shuck dolls. Everyone wanted them, and we could tell they were special.”

Mrs. Brunella explained that in 1977, shortly after being introduced to these one-of-a-kind dolls, she and her fellow co-workers from the Magazin began joining Mrs. Thelma and quickly learned the technique of how to construct these special dolls. “We would all get together every week and start making the dolls,” said Mrs. Brunella. “Mrs. Thelma would show us the parts and how to put everything together. Then, when we were finished, we would bring them back to her and she would put finishing touches on them. It was a long process for each doll, there are a lot of steps to be completed. It made all of us so happy, and we loved having that many dolls to show at the store.”

After four years of making these corn shuck dolls with her mentor and fellow coworkers, in 1981 Mrs. Brunella was comfortable enough with the technique to begin making the dolls on her own. “I would work on them almost every day, from nine in the morning until the late afternoon, and that’s when things really began to take off,” said Mrs. Brunella. “I began taking them to different craft shows, selling them in stores, and giving demonstrations to community members on how the corn shuck dolls were made. I would make dolls all day, stop to make dinner for my family, and then keep making dolls!” Mrs. Brunella explained that she mostly sold and presented her uniquely Cajun dolls at Lagniappe on the Bayou, the very same fair where her mentor Mrs. Thelma showed and sold her own dolls. The dolls Mrs. Brunella has created explored a range of topics, taking the form of everything from Halloween witches, to nuns, to pilgrims, to a group of girls enjoying a crab lunch, to a couple at the altar, and even to someone using an outhouse!

Mrs. Brunella retired from making corn shuck dolls in early 2000, after over 20 successful years of work. “Definitely one of the most challenging parts of making these dolls is finding the materials, and it just got too difficult to access them,” said Mrs. Brunella. “It was hard to find high quality corn shucks for the dolls, and other unique materials became too expensive as well.” Mrs. Brunella’s corn shuck dolls have exquisite detail, such as beautiful locks of hair– which was made from handspun silk shipped in especially from Minnesota. Alongside difficulty finding materials, the intricate work on these dolls also began to take its toll on Mrs. Brunella’s fingers. “This craft work is very taxing work on your joints,” said Mrs. Brunella. “Constantly shucking corn, arranging the materials, and working in such detail just became too challenging.” After Mrs. Brunella’s retirement in 2000, she rarely made new dolls, and usually only for very special occasions or personal requests.

More than two decades after retirement, Mrs. Brunella’s exquisite, hand-crafted work has not gone unnoticed—at the highly awarded annual Rougarou Festival coming back to Houma this October, Mrs. Brunella will be presented as the 2023 recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Tradition Bearer Award. This prestigious award is presented during Louisiana’s Folklife Month, where several citizens across the state of Louisiana are chosen in recognition of their efforts to continue perpetuating the state’s local customs and cultures. Folklife Month, and the Tradition Bearer Award, is a way for the state to celebrate the traditions that are so important to the identity of all Louisianians—and what better place to present Mrs. Brunella with this award than at the Rougarou Fest, a festival dedicated to the showcasing and preservation of bayou folklore. The Rougarou Fest is free and open to the public, and will run from October 20-22, 2023 at the South Louisiana Discovery Center and Barry P. Bonvillian Civic Center in Houma.

oint”I feel so deeply honored to be receiving this award,” said Mrs. Brunella. “I almost feel like I shouldn’t be the one getting it—I wish my mentor, Mrs. Thelma, and others who helped teach me how to keep this tradition alive could be here to accept the award with me. But it warms my heart to know I can accept this award in their memory and honor.”

In the light of this extraordinary recognition for her contributions to Louisiana culture, Mrs. Brunella expressed how fondly she looks back on her years as a doll maker. “It was such an incredibly rewarding thing to do,” Mrs. Brunella said, as she gestured to her personal collection of dozens of dolls in a variety of shapes and sizes. “I think a lot about how it felt to see the faces of those who came to our Magazin, or Lagniappe on the Bayou, and saw these dolls. Seeing people of all ages, from all over, smile at our work and even take a doll home with them was such a great feeling. Lots of people have never seen anything like them. It was a lot of work, and a lot of time, but just so completely rewarding.”