Hank Prats was an extraordinary contemporary artist who was born in 1957 in Alexandria, and spent most of his adult life living and working here in Cenla. Some of his greatest and most creative works are about the people and places that made up his experiences during his time at this place he called home. He loved the natural purity and simplicity of Central Louisiana. The nearby woods and swamps off of Twin Bridges Road and Bayou Rapides were his favorite places to explore and investigate. While living here, he created a remarkable legacy of paintings about our area and its people that are unparalleled in their storytelling ability and sheer artistic genius.
In many ways, his life and talent are strikingly reminiscent of the Dutch painter Van Gogh. Like Van Gogh, Hank was an artist who lived in conflict with his time. Hank said in an essay on his approach to art: “I had a rather turbulent and sometimes tenuous existence, and the images seen in my paintings are those of the overflow of violent emotion—both good and bad—ranging the full spectrum of intense human feeling.”
Like Van Gogh, he never really experienced much commercial success during his lifetime. He was mainly able to get by with the help of family and friends. Also like Van Gogh, Hank would die at an all-too-early age from a hard and desperate life. Yet, when writing about his paintings, he said the following: “Whatever images manifest themselves upon the canvas underlying the whole endeavor and indeed my reason for being is the love of beauty and life.”
In spite of his struggles, Hank managed to produce a great deal of incredible work during his lifetime. We are fortunate that much of his very best work was done here in Central Louisiana. Paintings shown on these pages such as “Self Portrait”, “The Bootleggers”, “The Swamp Scene” and “ The Collision” show an artist at the height of his skills. In November of 1985, Hank said about “The Bootleggers”: “The stream is specifically Bayou Rapides, the jets are from England Air Force Base and the man with a gun is from the wooded regions of Gardner, Louisiana. In spite of its disturbing qualities, this is a very pleasing picture. Some are affronted by the extreme use of pure color, but the complexity of the composition should lead the viewer on an imaginary journey into the past and present of the interior of my beloved and unique Central Louisiana, U.S.A., planet earth, Sol.”
Hank painted the “Swamp Scene” in a period while he was living with his sister in a rural part of the parish. In December of 1985, he would write of this painting: “So I flew back or fell back softly to the farthest recess from the city I had known. This was Otis, La. My youngest sister invited me to live with her and her betrothed, and thus I did. It was cool. Recollections of a marvelous Tom Sawyer youth were revived. This painting is unique in conveying a tranquility I fear is forever lost now in my life. Serene greens and tranquil blues predominate with enough warm tones to render the scene soothing. Ah the swamp; so ancient; so primeval.”
In “The Collision”, Hank paints one of his more epic works about Central Louisiana. This painting is one of two works where he uses life along Jackson Street as a primary setting for his story. At the center of this scene, he depicts teenagers in their vehicles known as the ‘Jackson Street Cruisers’ who would dominate the street on Friday and Saturday nights. Of this painting he writes: “In the abstract forms and colors are messages beyond the scope of verbal or literal language. These subliminal messages are the personal connection and response to the work. What it means to you may not mean what I thought it means to me. But it is valid and true; and you cannot escape it. Love it or hate it; I don’t care. React. Your destiny is revealed.”
I miss Hank. He was a great friend and mentor. From the time we met in Mr. Stevens’ art class in 1969 at Brame Jr. High until Hank’s untimely death in 1998, he and I would be close friends. Even at the age of twelve, Hank was already artistically performing at a much higher level than the rest of us. While we were kids only beginning to learn to draw and paint, Hank had already mastered those skills and had moved onto more advanced artistic expressions and deeper subject matter. Hank Prats was an immensely talented and wonderful artist who, for the most part, developed his incredible gift while living here in Central Louisiana. We were lucky to have him among us.
You can now see examples of Hank’s art work at the recently opened Gallery Louisiane, located in the 28 West Center off of Coliseum Boulevard in Alexandria. For the first time in over 30 years, this fascinating artist’s work is on public display in Central Louisiana for all to see. Over the next few weeks and months, some of his best works such as “Swamp Scene”, “The Collision”, “Shipley Do-Nuts” and “The Bootleggers” will be available for viewing at the gallery. You can also see these artworks online at www.gallerylouisiane.com.