Sarah Albritton was a self-taught artist and restauranteur from Ruston.
Sarah Mae Drayton Albritton, a self-taught African American artist based in Ruston, Louisiana, painted stories drawn from her life in the state’s north central hill country, along with visionary symbolic representations of her Christian beliefs. She was also known for her storytelling and culinary arts through her foodways and narrative presentations at state and national folklife festivals, and for her Ruston restaurant, Sarah’s Kitchen. Albritton’s narrative paintings represent childhood difficulties and escapades; religious traditions and beliefs concerning judgment day, heaven, hell, and angels; and depictions of contemporary events.
Early Life and Cooking Career
Soon after Albritton’s birth on February 6, 1936, in Arcadia, her single mother, Golden Drayton, moved to nearby Ruston, where she worked to support her daughters, whom she often sent to relatives on small farms in rural Mt. Harmony, a frequent setting for Albritton’s paintings. For most of her childhood, Albritton lived with her mother and abusive stepfather in Ruston in neighborhoods of small, closely packed, white-owned rental shotgun houses—a common motif in her work. She worked after school as a short-order cook at age nine and advanced to head cook at twelve. Soon she had her own house, and while continuing to cook, she graduated from Lincoln High School in Ruston.
In 1954 she married Robert Albritton; they had three children—Jacqueline, Daphne, and Lewen—and raised other relatives’ children as well. She received religious training through the American Theological Seminary, a Ruston extension of a Nashville Baptist Bible school. Albritton operated a canning business from her home and served as a nutritional aide for the Louisiana State University Cooperative Service, where she created visual aids that were precursors of her paintings. An avid gardener, she helped start a farmers’ market in Ruston. After four years of performing as a cook and storyteller at folklife festivals, she opened her restaurant, Sarah’s Kitchen, in 1987. It became widely known for traditional southern cooking with “no cans or boxes.”
Visual Arts Career
By 1993 Sarah’s Kitchen had attained regional popularity, garnering an article in Southern Living and a television appearance with Chef John Folse. This led to Albritton’s participation in a “Celebrity Paint Off” fund-raiser, where well-known community figures produced paintings for auction. Inspired by this event, she began painting her childhood stories, many of which she had recorded in an unpublished prose memoir, Poor Black Girl. This painting series resulted in her first exhibition at Louisiana Tech University in March 1996, and a cover story in Louisiana Cultural Vistas (precursor of 64 Parishes magazine) that same year.
A major touring exhibition and catalog, On My Way: The Arts of Sarah Albritton, followed in 1998 at the Masur Museum in Monroe, Louisiana. The exhibition traveled through 2000 to the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge; the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytère in New Orleans; the African American Museum in Dallas, Texas; and the Meadows Museum at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana. Until she closed Sarah’s Kitchen in February 1999 due to heart bypass surgery, Albritton painted in the corner of the restaurant on a table easel or in her lap. Later in life she painted at a table in her home kitchen or living room. She managed most of her own sales, though she was represented by Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans for a solo 2002 exhibition.
Albritton called her artistic talent a “God-given gift,” as she had no specialized artistic schooling. As an adult, she took a brief continuing education drawing course through Louisiana Tech University, where she did “pencil drawings in a realistic style and abstracts.” Showing little interest in traditional perspective, Albritton’s landscapes feature a bird’s-eye view with groups of figures engaged in elaborately detailed activities. Her favorite paints were vivid acrylics meticulously applied on canvas board, watercolor paper, or even Masonite door panels and cypress knees. As her work evolved, Albritton built up elements in relief by thickening her paint and adding cigarette tobacco or modeling paste.
Themes and Subjects
The subjects and themes of Albritton’s primarily autobiographical art echo her lifelong concerns—poverty, abuse, racism, work, food, and religion. Many paintings, including Neighbors Picking Cotton (1998) and Lonely Road (1997–1998), depict expansive landscapes with dramatic daytime or nighttime skies, reflecting the turmoil in her life. In the midst of these landscapes, the small figure of a girl in her blue skirt struggles to make her way, searching for food, love, and fun. This recurring figure scrambles hard, whether for a blue skirt, candy, or burial money. Food themes abound: the hungry child’s deprivation and pursuit of food in town, her delight in the bounty on the farm, and the cook’s empowerment through her restaurant. Albritton’s works express religious concerns, such as the final judgment’s retribution in works such as Hell (1996) and Payday (1998). She tells stories of sharecropping and yeoman farmers like her Uncle Clem, and small-town racial relations, segregation, and integration. Her oral narratives recorded and transcribed for her exhibition reveal her paintings’ complex, powerful stories. Her painting Mama, Don’t Send Me Away (1995) tells a story of a rejected child:
“I was five years old, and Mother decided that she couldn’t take care of us anymore; she only made three dollars a week. . . . And she said she was going to send us out in the country to live with our cousins. . . . She put me on the truck, and I got off the truck and ran back to her crying because I didn’t want to go. . . . But Mother did put me back on the truck, and I went out to Uncle Mann’s. . . I stayed out there three days, ate all I wanted to eat, and got full, and I hollered and hollered, and they brought me back home.”
Like her predecessor by fifty years, Clementine Hunter, Albritton painted her regional landscape and cultural rituals. Other commonalities between these women include the ages at which they began painting, their traditional rural subject matter, their painting habits, and their interactions with artists of all disciplines, but the specificity and drama of Albritton’s paintings set her apart from Hunter. Albritton’s more political works are informed by contemporary issues and televised events, ranging from Hurricane Katrina to 9/11 and the war on terrorism. Ultimately though, her ever-present angels—the common motif in all her works—reflect her abiding faith and conviction.
Sarah Albritton died on November 19, 2020, at Glenwood Regional Medical Center in West Monroe, Louisiana. She was 84.