Garden & Gun


HER NAME WAS Cora Kelley Ward, and they’d arranged her paintings in piles on the floor of a loading bay. At the start of the sale there had been around eight hundred works to choose from. Now, four days later, there were fewer than three hundred left, and the price for a canvas had been reduced to a dollar a square foot, down from two dollars.

I looked out at the bizarre scene and did the math. For $54 I could buy a painting big enough to cover the better part of my living room wall. Dinner last night had cost more than that.

It was May 9, 2012, at the Hilliard Art Museum on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I wasn’t sure about the giant pictures of what looked like Easter eggs, but I did like the colorful action painting displayed at checkout. Gobs of blue and salmon floated on its surface, each form carved with a loose black line. The painting was a classic example of mid-1950s abstract expressionism.

“Any more like this?” I asked a museum worker.

“Too late,” she answered and gave her head a shake.

I didn’t need more art—my wife and I already owned hundreds of paintings, many of them stored in closets and under beds—but my friend Tim Miller had pestered me with calls until I made the two-hour drive from my home near New Orleans. Tim and his wife, Dana, are longtime collectors of Southern art. “I’m thinking about buying everything that’s left,” he said. “I should have enough in my checking account.”

The artist had experimented with different styles over her career, and the sale still had examples from her geometric, color-field, and pour periods. Cora Kelley Ward had died from cancer in 1989, and her family stored the collection for twenty years before donating it to the Hilliard.

“Incredible, huh?” Tim said. He was picking over watercolors on a folding table, each priced at fifty cents.

“It’s nuts,” I told him.

Born in 1920, Ward grew up in and around Eunice in the state’s Cajun country. There are plenty of rice and crawfish farms in that part of

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