Remembering Sarah Albritton

SARAH ALBRITTON

Ruston Daily Leader

 

She won her way into Ruston’s heart with her culinary skills before later wowing the area again with her shining and varied artistic abilities.

But that shining light was dimmed late Wednesday night as Sarah Albritton passed away in a Monroe hospital at the age of 84.

Born in Arcadia, Sarah Mae Drayton moved to Ruston with her mother as an infant, spending a childhood shuttling back and forth from her mother to her relatives on small farms in the country, where she learned about farm life.

As she was growing up, she became known as one of the most talented cooks around Ruston, working from three to eight hours per day, often the evening shift after school in jobs at a number of local restaurants. Her first real job was washing dishes at the Tech Hitching Post Restaurant, where she learned short-order cooking from George Heard. She said she had to stand on a pair of Coke cases to reach the stove, yet still became so good at the j ob that by age 12 she had been named head cook.

For the next few years she worked at a number of other restaurants, with many jobs running simultaneously, working at various times in Ruston at the College Café, Tech Rendezvous, the Olympia, the Anderson Donut Shop, Naff’s Cafeteria, and the Post Office Café.

“I first met Sarah at Lincoln High School,” said Wilbert Ellis, a Ruston native who later went on to a College Baseball Hall of Fame coaching career at Grambling State University, where he was also a longtime associate athletic director. “She was an outstanding athlete in high school. She could play softball and basketball — she was as tough and talented as any of the guys out there playing.”

In 1954, Albritton married Robert Albritton, of Ruston, and together they had three children — Jacqueline, Daphne, and Lewendoski, while also raising six of her uncle’s children. By 1969, Albritton was working as a nutritional aid for the Louisiana State University Cooperative Extension Service, working with low-income families, teaching them about nutrition, money management, and budgeting.

Albritton’s abilities in traditional Southern cooking and farming earned her invitations to demonstrate her cooking at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans, the 1985 Smithsonian Festival of American Folk life in Washington, D. C., the 1985-1998 Louisiana Folk life Festivals, the National Black Arts Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as numerous regional festivals.

Those experiences encouraged her to open her own restaurant, Sarah’s Kitchen, located as part of her home on Lee Street just north of Ruston High School’s football stadium, in September 1987.

In 12 years of operation, Sarah’s Kitchen received extensive publicity with feature articles in north Louisiana newspapers including the Ruston Daily Leader, urban newspapers such as the Atlanta Tribune and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as well as regional magazines including Louisiana Life and Southern Living. Albritton’s television and film appearances range from KNOE’s “Good Morning Ark-La-Miss” and Louis Redden’s “Backroads” to Louisiana Public Broadcasting Chef John Folse’s “A Taste of Louisiana” and a documentary produced in France, “Good Things of America.”

That kind of popularity led to her selection for a 1993 area arts council “Celebrity Paint Off” fundraiser, which provided each celebrity with six acrylic paints and a canvas to produce a painting for auction, kicking off her career in high-profile fashion.

Albritton had always expressed herself in a variety of artistic modes: food preparation, restaurant decor, yard art, Christmas decorations, autobiographical prose and poetry. But the “Celebrity Paint Off” opened a big new door for her to showcase her artistic abilities.

“After the competition was over, Sarah asked if she could take some of the art supplies she hadn’t used home with her,” said Susan Roach, folklorist and director of Louisiana Tech.

At first, Roach said that Albritton used drawing and watercolor papers, canvas boards, and stretched canvases from art supply stores, but that she also loved unconventional surfaces and textures like molded door panels, screens, cypress knees, pottery, and jelly jar lids.

“About a month after taking those initial art supplies home, Sarah called me and said, ‘Susan, I want to show you something,” Roach said. “She had done all of these paintings with this incredible action and dynamic colors. They were beautiful, but also featured stark realism. Not all of them were what would be called happy paintings. Sarah lived a tough and hard life growing up, and painting was a way for her to show her childhood stories. They showed happy children swimming in polluted streams, and there were both angels and lightning in her skies.”

Those early paintings, often based on her childhood as a young Black girl growing up in rural north Louisiana, led to Albritton’s first exhibition at Louisiana Tech University in March of 1996, and a feature article in the fall 1996 edition of Louisiana Cultural Vistas.

It eventually led to a statewide traveling exhibition and catalog produced by Roach titled “On My Way: the Arts of Sarah Albritton.” Her first exhibit prices ranged from $650 to $1,200 before later falling into line with the mainstream art market as opposed to the typically lower-priced self-taught market.

Popular area athletic figures like Ellis, Bert Jones and Doug Williams were frequent visitors to Sarah’s Kitchen, and former Grambling State football coach Rod Broadway bought a number of her paintings over the years.

“Coach Broadway is an art collector who has paintings from all kinds of famous artists,” Ellis said. “He bought a number of her paintings and was a definite fan of hers. Sarah had a lot going on and really made a name for herself. Everyone ate at Sarah’s. But then with her paintings, she helped put Ruston on a national map.”

Albritton retired from the restaurant business in 1999 for health reasons but never put down her paint brush.

“She was still painting and telling her stories,” Roach said. “She wrote folk stories and poetry, too. She had a way with words just as she did painting. I remember being at an exhibit in The Presbytere in New Orleans. She was showing her paintings but also telling stories about them and her life as a child. She had ladies in the audience in absolute tears. She lived the way she painted. She was a dynamic person, almost larger than life, and the way she expressed herself, and this region and what it’s like growing up here, really touched people’s hearts.”

And the touch she had is probably still needed now as much as ever.

“She was something else, something special,” Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker said of Albritton. “She was known for her fellowship, and her conversation given with a lot of experience. She had the kind of wisdom and experience that’s so needed with everything going on these days. It’s a big loss. She was a bridge for our community. She brought people together and everyone loved her. That’s what she’ll most be remembered for.”