Arts & Culture

She’s traveled the world and lived in her car. Now an artist finds a home on St. Helena

Dyeing silk with rust? St. Helena artist finds creative ways to boost sustainability

Monique de LaTour has traveled the world and learned many different art forms along the way. One of her biggest goals is to teach others not just art, but sustainability. Here's a little bit about her — including how she dyes silk using rust.
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Monique de LaTour has traveled the world and learned many different art forms along the way. One of her biggest goals is to teach others not just art, but sustainability. Here's a little bit about her — including how she dyes silk using rust.

A lot can be lost in the bustle of a working Lowcountry dock.

Machines whir.

Fish and shrimp are offloaded, cleaned, sorted and loaded on refrigerated box trucks in Beaufort.

Everyone is focused on their purpose.

Monique de LaTour had dropped by the docks at Sea Eagle Market on St. Helena Island before and offered to help out. Then recently she saw an opportunity in something others didn’t — in unused oyster bags with the company’s logo.

She pitched an idea to owner Craig Reaves and was soon cutting and sewing the bags into reusable bags for display in the Sea Eagle store in Beaufort, just in time for a countywide ban on single-use plastic bags.

She earned $9 for each bag, representing an hour’s work in each. The money was her first in weeks.

De LaTour sleeps on a bright blue bus on her property off Sea Island Parkway not far from the private docks while waiting to renovate a small building on the land into her home. She plans to eventually transform the bus into a mobile community education center to share her knowledge of art and textiles, tennis and swimming.

Her journey to this place includes her native New Zealand, Jamaica, Australia, New York City and a relationship with musician and writer Gil Scott-Heron.

She saved for two years while living in her car in North Carolina to afford the land where she now lives. This is where the 54-year-old artist wants to be.

“So few people get that feeling of actual freedom,” she said. “And I feel free.”

Growing a game

De LaTour and her twin sister were born in New Zealand, one of two sets of twins and five girls then under 6 years old born to a single mother.

She was a nationally ranked junior tennis player in her native country but quit the game and dropped out of high school after a tennis coach tried to molest her when she was 14, she said. The incident led to a spiral that included placement in a juvenile home.

She’s used her background in the sport to volunteer with tennis programs in New York, North Carolina and now Beaufort County.

In North Carolina, de LaTour taught at a charter school and volunteered at a city pool, painting a mural that told the story of African American history in swimming.

She taught tennis for a local tennis club and designed custom “Dirty South Tennis” T-shirts she thought would appeal to the teens.

She remains in touch with her students. One of them went on to practice with the tennis team at Howard University.

Now De LaTour volunteers, helping coach a junior tennis team on the courts at Beaufort High School and has plans to grow the sport in her adopted community.

A T-shirt designed by St. Helena Island artist Monique de LaTour when she worked with a youth tennis program in North Carolina. De LaTour now volunteers coaching tennis in Beaufort County. Monique de LaTour Submitted

Two public tennis courts exist at separate parks on St. Helena. A recent community event at Penn Center sought to share the sport with area children and a local program hopes to generate enough interest on the island to eventually convince recreation officials to build more courts.

“That’s our goal,” said Wayne Lilley, who is president of Public Tennis Inc., a Beaufort County community organization that advocates and plans for building and improving public tennis facilities. “And I know that’s Monique’s goal.”

Healing words

Without a high school degree and supporting her two young children as a young woman in Australia, de LaTour earned admittance to Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on the strength of her art portfolio.

She chose to focus on textiles, baffling admissions officials who thought her talent was in print.

Weaving was a refuge when things were hectic at home, she replied.

De LaTour first heard Gil Scott-Heron on a boombox at a protest March in New Zealand. When he performed in Australia in 1995, she convinced his manager to show him some of her textile designs inspired by his music.

Scott-Heron — a poet, novelist, songwriter and performer whose song “Winter in America” was an anthem for many — was intrigued, and the pair remained in touch. Scott-Heron later asked de LaTour to design his book covers.

She later moved to New York with the help of a cash prize from an art competition and lived with Scott-Heron for three years as his girlfriend before they split over his addiction to cocaine. Scott-Heron wrote constantly and talked of ideas he had for various projects that could include de LaTour’s art, she said.

De LaTour documented the relationship with thousands of photographs snapped at Scott-Heron’s request because of the paranoia caused by his drug use, she said. She is in the process of converting all of the negatives to digital images at the St. Helena library.

MD_Gil Monique 4.jpg
Monique de LaTour submitted a photo of herself with her ex-boyfriend, famous writer and musician Gil Scott Heron. Submitted

She cooperated with filmmakers working to tell Scott-Heron’s story in an upcoming documentary and plans to eventually publish a book of the photos.

The money from the ventures could help restore her house.

It was Scott-Heron who introduced de LaTour to the Sea Islands of South Carolina by having her watch the groundbreaking film “Daughters of the Dust,” she said.

She believes his music remains relevant.

“He had a vision for a better America and better world,” she said. “This country needs to be healed, and he had healing words.”

Drawn to St. Helena

Amidst the bustle of Sea Eagle Market at Village Creek, the white unused oyster bags called to de LaTour.

She had wandered down to the docks from her property less than a mile a way, introduced herself and asked for ways to help.

“That’s kind of how it is sometimes — we don’t know strangers and strangers don’t stay strangers long,” said Sea Eagle Market’s Craig Reaves. “They become part of the family.”

“Have you thought about what you’re going to do when plastic bags are banned?” de LaTour asked Reaves at one point.

He had planned to move to paper bags like everyone else.

De LaTour suggested re-purposing the oyster bags, which were already adorned with the Sea Eagle name and phone number. She told Reaves she could produce each bag for $9, and they settled on an initial batch of 20.

She stitches with a small portable sewing machine that isn’t ideal. But it fit in the back of her bike crate on trips to the St. Helena library for electricity before someone gave her a vehicle, a gold Nissan Pathfinder, for free.

With a more efficient machine the bag process might go more quickly and the price drop. Reaves is selling them for $14.99, but that could eventually come down a few bucks.

De LaTour doesn’t want the bags to become a job. She told Reaves as much, offering to teach the women who work at the docks how to produce them.

De LaTour visited St. Helena for the first time for a Gullah Geechee Sea Island Coalition conference. She slept in a hammock on an oceanfront campsite at Hunting Island.

She kept returning, drawn by the place that reminded her of Jamaica. It had the same sense of community, she said.

Local fishermen have taught her to fish, and she casts for whiting or sheepshead. Other times, they stop by her property after a day on the water to drop off extra fish or crabs.

Someone taught her to throw a cast net, and she practiced by slinging the net onto her road. One evening she waited on everyone else to leave the dock — embarrassed for them to watch her first attempts.

At a St. Helena coffee shop recently, she thumbed through her phone to find the video of what happened next.

On her second throw, the net opened as it should and de LaTour pulled a school of mullet from the creek.

She didn’t know what she had caught.

Future in fabric

De LaTour’s property on St. Helena shows a commitment to reusing material.

A load of wood pallets from Reaves will become a perimeter fence.

Haint blue wood from a former general store on St. Helena will be incorporated into her future home.

Old shrimp nets are destined to cover custom furniture.

From the shelter of her building, de LaTour has painted signs promoting the tennis programs and others for Gullah Geechee tours. She has sewn dolls, dyed T-shirts and silk cloths and planted indigo.

Fabric is her preferred material.

Sea Island Textiles is what she is building here. She registered the name and spends days in the library developing a website where she can sell her art.

A loom is stashed on her property. She can see what she wants her house to become, a place her grandchildren can visit, with ornate wood carved doors, and a large screen porch where she can weave in peace.

“I always look sort of look a year ahead and a year behind — ‘Where was I a year ago and where am I this year? Am I where I was trying to be?” De LaTour said.

“And I’m absolutely where I was trying to be.”