Lake Charles is on the east side of the Calcasieu River, and Westlake, of course, is on the west side. The Calcasieu River turns into the northwest corner of the lake. Before the river reaches the lake, there’s a bend on the river where it flows east to west, then it bends and goes south.
It was at that bend that Bagdad was located.
There was once a primary ferry crossing from Lake Charles at the end of what’s now Bagdad Road in Westlake.
Bagdad was home to Will Ousley, the self-proclaimed “Freak of Bagdad,” who was a master artist, poet, philosopher, humorist, musician, wood carver and a very interesting fellow. He was a man in love with life.
William C. Ousley was born April 28, 1866, in Marietta, Ga., to Thomas and Mollie Ousley. With a deed dated October, 21, 1871, Mollie O. Ousley turned over custody of her son, Will, to Matt Pitts and his wife.
Later, Willie came to be in the custody of Mr. and Mrs. A.K. Kingery, and came with them to the community of Bagdad in 1876. He remembered that the railroad didn’t come further west than Morgan City.
He and his family came to Bagdad by way of a covered wagon from New Iberia — a trip he said took them almost three days.
As a child, he began drawing and painting on anything he could get his hands on. He worked as a sign painter and paper hanger. Ousley said he received his instruction from Paul Sullivan of Sullivan and Castello. He also stated he went to New Orleans and worked under P.A. Wayne, a famous church painter, scene artist and decorator.
In 1890, his family sent Ousley to New Orleans to study under the noted German artist, Eraste Humbrecht. Humbrecht was the artist commissioned for the artwork in the historic St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square in New Orleans, including his mural “St. Louis and the Seventh Crusade,” which was painted in 1872 behind the altar. When Humbrecht retouched his mural, Ousley assisted him.
Humbrecht told Ousley, “You will be a great artist some day.” Perhaps Ousley was afraid to believe Humbrecht. At any rate, Ousley took to house painting and paper hanging when he left New Orleans.
‘A Natural Born Artist’
In a letter to the Lake Charles American Press printed on March, 22, 1929, Ousley stated, “I have been called a natural born artist all my life, but the only natural part is stickativeness and bulldog hangonitism.”
Ousley was noted for his exquisite paintings of the Calcasieu River and most notably the river’s West Fork. It’s been stated repeatedly and emphatically by scores of people that no one could quite capture the beauty of the swamp wetlands of Southern Louisiana as Ousley did. He was a master painter who frequently used squirrel’s tails as paintbrushes.
He produced more than 2,000 paintings in his life. More than 1,500 of them were of the Calcasieu River and more than 900 of the West Fork.
It’s said he wanted to restore the beauty that had disappeared because of the sawmills.
Ousley painted the West Fork in every season: winter, spring, summer and fall, in all colors and shades, at all times of the day, in daylight and by moonlight, capturing the beauty of the Calcasieu River and the West Fork as no one else has. A favorite spot featured in his works was a tree on the banks of the river known as “The Lone Tree” — a solitary old pecan tree on the river bank outside his back door.
One painting titled “The Old Tree at Ousley’s Landing at Bagdad, Louisiana” is an oil on board and is signed in the lower right, titled and dated 1931. Ousley stated that it was on this spot that he was baptized on May 10, 1880, by J.A. Terry, Baptist minister.
He received much of the inspiration for his works as he swung in the homemade hammock outside his house.
A writer for the Louisiana Tourists Bureau’s magazine, Knowing Louisiana, wrote this of Ousley after visiting with him during the 1930s at his Bagdad studio:
“In (Ousley), you will encounter a personality unlike any other you could meet on your farthest travels. As a philosopher and humorist, a lover of all mankind, you can be entertained for hours amidst a riotous collection of paintings, tubes, brushes, paint cans and papers on which are written some of his favorite poems. It is the character of the man himself — with all the wisdom and jest he has to impart — that makes his studio a tourist shrine.”
Painting With Bluing, Soot And Berry Juice
Ousley couldn’t remember exactly when he began to paint and draw. He just remembered he “never had money to buy paints and brushes.”
He said, “I’d take the bluing from the wash, the soot from the stove, berry juice, chalk — just anything that I could get, make my colors. For my brushes, I’d use the tails of squirrels. And they made good brushes, too!”
His studio was a small one, with one room across the front of the structure and two shed rooms with dirt floors leading off to each side. In the shed rooms, he stored discarded gear.
In the front room by the window was his easel. There were plenty of chairs for visitors. The floors were bare.
He worked there each day many hours, begrudging the time needed for eating and sleeping.
He always said that for him, painting was a hobby. It was a hobby that gained him some fame as well as financial security. The hobby ended up fulfilling his lifelong dream to do nothing but paint.
A painting of Ousley’s was entered in a Beaumont Fair and subsequently sent to the Sweeny Studios in New Orleans. Harry Rothschild purchased the painting and sent it to Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House, where it hangs today. Ousley received a thank you letter from Mrs. Roosevelt.
At least one painting by Ousley hangs in Buckingham Palace. Another hangs in the Executive Mansion in Baton Rouge, a gift from A.O. King, former senator of Louisiana.
Ousley stated in his letter to the Press that: “My paintings have now been seen from New York to California.”
Ousley’s youngest son, James, recalled in an article for Nola Mae Ross, “I remember people like (movie stars) Carmen Del Rio and W. C. Fields visiting him to see his paintings.” The son also recalled that his father was written up in Life Magazine and that many national magazines published his father’s poems. He also stated that a short movie was made about Ousley.
If you’re lucky enough to get a genuine Ousley, it’s pretty easy to determine whether it’s authentic. Most have a personal note about the story of the painting or an original poem by Ousley inscribed on the back in pencil. Here is part of a poem titled “The Heart of a Friend”:
“And when we reach the sunset of our life,
“And at last we come to the end,
“May our last thought be of the pleasures it brought,
“That we lived in the heart of a friend.”
Ousley died on June 3, 1953 at the age of 87.
I would have loved to have known this unique man who had such a love for life and living — the self-proclaimed “Freak of Bagdad.”