EILEEN WEST GALLERY
CONTEMPORARY AND OUTSIDER ART
Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Folk Artist 1910-2007
Joe Oliveira/Tuscaloosa News, via Associated Press
Lee Sudduth in 2001, at an exhibition of his work at Shelton State
Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala
"Purple House" circa 1999
16" x 16 " House Paint on Wood Panel. $ 750.
Lee Sudduth, an African-American folk artist whose evocative, textured
paintings made partly from Alabama mud were prized by collectors around
the world, died in Fayette, AL where he was born. He was 97 and had
lived in a Fayette nursing home in recent years.
self-taught artist who began painting as a very small child, Mr. Sudduth
was renowned for the effects he could produce with his own homemade
paint, which consisted of mud blended with a variety of common substances
— soot, axle grease, sugar, coffee grounds and much else — to lend
it color and texture.
and worked with his fingers, the mud assumed contour, line and form.
Painted on scrap lumber, sheet metal and most commonly on plywood,
Mr. Sudduth’s art often depicted everyday life in Alabama — portraits
of houses, people, farm animals and his dog, Toto. But it also ranged
over the architecture of faraway places, as in his paintings of Washington
landmarks and his geometric scenes of New York City skyscrapers.
exhibited formally in the late 1960s, Mr. Sudduth’s work gained wide
popularity during the folk art boom of the 1980s. Today his paintings
sell for anywhere from several hundred dollars to $5,000, said Susan
Mitchell Crawley, the associate curator of folk art at the High Museum
art is in the permanent collections of the Museum
of American Folk Art in New York, the Smithsonian
Institution, the High Museum of Art and
the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. It was the subject of a book,
“The Life and Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth” (Montgomery Museum of Fine
Arts, 2005), by Ms. Crawley.
in The New York Times in 1997, Michael Kimmelman reviewed an exhibition
at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture that included
Mr. Sudduth’s paintings. He described them as “pictures of improbable
chalky luminosity and understated bliss.”
Lee Sudduth was born in Caines Ridge, Ala., on March 10, 1910. (His
first name was sometimes spelled Jimmie.) The details of his early
life are hazy: he was believed to have been born to a family named
Wilson and adopted by the Sudduth family when he was very young, Ms.
Crawley said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Sudduths moved around a great deal — both of Jimmy’s adoptive parents
were itinerant farmhands — and his formal education appears to have
ended sometime in elementary school. As an adult, Mr. Sudduth could
neither read nor write, Ms. Crawley said.
Sudduth’s adoptive mother was also a medicine woman, and as a toddler,
he accompanied her into the woods to gather plants. On one of those
trips, he drew a picture in mud on a tree stump. When he and his mother
returned to the spot a few days later, the picture was still there.
She took this as a sign that her son must keep painting, Ms. Crawley
an adult, Mr. Sudduth did a variety of jobs, including working in
a grist mill, in a lumberyard and as a gardener. He continued to paint
in mud, but there was a problem: once dry, the mud flaked off the
plywood. Realizing he needed to add something to give the mud staying
power, he found that viscous substances like molasses, honey, Coca-Cola
and sorghum worked well. So did ordinary sugar. “Sweet mud,” Mr. Sudduth
called the result.
Mr. Sudduth’s wife, Ethel, wondered where all the household sugar
was disappearing to.
the years Mr. Sudduth became a connoisseur of dirt; he liked to say
that he could locate mud in 36 different shades. Once he became famous,
people sent him dirt through the mail, Ms. Crawley said.
expand his palette further, Mr. Sudduth colored his work with an astonishing
array of available ingredients, either by mixing them into the mud
or rubbing them directly onto his wooden canvas. They included flour,
coffee grounds, instant coffee, dye wrung from sodden red crepe paper,
ground brick, ground charcoal, colored chalk, crushed coal, turnip
greens, flower petals, pokeweed berries, ivy, soot, axle grease, elderberries,
crushed green tree buds, boiled jimson weed, sap, walnut shells, burnt
matchsticks, tobacco, egg yolk, grass and leftover house paint donated
only drawback to these recipes was that some of the finished paintings
were supremely attractive to mice, which ate holes in them. In later
years, when advancing age made it hard for Mr. Sudduth collect mud,
he switched to painting in acrylics.
Sudduth’s first wife died in 1941; his second wife, the former Ethel
Palmore, died in 1992. Information on other survivors could not immediately
prolific artist who could finish a half-dozen pictures or more in
a day, Mr. Sudduth was sometimes asked why he never used a paintbrush.
with my finger ’cause that’s why I got it, and that brush don’t wear
out," he said in an interview quoted in the catalog of one of
his exhibitions. “When I die, the brush dies.”
Lee Sudduth was born March 10, 1910 in the community of Caines Ridge
near Fayette, Alabama, the son of a man named Wilson but was adopted
by the itinerant field hands Alex and Balzola Sudduth. Years later
Sudduth told of following his mother into the fields and woods as
she gathered plants with which to make herbal medicines. There he
learned about natural substances and began to draw with dirt on trees
and stumps. As an adult, he searched for a binder to make his mud
paint stick; the breakthrough came when he saw syrup splash onto the
ground and then onto a tree - and stay there. Working at various manual
jobs during the day, Sudduth painted at night using house paint; plant
juices; and mud of different colours bound with sugar, syrup, molasses,
or Coca-Cola. He also coloured his paintings with virtually any substance
that came to hand. He gained attention in the late 1960s with a series
of local exhibitions followed by appearances at the Smithsonian Institution's
Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife and the Today show. Since
then he has received state arts awards and has appeared in dozens
of solo and group exhibitions and thousands of private and public
collections. Sudduth painted well into his nineties, appearing at
his last beloved Kentuck Festival of the Arts in October, 2005.
prolific painter, Sudduth produced most of his finest work during
the 1970s and 1980s. His best paintings boast surfaces of subtle colour
and rough, rich texture. Their meaning is occasionally spiritual,
but more often they glorify his visual surroundings, featuring big
machines; still lifes; the likenesses of friends, celebrities, and
himself; architectural renditions that displayed a sure command of
one-point perspective; and animals - especially depictions of the
series of dogs he named Toto.
Susan Mitchell Crawley
"Squirrel" circa 1999
16" x 16 " House Paint on Wood Panel. $ 550.
Custom Framed. Natural Wood
"Friends" circa 1999
18" x 26" House Paint & Mud on Wood Panel $650.
Dimensions and Price soon
For more information please contact the gallery.
850.502.1847 / 850.225.3024