Sudduth, Jimmy Lee
Jimmy Lee Sudduth
Alabama artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth was one of the leading folk artists of the American South, but his death in 2007 at the age of ninety-seven marked another closing chapter in a remarkable discovery and resurgence of outsider art in twentieth-century America. Sometimes called "primitive" or "vernacular" art, outsider art refers to artists who are entirely untrained and largely removed from the history of and contemporary trends in the visual arts. "Sudduth's art often depicted everyday life in Alabama—portraits of houses, people, farm animals and his dog, Toto," wrote Margalit Fox in the artist's New York Times obituary. "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."
Born in 1910, Sudduth spent his entire life in northwest Alabama, with the exception of trips he took to New York and Washington, D.C., once he became well known. He was born on a farm near Caines Ridge, Alabama, and certain details of his background have been lost over time: He may have been born into a family named Wilson and adopted by the Sudduths as an infant. His adoptive parents worked as itinerant farmhands, and the family moved frequently as a result. He had just a few years of formal schooling as a youngster and was probably functionally illiterate, though he did sign his paintings later with a practiced hand, as "Jim Sudduth"; some sources cite his first name as "Jimmie."
Sudduth's adoptive mother was a folk remedy expert, and he went with her on her plant-gathering trips into the woods. It was there he first drew a picture on a tree stump using mud. When he and his mother returned to the woods a few days later, the image was still there, which she considered to be a divine message that her son should continue painting. He painted on tree stumps, plywood, old doors, or pieces of sheet metal, and he concocted his own paint by using mud with various ingredients, such as coffee grounds, crepe paper he had wetted and squeezed out, colored chalk, leftover house paint, brick dust, rose petals, pine needles, turnip greens, axle grease, chimney soot, elderberries, grass, tobacco, or egg yolk. Mud was an impermanent material, however, and early on Sudduth realized that he had to add other ingredients to lend his pigments some staying power. Sugar was the best, he discovered, but he also mixed his tinted muds with molasses, honey, sorghum syrup, or Coca-Cola.
Like most practitioners of outsider art, Sudduth worked with whatever materials were available to him; he applied his paints with a sponge only much later in life. His finger was the ideal brush, he was fond of saying. "I paint with my finger 'cause that's why I got it, and that brush don't wear out," Fox's New York Times obituary quoted him as saying. "When I die, the brush dies." For many years, his subject matter was relegated to images of his own world in northwestern Alabama: local landmarks, animals such as roosters and cows, a pot of flowers or a barn, and his beloved dog. Long a local fixture for his paintings as well as his harmonica playing, he had spent much of his life in humble jobs, including working in a grist mill and a lumberyard, and was "discovered" by the arts establishment when he was in his late fifties while working as a gardener for the director of the Fayette Art Museum.
The first exhibition of Sudduth's "sweet mud" paintings, as he called them, was held in 1968 at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, followed a few years later by a show at the Fayette Art Museum. National recognition came in 1976, when he was included in the annual Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution. "The popularity of vernacular art exploded in the 1980s, and Sudduth of Fayette in northwest Alabama was prominent among that wave of self-taught makers with original visions," wrote Howard Pousner in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His works were regularly included in group exhibitions of American outsider art, including the show Bearing Witness: African-American Vernacular Art of the South, held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in 1997, and Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South, which opened at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in 2000 and toured several cities.
Prices for Sudduth's paintings rose on the art market over the years, and some were sold for as much as $5,000. His works were also acquired by several major museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Susan Mitchell Crawley, a curator at the High Museum, wrote a book on him, The Life and Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth, in 2005. Interviewed by Pousner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Crawley extolled Sudduth's art, noting that "he reached the height of his powers in the 1980s when he was exploiting the texture of mud and the fluidity of paint; at the same time, his drawing, which was once very tight and precise, had become free and expressive. Although he's most famous for his use of mud and other natural materials, he is a gifted painter with remarkable formal skill. His work reveals a wide range of subject matter, amazing technical ingenuity, and a fine eye for color."
Sudduth had spent so many decades working in mud that he claimed to be able to recognize thirty-six different shades of dirt in Alabama soil alone; as his fame grew, fans sometimes sent him samples of dirt from around the country. In the early 1900s, with his health declining, Sudduth was no longer able to gather the plants he needed for his mud paint, and so he switched to acrylics, which he applied with a sponge. His last years were spent in a nursing home in Fayette, where he died on September 2, 2007.
At a Glance …
Born as Jimmy Lee Sudduth on March 10, 1910, in Caines Ridge, AL; died on September 2, 2007, in Fayette, AL; son of itinerant farm hands; widowed in 1941; later married Ethel Palmore.
Career: Worked in a lumberyard and grist mill, and later as a gardener; self-taught artist; first exhibition of his works held at Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, AL, 1968; invited to participate in the Festival of American Folklife, Smithsonian Institution, 1976; group exhibitions include Bearing Witness: African-American Vernacular Art of the South, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City, 1997, and Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, 2000.
Crawley, Susan Mitchell, The Life and Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2005.
Art in America, July 2003.
Arts & Activities, September 2004.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 13, 2006; September 9, 2007.
Boston Herald, February 14, 1997.
New York Times, February 14, 1997; June 29, 2003; April 4, 2004; May 13, 2005; September 9, 2007.
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