In folk art, it isn't uncommon for artists to begin their creative careers already well into their lives, after, or in addition to, a more practical one. That isn't the case for Jimmy Lee Sudduth, though. By the time he died in 2007, he had accumulated some nine decades of work in his craft—a feat only possible because he started young and lived long.
Born in 1910, Sudduth grew up accompanying his adoptive mother, a medicine woman, on forays into the woods surrounding their Caines Ridge, Alabama farm. They were in search of medicinal plants, but what Jimmy Lee found seems an awful lot like fate. At the age of three, while on one of these trips, he dipped his fingers in mud and drew his first picture on the stump of a recently cut tree. When he returned a few days later, the picture was still there, and his mother, seeing in this a good omen, encouraged her son to continue painting.
Soon the walls of their small home, as well as the surrounding trees, all bore images done in what would become his signature medium, a mixture he called "sweet mud." Finding that mud mixed from dirt and water tended to flake off after only a few days, he set about looking for additives that would give his paint more staying power. At nine, he discovered that syrup mixed into the mud produced the desired effect. Later, he experimented with other sweeteners, sometimes adding honey, white sugar, or Coca-Cola.
With the 30s came the Great Depression, and Sudduth was forced to turn his focus to pursuits with a more reliable income. He found employment in a grist mill, a lumberyard, and as a gardener, but he never lost his desire to create; by this time, it had become something of a compulsion. Sudduth himself pointed to his discovery of "sweet mud" as the beginning of his true artistic endeavors.
"That's where I got started. I wanted to make things after that. I had to make something. I got to where I couldn't sleep."
Make something, he did. Reportedly able to finish several paintings in a day, Sudduth took as his subjects images from his daily life—his dog, Toto, friends and neighbors, nature, machinery, and, as his growing fame took him ever further from home, cityscapes of places like Birmingham, Washington D.C., and New York. The rate at which he produced work was perhaps aided by a lack of need to spend time and resources acquiring materials. He preferred plywood over traditional canvas, his fingers over brushes, and "sweet mud" over paint. And he had no need for store-bought paint. As he tells it in an interview with Souls Grown Deep :
"It was all there in the ground, every color of dirt and mud. I got twenty-three colors of dirt in my own yard. Walnut hulls and coffee grounds do good, too. Purple and red in the berries. Blackberries, pokeberries. Mash them with a stick. Soot, you can burn something, a heap of things, and get black…Grass, weeds, turnip greens, pine needles can make green. Flour or plaster or chalk give you white. Don’t use salt; salt will take the mud away."
The mud he found in the ground has made Sudduth and his art beloved far beyond his small hometown. His life has been chronicled in the book The Life and Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, the High Museum of Art, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts all count pieces of his work among their permanent collections.
But some of his biggest fans can still be found back in Alabama. A staple at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, he sold his paintings under the same pine tree every year, and his audience knew just where to find him. His paintings often sold out within hours of his arrival. Proud of his accomplishments, Sudduth once said, "I'm easy to find. I'm the center of the universe!" And for many at Kentuck, he was.
Scroll through the gallery below to see a few images of Jimmy at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts:
(courtesy of Kentuck's Archives; varied years)
Inspired by recent programming at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, beginning June 5th Kentuck Art Center is dedicating ten days of online content to the Black artists in our Permanent Collection. While Kentuck Art Center cannot address the full complexity of systemic racism on our own, we can gain perspective and a sense of purpose by listening to the voices of artists we are proud to have in our collection.
Kentuck's Permanent Collection holds artworks of significance to Kentuck's history, as well as the American Folk Art movement. The objects collected by Kentuck physically document the narrative of American Folk Art, as well as Kentuck's Festival, Studio, and Exhibiting artists. The objects in Kentuck's Permanent Collection form a history that is the basis for research, exhibition, interpretation, and community engagement.