Herbert Singleton was an American bas-relief sculptor and painter based in New Orleans, Louisiana. His work documented the tribulations of life in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans.
Life and Career
Herbert Singleton was born the eldest of eight children on May 31, 1945, to Elizabeth and Herbert Singleton Sr. Singleton recalled that one day when he was ten years old, his father left the house to buy a pack of cigarettes and never returned. His mother supported the family on her single income working at a hospital. He attended school until the seventh grade, although other accounts claim the sixth grade. He worked most of his youth in a steel factory and as a bridge painter. He was arrested as a young adult for various narcotic crimes and spent thirteen years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary between 1967 and 1986. After his release, he began making little clay snake sculptures for the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans in 1970. Distraught by the fragility of unfired clay, Singleton switched his medium to wood and began carving long ax handles into walking sticks, primarily used as weapons. His customers were pimps, drug dealers, and horse-and-carriage drivers in the French Quarter. In fact, one carriage driver notoriously killed a robber during a mugging with one of Singleton’s sticks, and thus they became known as “Killer Sticks.
His later work was carved on doors and other solid woods found on the banks of the Mississippi River. It is estimated that Singleton completed over 200 works, although his earliest creations cannot be counted accurately. He lived the rest of his life in Algiers, a New Orleans neighborhood on the western bank of the Mississippi River. He died at the age of 62.
Subject and materials
Singleton used manual tools such as knives, chisels, and mallets to carve his pieces. Most of the wood he used he collected from the levees bordering Mississippi River. He often found oak and cypress doors and cabinets to work with. Reflecting on his artistic process, Singleton said, “When the river was low, I would find a plank of wood to carve. I would look at it and wonder if someone’s life fell apart.
He painted his reliefs and carvings with saturated enamel primary colors. His early carvings, “killer sticks,” and stools depict intricate scenes of violence, lynchings, drugs, dealing, prostitution, and other every-day scenes from the inner-city of New Orleans. His stylized, dramatic narratives come from personal experience living amidst violent crime, police brutality, and financial instability. In 1980 his sister and two friends were murdered by three white police officers searching for an African American person who shot another white officer. They took Singleton in for questioning, beat, and suffocated him for twelve hours. None of the officers were charged for the murders or cruel punishment.
The art historian and curator Alice Rae Yelen noted a shift in his subject matter mid-career. Once Singleton switched to doors and larger materials, He began to depict biblical scenes, local social situations, and autobiographical subjects. Broadly, Singleton’s subject matter can be categorized as either religious scenes, scenes from contemporary African American street life, or socio-political themes from local to international scope.