Profile: Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910-2007)

Jimmy Lee Sudduth was a prominent artist and blues musician from Fayette, Alabama (United States).

Biography

Early life

Jimmy Lee Sudduth was born on March 10, 1910. He was raised on a farm at Caines Ridge, near Fayette, Alabama. He began making art as a child, surrounding the porch of his parents’ house with hand-carved wooden dolls and drawing in the dirt or on tree trunks outside. As his talents became known in the community he began collecting pigments from earth, rocks plants, foodstuffs, and industrial products for use in his finger paintings. He used his fingers because “they never wore out.” His numerous works were typically executed on found surfaces such as plywood, doors, and boards from demolished buildings. He experimented with mixing his pigments with various binders to make them adhere better, including syrup, sugar, soft drinks, and caulk.

Career

His first public art exhibition was held in 1968 at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. A 1971 exhibition in his home town of Fayette earned regional attention and, beginning that year, he became a featured artist at the annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, Alabama. In 1976, he was invited to play harmonica and exhibit some of his painting at the Smithsonian Institution’s Bicentennial Festival of American Folk Life. He appeared on the Today Show and 60 Minutes in 1980. He was honored with the Alabama Arts Award in 1995 and served as an artist-in-residence at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

He was one of the early masters of southern art. He was an active member of his community, and his work, though idiosyncratic, is firmly grounded in the African American culture of the rural South. He drew his subject matter from the world around him: people he knew (and celebrities), architecture, farm scenes, machinery, flowers, and animals of e woods and barnyard. Very rarely, he portrayed a religious figure such as Christ, Moses, or John the Baptist.

Although it is commonly believed that Sudduth’s early paintings were executed exclusively in mud and found pigments, such as motor oil or plant juices, in fact, his earliest known paintings contain large amounts of house paint. As his fame grew, dealers advised Sudduth on ways to make his works more permanent and more colorful, and by the 1990s, no longer able to collect his own materials, he began using commercially-sold acrylic paints, applied with sponge brushes onto wood panels prepared with a flat black ground.

Death

Having resisted leaving his home as long as he could, Sudduth spent his last year at the Fayette Nursing Home. He died at the Fayette Medical Center on September 2, 2007 at the age of 97.

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