Self-taught artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910–2007) spent his entire life in a modest home in Fayette County in west Alabama, even as he rose to prominence as of one of the great southern folk artists of the twentieth century. He captured the attention of local, national, and international art collectors, galleries, and museums for his portraits and depictions of local scenes, still lifes, and animals created with natural pigments and mud.
Jimmy Lee Sudduth was born on March 10, 1910, in the rural Caines Ridge farming community on the outskirts of Fayette, in Fayette County. He was raised by his adoptive parents, Alex and Balzola Sudduth. He spent much of his early childhood in the woods collecting wild plants with his mother, who was part Native American and practiced traditional medicine. As itinerant farm laborers, the Sudduth family moved often, disrupting what little education was available to Jimmy Lee in segregated schools. He attended a one-room schoolhouse through the fourth grade but never learned to read and struggled to write his own name. Sudduth's love of drawing was apparent from his earliest years. When his mother saw the young boy painting with mud on a tree stump in the woods, she encouraged him to continue. Sudduth also drew pictures in the dirt with a stick, long before he ever drew on paper or cardboard.
While living with his parents on the Lumpkin White farm, Sudduth met his first wife, Onnie Lee Strong, whom he described as an "Indian girl." Their marriage lasted until her death in 1941. Several years later, he married Ethel Palmore of Meridian, Mississippi. The couple lived in a farmhouse near Fayette until moving to a house in town in the early 1950s. Sudduth worked at a local grist mill and a lumber mill and later worked as a yardman for numerous families in town.
Throughout his lifetime, Sudduth continued the artistic experiments that he had begun in his childhood. In his youth, he created a collection of hand-carved wooden doll-like figures that surrounded the porch of the farmhouse where he lived. Later on, he would often arrange Christmas displays of painted cutout plywood Santa Claus figures in his yard for his Fayette neighbors to enjoy. But Sudduth is best known for the multitude of paintings that he created out of mud and earth on virtually every available flat surface, including plywood panels, kitchen cabinet doors, floor tiles, wooden roofing shingles, and other salvaged items.
Sudduth claimed that he could obtain 36 colors from the dirt, mud, and rocks he gathered from his yard and fields in the surrounding area. For additional colors, he mixed these pigments with house paint and occasionally with juices from leaves, grass, and berries, as well as soot from his chimney and leftover pieces of chalk. Sudduth applied these substances with his forefinger and thumb to create his "mud pictures." Occasionally, he used other techniques, embellishing his paintings on wooden boards by burning areas, incising lines with a knife, or scratching details into the surface of the mud.
Many of his early paintings were fragile, and the heaviest mud applications sometimes deteriorated and crumbled. Sudduth successfully experimented with bonding agents, including sugar, soft drinks, instant coffee, and caulk, that helped the mud adhere to the board. Those with sugar and soft drinks sometimes attracted insects that damaged the painted works, however. Upon completing a painting, Sudduth would leave the artwork standing behind a wood stove to cure for several days to become hard and dry. In 1984, a fire, possibly started by sparks that ignited a stack of the drying paintings, burned his home and destroyed many of his early works.
Over the years, Sudduth developed many different styles and used numerous inventive techniques in his paintings, but by the early 1990s he was no longer physically able to collect the natural materials he had traditionally used for pigments. He then turned to bright, commercial acrylic paints applied with a small sponge brush to boards prepared with a standard base coat of flat black paint. The results are startlingly different from his earlier finger-painted works.
Sudduth had a keen eye for the world around him, and he delighted in painting simple subjects encountered in his daily life. He frequently painted animals, with dogs, especially his own beloved "Toto," being among his favorite subjects. He produced some still-life paintings of jugs and pitchers, often with details of log cabins or other designs decorating their sides. His paintings of pots and vases are filled with flowers whose petals are formed from circles of simple dots of paint applied with the tip of his finger. Other favorite subjects included Model-T cars, horse-drawn wagons, field hands picking cotton, farm trucks, and tractors, in homage to a familiar but disappearing way of life in the rural South.
Most of Sudduth's numerous portraits are of women and sometimes men that he knew in his community, each capturing a distinct sense of personality. Others are likenesses of such notables as Minnie Pearl, Paul "Bear" Bryant, George Washington, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as rarer images of religious figures such as Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. He also painted many self-portraits in which he wears his signature cap and blue denim overalls. His depictions of architectural structures ranged from humble log cabins, covered bridges, and country churches like those in surrounding farmlands to grander houses in the town of Fayette, including multiple examples of the antebellum Grimsley House and the landmark Fayette County Courthouse. Scenes of city life with skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings captivated his imagination after a trip to Washington, D.C.
During the late 1960s and the 1970s, Sudduth's reputation as an artist slowly began to spread. His creative paintings caught the attention of local friends and neighbors, and he was the subject of several regional newspaper articles. Sudduth was a yardman for Jack Black, a Fayette businessman and local newspaper publisher, who became Sudduth's friend and an early supporter. Black introduced him to the head of the art department at Stillman College, a historically black college in Tuscaloosa. In 1969, Sudduth's paintings were shown publicly for the first time in a solo exhibition there. That same year, Sudduth was one of the featured artists at the first annual Kentuck Art Festival in Northport, Tuscaloosa County. In 1971, Black, who had become director of the Fayette Art Museum, organized a show at the museum in Fayette's City Hall Auditorium. In 1975, Sudduth appeared as a guest on Folklorama, an Alabama Public Television show. Sudduth's reputation was further promoted by several art galleries that opened in Alabama, including the Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery, which began in Tuscaloosa in 1984, the Anton Haardt Gallery in Montgomery in 1989, and Marcia Weber/Art Objects in Montgomery in 1991.
Sudduth began to gain wider recognition outside Alabama when he participated in the 1976 Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1980, he appeared on the Today Show and on 60 Minutes. By the 1990s, Sudduth's work was being represented in galleries, art shows, and installations not only in Alabama but across the nation and internationally, as well. Sudduth's work has been shown at the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York and in galleries in Switzerland and Germany.
After Sudduth's wife, Ethel, suffered a stroke, he cared for her until her death in 1992. Sudduth painted prolifically throughout his adult life, but he began slowing somewhat in the 1990s, as his own health deteriorated. He spent his final year in the Fayette Nursing Home, and died at the age of 97 on September 2, 2007. He is buried in the Fayette Memorial Gardens cemetery in Fayette.
Sudduth's paintings are in major privately held collections of outsider and folk art. His artwork can be seen in the Birmingham Airport, where his paintings hang among works by other Alabama artists. Sudduth is represented in the permanent collections of the
Fayette Art Museum and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama. He is widely recognized as a master in the field of outsider art.
Crawley, Susan Mitchell. The Life and Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Montgomery, Ala.: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and River City Publishing, 2005.
Hood, John. "Jimmy Lee Sudduth." Folk Art 18 (Winter 1993/1994): 47-51.
Rosenak, Chuck and Jan. Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.
Wood, Wilfred. "Where the Good Mud's At: Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Burgess Dulaney." Raw Vision 19 (Summer 1997): 42-46.
Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery, Paoli, Pennsylvania
Published March 2, 2009
Last updated July 5, 2013