Artist Profile – Herbert Singleton

1945–2007, lived and worked in New Orleans, Louisiana

1945–2007, lived and worked in New Orleans, Louisiana

multiple views: Herbert Singleton / Untitled (Voodoo Protection Stump) / 1980s / carved and painted wood / 26 1/2 x 20 x 17 in. / Collection of Gordon W. Bailey

Herbert Singleton’s boldly carved and painted cedar panels both skewer and exalt his life and times. Singleton displayed keen insight into the socio-economic limitations imposed upon many in the New Orleans area. He railed against hypocrisy on both sides of the racial divide. Singleton overcame many hardships, some compounded by his own misdeeds. He survived a near-fatal shooting, drug addiction, and all told, nearly 14 years in prison—many of them in the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He first derived meaningful income from artistic endeavors in the early 1980s, carving walking sticks for New Orleans buggy drivers and “voodoo protection” stumps for friends. After his final stint of incarceration, the dispirited artist found a soul-saving catharsis in woodcarving. He dismantled an old chifforobe and created his first bas-relief panel, Dog Worms In Me, which depicts a stark white skeletal figure cut out of a black background, bordered by red. The heads of serpents are shown peering from the infected figure’s ribcage.

In such works as Who Do We Trust and Who Speak For Man, Singleton addressed our seeming inability to meet the standards we set for others. In one masterwork, he carved self-destructive indulgences—drugs, gambling, sex—into a huge cypress log he salvaged from the Mississippi River. Exhibited as the “Algiers Rosetta” in “High on Life: Transcending Addiction” at the American Visionary Art Museum, Singleton referred to his work more directly as the Tree of Death. In other more festive works he paid tribute to the uniqueness of New Orleans culture.

—©Gordon W. Bailey

Artist’s Work