Artist Profile – James Thomas

James Thomas

1926–1993, lived and worked in the Mississippi Delta

Two Skulls

(detail): Two Skulls, / c. 1980 / clay, paint

Both a world-famous bluesman and a respected sculptor, James Thomas qualifies as an extraordinary artist by any conceivable measure. Born in Eden, Mississippi, in 1926, Thomas was raised by his grandparents, who bestowed the nickname “Son,” which stuck. He earned another of his sobriquets, “Ford,” because of his childhood proclivity for sculpting trucks (he favored animals too) out of the local Mississippi Delta clay, which he scooped from the banks of the Yazoo River and elsewhere. After an uncle helped him develop his considerable musical talents as a youngster, Thomas worked the Delta juke joints, apprenticing with Elmore James and maturing into a fearsome and singular bottle-neck guitarist, singer, songwriter, and interpreter, known for his signature tune Cairo Blues. As an adult, Thomas worked as a sharecropper and a cotton picker around the impoverished Delta, but lifelong ill health and regional economic blight conspired to render a steadier career impossible.

All the while he continued to sculpt in clay, specializing in skulls, corpses in coffins, and disembodied heads, macabre and meditative reminders of a long stint as a gravedigger. In his humble and homely heads, sometimes outfitted with corn-kernel teeth and rock or foil details, the essential mortality of the blues becomes material; musical laments are made tangible as both funereal and funny. Thomas’s animistic work, inspired principally by dreams, conjures a variety of associations––West African masks and fetishes, Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skulls, the face jug pottery tradition of the upland American South––but remains entirely his own idiom. Folklorist and blues scholar William Ferris met Thomas in 1967, and subsequent collaborations yielded a series of books, articles, interviews, films, and albums, launching the artist into national and international fame among music enthusiasts and art collectors alike. Following a place in the landmark 1981 Corcoran Gallery exhibition “Black Folk Art in America,” Thomas toured and recorded widely, even playing for President Reagan in 1983. In the final years of his life, this remarkable artist survived an accidental shooting and brain surgery, only to succumb to a stroke in 1993, at the age of sixty-six.

Artist’s Work