Artist Profile – Jimmy Lee Sudduth

1910–2007, lived and worked in Fayette, Alabama

1910–2007, lived and worked in Fayette, Alabama

Untitled (Alligator), / c. 1990s

(detail): Jimmy Lee Sudduth / Untitled (Alligator), / c. 1990s / mud, sugar, paint, and pencil on wood / 24 x 48 inches / Collection of Gordon W. Bailey

As a toddler in Caines Ridge, Alabama, during a woodland visit to collect plants with his medicine-woman adoptive mother, Jimmy Lee Sudduth painted a picture, in mud, on a tree stump. Sudduth’s mother returned a few days later to find the image intact, and took it as a sign of her son’s calling. Thus began the career of an artist with a lifelong ardor and profound, peerless, connoisseurship of dirt. Sudduth’s scenes of the people and places of turn-of-the-century Fayette were first sketched with what he called a “dye rock,” a soft stone that, once dipped in water and pressed against a hard surface (predominantly locally manufactured plywood), acted as a pencil. He filled in the underpaintings, using his fingers, with an increasingly complex and refined suspension of pigment and medium. Flaking of the mud, once dry, was an early problem, and Sudduth experimented with an array of viscous materials—molasses, honey, sugar, Coca-Cola, sorghum—to achieve the necessary consistency. To then color his “sweet mud”, he built a catalogue of effects from innumerable organic sources: coffee grounds and instant coffee for blacks, brick dust and pork berries for reds, grass and ivy for greens, egg yolks and axle grease for yellows. A man who claimed he could locate 36 different shades of mud, Sudduth took considerable (and justified) pride in the breadth of his invented palette. Sudduth worked hard throughout his adult life, as a farmhand, a laborer at a grist mill and lumberyard, then, after moving to Fayette with his second wife, Ethel, in 1950, doing odd jobs and gardening. He was a prolific painter throughout, finishing up to six paintings a day, and his reputation expanded in the 1960s through displays at county fairs, where he often also performed blues harmonica. A solo exhibition at the Fayette Art Museum in 1971 led to his inclusion in the Smithsonian Institution’s Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife in 1976 and an appearance on the “Today” show in 1980. Sudduth continued to work in Fayette for the rest of his days, painting with mud sent to him by fans and, as age and infirmity made material-hunting more difficult, with acrylic paint.

—William Pym

Artist’s Work