High’s Folk Art Curator Organizes Sudduth Exhibition

High’s Folk Art Curator Organizes Sudduth Exhibition

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A retrospective exhibition of the work of the beloved Alabama artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth included more than 60 paintings that Sudduth completed between 1963 and 2000. The paintings were shown at the Montgomery [Ala.] Museum of Fine Arts, January 15-March 27. Susan Mitchell Crawley organized this exhibition, her first curatorial assignment, while completing her M.A. degree requirements in art history from Georgia State University. In December 2004, she was named associate curator of folk art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, after serving as interim curator.

At the exhibition opening, Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, chief curator for the Montgomery Museum, recognized the four main lenders — Robert Cargo, Micki Beth Stiller and Georgine and Jack Clarke — for their recent gifts of Sudduth paintings to the museum’s permanent collection. Ausfeld announced that a catalogue, The Art and Life of Jimmy Lee Sudduth, written by Crawley, would by published by the end of 2005.

“Sudduth cannot be called an “outsider,” said Crawley in her slide lecture during the opening events, quoting the artist as saying “I’m easy to find. I’m in the center of the universe.” She said that his fame brings him much happiness because “it brings so many people his way.”

Sudduth is known for painting his everyday world — buildings, portraits, animals, flowers — and using natural as well as man-made materials to apply color. Sudduth applies mud and house paint with his fingers. He sometimes uses sticks to scratch details and designs. “Nowadays, he sends his cousin, O. C., to the remote countryside to get his favorite mud,” said Crawley. His eyesight remains good, he is not shaky, but his hearing is greatly diminished — according to her observations from a recent visit to his home in Fayette, Ala.

Sudduth, who has painted since he was a small boy, became well-known in the 1980s and is “a gifted painter with remarkable formal skill,” Crawley said. “His concept and execution are entirely original. . . . He has earned his standing as a self-taught artist. . . . Sudduth invites us to share his wonder in the world around us.”

LYNNE BROWNE is a member of the FASA National Advisory Board from Atlanta.

by Lynne Browne

Lynne Browne: What provided the genesis for the Jimmy Lee Sudduth exhibition? Will this exhibition travel? Tell us a little about the accompanying catalogue and how it can be ordered.

Susan Crawley: The Montgomery (Ala.) Museum of Fine Arts organized the project to honor Fayette, Ala., artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth with an exhibition highlighting his best work and concentrating on his production in the 1970s and 1980s. Sudduth was 95 [at the time of the exhibition] and had been in poor health for several years. Because the museum wanted him to see the show, they pulled the project together quickly — in just [a little more than] a year. That short time-frame prevented the exhibition from traveling. The museum was unable to secure additional venues on such short notice since most museums set their exhibition schedules at least a couple of years in advance. What was originally conceived as a soft-cover catalogue morphed into a hardcover book as the exhibition took shape and as the museum became convinced of its importance. Publishing it in hardcover through a [trade] publisher will allow it to be distributed worldwide, although it meant the catalogue was not available in time for the show. Call the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (334-244-5700) to order it for delivery late this year. We expect it to be available in early fall.

LB: Tell us about your experience researching and writing the section on the artworks and the artists of the T. Marshall Hahn Collection’s catalogue, Let It Shine, which the museum published in 2001.

SC: I got acquainted with folk art as the research assistant for the Hahn Collection project while I was in graduate school, and that’s where I developed my enthusiasm for it. I enjoyed ferreting out obscure facts and references relating to the artworks and learned a great deal from the process of writing the entries for publication. Lynne Spriggs, then curator of folk art at the High, and I interviewed all the artists we could who were still living, which, of course, gave me invaluable insights into the works.

LB: What influence does your Southern background have on the way you look at self-taught art?

SC: There is no question that my strong feelings for self-taught art from the Southeast come from my being Southern, not only from regional pride, but also because I grew up with many of the cultural influences that shape that art. Self-taught art is probably the South’s most significant contribution to the visual arts, and I want to see it get the recognition it deserves.

LB: How has your background in the business world aided you in tackling the job of curator of folk art?

SC: The role of the curator has changed a lot over the years. We no longer sit in the back rooms of the museum and research static collections. Today, the curator interacts with a wide variety of people inside and outside the museum. The skills and experience I gained in my business background have been invaluable in my museum work — both general skills like communicating effectively, working with a team, or supervising an assistant, and specific skills like dealing effectively with patrons, talking with reporters, using computer programs and familiarity with marketing principles. Not to mention the sales close: I’m not afraid to ask for a gift because I’ve learned not to upset myself if I’m turned down. And having worked for the phone company [Bellsouth], the bureaucracy of the museum doesn’t frustrate me as much as it does some of my colleagues. Had I not had the business background, my academic work would have prepared me only for research and writing, and the beginnings of connoisseurship. I acquired the other essential skills in my previous work.

LB: What direction would you like to see the High’s folk art collection take?

SC: Because the High is in the epicenter of self-taught art in the country, I want to strengthen our holdings in Southeastern materials, which are already quite fine. After that, we will look at branching out and focusing on other regions of the country.

LB: What works by other Southeastern artists would you like to see in the High’s collection?

SC: Just to give you some examples, at the top of my list are examples of Sudduth’s mud or mud-and-house-paint masterpieces from the 1970s or 1980s. We need an important David Butler, ideally a kinetic piece, to complement and give context to the three smaller Butlers we have in the collection. We need one or more multi-figured Edgar Tolson pieces. I would also like to see us add key pieces by Hawkins Bolden, Charlie Lucas, Ralph Griffin, B. F. Perkins and George Andrews. It would be delightful to acquire another William Edmondson, a Clementine Hunter quilt and a piece by Steve Ashby. Our strong collection of Thornton Dials would benefit from the addition of a very early piece, a sculpture in the round and a recent work.

LB: Who is on your very short list of favorite artists and why?

SC: Among the many artists I most admire are Lonnie Holley, William Hawkins, Bill Traylor and Jimmy Lee Sudduth. The multi-layered products of Holley’s extraordinary associative mind astonish me. Hawkin’s boldness, the way he just puts himself out there, is very exciting. My affection for Traylor and Sudduth comes, in part, from my having worked extensively on them. Beyond that, I love Traylor’s sure and accomplished draftsmanship, his wit and his deep feeling for the human tragic-comedy. No one can top Sudduth, at his best, for gorgeous surface texture, color sense, or, of course, technical innovation. Recently, I have been beguiled by the darkly exquisite works on paper by Swiss artist Christine Sefolosha. A couple of other artists who especially appeal to me are Renee Stout and Ann Hamilton. And Johannes Vermeer.

LB: Which artists of the younger generation (born 1950 or later) do you see becoming more prominent?

SC: Lonnie Holley, certainly. He has national recognition already but is not well known outside the field of self-taught art. His conceptual approach, unusual in this field, should have a growing appeal among contemporary art enthusiasts. I have always considered Ronald Lockett to be underrated. His work is richly symbolic, and he [was] such a delicate draftsman. The quality of line in his work is extraordinary; it has the sensitivity of Traylor’s.

LB: Could you describe Judith Alexander’s gift of the Nellie Mae Rowe paintings and drawings, its significance and where and how they will be placed in the High’s galleries?

SC: In 2003, Atlanta art patron and dealer Judith Alexander completed a gift to the High of more than 130 original works by her friend and client Nellie Mae Rowe. After the artist died in 1982, Judith dedicated herself to the study and preservation of Rowe’s work. The gift included masterwork drawings, paintings, preliminary sketches, three-dimensional works, a sketchbook, archival papers and photographs. It gave the High the definitive collection of works by Rowe for both study and exhibition.

In 2002, Judith [had given] the High 16 works as the first installment of the larger gift. At that time, the museum purchased two major drawings for the collection, When I Was a Little Girl and Waiting for Sandy, both created in 1978, the year Judith and Nellie met. We will have a special gallery space within the folk art collection in the Meier Building that will provide ongoing rotating exhibitions of Rowe’s work. We will also display them in other exhibitions, such as general shows devoted to works on paper.

LB: Bill Traylor is the subject of your master’s thesis. The High owns an impressive collection of Bill Traylor drawings acquired in 1982. Could you comment on the range and importance of these drawings, including plans you may have for displaying them?

SC: The High is blessed with 36 Traylors. The collection contains a large number of very fine examples of Traylor’s work. The museum bought most of its Traylors in 1982 with the guidance of then-Modern and Contemporary Art Curator Peter Morrin and then-Director Gudmund Vigtel. Several have come into the collection since, including five extraordinary pieces we received through the gift of the T. Marshall Hahn Collection in 1996. They exemplify all Traylor’s favorite subject matter — animals, human figures in ones and twos, “Exciting Events” and inanimate objects. Because we have plenty of works to rotate, we expect to have one or two Traylors on view in the permanent collection galleries at all times. They will probably appear in exhibitions in the new Works on Paper Gallery in the Wieland Pavilion of the Renzo Piano addition.

LB: Ten years ago Folk Art Messenger published Joanne Cubbs’ article titled “The Paradise Project: Special Events Commemorate the Life and Work of Howard Finster.” How will the Finster material — which numbers more than 75 objects, including pieces of the sidewalk and those magnificent large cement sculptures — be re-installed when the High’s addition is completed in November 2005?

SC: The High’s Folk Art Collection will be installed on the fourth floor of the existing Richard Meier building, recently renamed the Stent Wing. The installation will open June 17, 2005. Although we cannot recreate Paradise Garden, we hope the new installation of those materials will convey a sense of what it was like to be in Finster’s environment. We plan to use a smaller, closer space so we can give the pieces a denser presentation. We also plan to display the works against richer background colors and images.

LB: Why is the High closing the Folk Art and Photography Galleries at Georgia Pacific Center downtown?

SC: With the museum expansion, the High will have twice as much exhibition space for the collection and for special exhibitions. We are eager to have all the curatorial areas displayed together in one location. I’m excited about the prospect of planning exhibitions that will be seen by more general museum visitors, not only those who came to the Folk Art and Photography Galleries specifically to see the folk art or photography exhibitions. It’s an important way to expand appreciation of this wonderful art.

Books on Nellie Mae Rowe are available to members in our online store.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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