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The Life and Art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth

By: Susan Mitchell Crawley
Reviewed by: Georgine Clarke
The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts/River City Publishing, 2005
$29.95, Hardcover

Fayette native Jimmy Lee Sudduth was one of a significant group of artists whose work falls outside the mainstream of the defined fine-art field. Alabama is remarkably blessed with many of these artists, generally characterized as “self-taught.” These artists, capturing interest often as much by their stories as by their artwork, seem particularly “Southern.” Their art has a narrative tradition and uses whatever supplies might be at hand. In Sudduth’s case, those materials were often boards and mud made permanent with syrup or anything containing enough sugar to use as a binder.

On September 2, 2007, at the age of ninety-seven, artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth passed from this life. It is especially significant that in 2005 the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts had organized a major exhibition of his art. Scholarly analysis often waits for time to pass before putting a stamp, a perspective for considering and defining an artist. That delay, while giving a sense of deliberation, also makes possible the loss of personal memories and fragments which can give significant shape to artistic intent and approach. The Montgomery Museum’s important exhibition and accompanying book have successfully recognized, celebrated, and defined the artist in his own time.

The book is a scholarly review of a “self-taught” artist. A wide-ranging group of collectors contributed to the project, giving a broad look at Sudduth’s themes and subjects: architectural pictures (highlighted by various mills and log houses), people (including self-portraits), and farm animals (especially the dog Toto). The richly printed, full-color book brings us several photographs of the artist and over fifty images of his paintings. In a masterful design element, the divider pages show very close details of the paintings, capturing that wonderful texture of the dirt and boards.

Essayist Susan Mitchell Crawley, Associate Folk Art Curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, stresses the artist’s biography and techniques, but also provides a summary of critical writing about the work. This text adds to our enchantment with such a joyous, vibrant man but also captures the artistic significance of his works. The writing becomes a model for other needed efforts to understand living artists. Crawley’s careful research and documented notes of Sudduth’s early friends, reviewers, and collectors have preserved a history that might have been forgotten. That is the most significant thread in the book.

Georgine Clarke was the founding director of the Kentuck Festival of the Arts and is Visual Arts Program Manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

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