Human Aesthetics

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James Son Ford Thomas

Review: Art Carved From Inequality by James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas


A foreword from Listen To The World

[Jakarta, LttW] Last August, the 80WSE Gallery of New York held an exhibition of sculptures by James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas. Born in 1926 in Missisippi, USA, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas was a self-taught African-American sculpture artist and Delta Blues musician who mostly lived in poverty and underappreciated in the middle of ongoing racism. He died in 1993, this exhibition is the ‘largest ever dedicated to his art’.

The History of Blues itself greatly inspiring because the suffering and limitation becomes a power to create, and makes art as an important tool to define certain values and manifest various of struggles and hopes within society. Like Van Gogh, what James Son Ford Thomas creates in his sculptures and his music proved what is “Good Art” and what is an “Artist”.

Be seen or unseen, big or small Son Ford Thomas already succeed to performed his roles as an artist, musician, and individual within his society. Can we reflect what he went through, what he felt, and what he did?

(BP/FZ/SG)


Review: Art Carved From Inequality by James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas

by Roberta Smith, July 9, 2015, for the New York Times

“James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues” at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery is an inspirational show about the perseverance of art, and the tragedy of inequality. But it is also a thing of joy: It brings the work of a wonderful and underappreciated artist to the fore.

It presents about 100 small, often painted clay sculptures by James (Son Ford) Thomas, a self-taught African-American artist. Born in 1926 in Eden, Miss., an upland village in Yazoo County, he lived his adult life in nearby Leland, Miss., mostly in severe poverty, on the Delta plain. He died in 1993.

This exhibition is the largest ever devoted to his art, which made a rare New York appearance in “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South” at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2014.

The sculptures depict a partial universe of animals, fish and birds; tiny occupied coffins; tableaus of everyday life; and some very striking skulls. Most numerous are the heads and portrait busts of people real, imagined and presidential (Washington and Lincoln).

The show has been organized by Jonathan Berger, 80WSE’s director, assisted by Mary Beth Brown and Jessica Iannuzzi Garcia, graduate students at the university. It is arranged evocatively by theme in three galleries; big platforms bring everything almost to eye level or, more often, face to face. It is a must see.

Tall, lean and ascetic-looking, Thomas is better known as a singer and guitarist in another largely self-taught genre, Delta blues, although his fame is limited mostly to dedicated blues fans. Under the name Son Thomas (he also used James Son Thomas), he released his first solo album in 1981.

He was in many ways a classic country bluesman, favoring acoustic over electric and usually recording alone, accompanied only by his guitar. But he sang with unusual sweetness and ease, more Brownie McGhee and Mississippi John Hurt than Robert Johnson or Lightnin’ Hopkins. His small sculptures can initially seem rawer than his music, but they soften and complicate emotionally.

Thomas and his wife, Christine, raised 10 children on next to nothing. He worked as a gravedigger, fixed motors, painted houses and sold his sculptures. There was slight relief after 1967, when the folklorist, scholar and writer William R. Ferris sought out Thomas in Leland.

At the time, Mr. Ferris, who would later lead the National Endowment for the Humanities under Bill Clinton and is now a professor at the University of North Carolina, was making field recordings that helped prove that Delta blues was a thriving, not a dying folk art form as some believed.

Thomas had been refusing to record after a bad experience with a local music company, but he and Mr. Ferris, a Mississippi native, became friends, and he relented. Six tracks of his songs appeared on “The Blues Are Alive and Well,” a 1970 album of Mr. Ferris’s field recordings, along with tracks by Lee Kizart, a blues pianist, and Lovey Williams, a guitarist. In 1973, Thomas traveled to Yale, where Mr. Ferris was then teaching, and gave his first performance outside of Mississippi.

This exhibition resonates with his music. Next to a beguiling self-portrait bust, his 1983 LP “Highway 61 Blues” plays on a turntable in a kind of analog loop (it’s flipped by the gallery’s receptionist as each side finishes). Two short documentaries also feature his music. One, shot by Mr. Ferris, also documents the family’s bare-bones existence.

On voice-over, Christine Thomas speaks of going to work in the cotton fields when she was 9 and marrying at 14. On film we see her fixing dinner, assisted by probably one of her daughters, who opens several cans of peaches with a large knife. It is as if Walker Evans had trained a movie camera, not a still one, on black people, instead of white, and had asked them to talk about their lives. But it’s heartbreaking to realize that Mr. Ferris’s film is from 1969, three decades after Evans.

Thomas made sculpture almost as long as he made music, from an early age. When he was not yet 10, an uncle taught him a few chords on the guitar and then how to gather and mold “gumbo,” an unusually intractable clay native to the region. He seems to have been gripped by both modes of expression. He stole practice time on his uncle’s guitar and sneaked out to juke joints, while living with his grandparents, who were raising him.

In 1942, Thomas, then 16, bought his first guitar (Sears Roebuck & Co., $8.50) with money eked by helping his grandfather sharecrop cotton, a ruinously exploitative system. And he earned his nickname by modeling Ford trucks (and other vehicles) with moving wheels, both as toys for himself and to sell. He frequently told of selling a box of sculpted horses to a man from Vicksburg, Miss., for $3, more than either grandparent earned in a week.

An untitled work from 1987. (Philip Greenberg for the New York Times)
An untitled work from 1987. (Philip Greenberg for the New York Times)

Mr. Thomas’s sculpture gained brief attention in 1982-83, when about a dozen of his pieces were included in “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980,” a landmark exhibition organized by Jane Livingston and John Beardsley at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. that traveled to the Brooklyn Museum and elsewhere. With 20 artists, many of whom had become known only since the 1970s and then usually only in the South, the show was the most extensive, prominent indication that Southern black folk art forms a lode as rich as the blues.

The 80WSE show is an opportunity to consider the link between the art and the music, their shared basis in a nearly untenable reality and in improvisation and the subtle variation of simple forms. It begins with a gallery painted black and a platform occupied by a menagerie of birds, fish and other creatures — significant forms in a place where hunting and fishing meant more food.

Front and center, and most carefully painted is a little quail, an unusually meaty bird that — in one of those lesser-known humiliations of Jim Crow — blacks were traditionally forbidden to kill.

At the center of the platform, a hand painted gold reaches out of a bit of blue, suggesting someone either drowning or rising again. And scattered among the wildlife are the skulls. Thomas made them by forming heads and then cutting away the clay to achieve skull-like blockiness. They come with real teeth or dentures, eye sockets often lined with aluminum foil, and are usually hollowed out at the back.

Thomas intended these cavities, also foil-lined, to function as paper clip holders or ashtrays, but they create a double presence: skull in front and the hollow hood of death following close behind.

In a smaller gallery, painted white, the open coffins hold men in suits, looking convincingly dead, a bit dry, and the tableaus show solitary men eating watermelon or sitting on logs as if resting from work.

The final, largest gallery displays the heads, both male and female, with skin tones in buff, pale pink and occasionally red, and several shades of brown and black. Some are made entirely of clay; others are elaborated not only with paint but also with eyeglasses, jewelry, hair (both real and artificial) and maybe teeth (usually artificial).

The eyes are often glass marbles, which can create a slightly wild, haunted look. They seem electrified, perhaps moved by the Holy Spirit, or by the blues. Their abandon evokes Thornton Dial’s charcoal drawings of faces framed in undulant, slightly hallucinatory lines.

The plainer ones seem more thoughtful and nuanced. Once their gravity sinks in, the others gain it, too, conveying different personalities.

In the end, most of the heads become so realistic — and mysterious — they could be people having their photographs taken, doing nothing yet revealing a lot. In Thomas, Leland found its own Walker Evans.

___

“James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues” runs through Aug. 7 at 80WSE Gallery, New York University, Manhattan; steinhardt.nyu.edu/80wse/. This article originally published on August 2015 at the New York Times.

Author: Roberta Smith


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