Fayette, Ala. — When Jimmy Lee Sudduth was 8, he took a stick and drew on the ground a picture of an old house. It's been more than 60 years since this laughing, devil-may-care black man first asserted his creativity. He still uses a stick to fashion many of his paintings, although his fingers seem to work just as well. Old houses continue to predominate in his subject matter.
But the ground is no longer his canvas. Instead, he paints on everything from plywood to cabinet doors to screen wire and tin. Sudduth wouldn't dream of working with oils and watercolors. Rather, he employs natural hues such as turnip greens, flower petals, and pokeweed berries.
It was only nine years ago that Sudduth went public, when a portfolio from his unusual collection opened the Fayette Art Museum. Since then, he's blossomed into Alabama's most widely acclaimed folk artist. As far as Alabamians knowledgeable in primitive art are aware, his approach is unparalleled.
"This is somethin' new," Jimmy Lee himself expressed it. "This is somethin' the art people ain't got -- in the whole world."
The basic fabric of Sudduth's once-secret application is plain, common dirt. The happy, ingratiating artisan has worked with 23 colors, mixing dirt with water to produce mud. He adds sugar to make the substance hard, then rubs it onto a painting.
"You can paint a thousand dollars' worth of pictures with just a cupful of sugar," said the bright-eyed, bemused artisan.
Sudduth discovered at age 12 that sugar mixed with mud would make a hard element useful as a paint.
The way he likes to tell it: "I worked with cardboard but the mud didn't seem to hold up so well. So I went to plywood, somethin' that would hold up. But I still didn't know how to make the mud get hard.
"There was a man lickin' syrup one day and he dropped some syrup on the ground. I got that syrup and I put it on a board and that was it! I went up there and got juice from the [sorghum] mill. I put it in my mud and put it on the board and it got hard and wouldn't come off.
"I said, 'I got what I want now." I went wild! I went wild! I commenced paitin' everywhere and I painted for at least 25 years and just give 'um away."
For decades, Jimmy Lee made a living during day-light mostly on a host of Fayette County farms. He spent his evenings painting and testing his technique.
The self-taught Sudduth learned, for instance, that when he rubbed fresh ivy onto plywood, the green color would not come off. He observed that coal-stove soot makes a workable black paint. And he found that in addition to sugar and syrup, he could harden his mud with "anything sweet," from honey to Coca-Cola.
Sudduth produced paintings of sawmills, smokehouses, and scenes of snow, even a rendering of John F. Kennedy ("I painted President Kennedy while I was watchin' him on television) and gave many to farm families along the Luxapalila River.
In 1971, when his work was formally exhibited, word of Jimmy Lee's talent snowballed beyond his rural west Alabama town. Jack Black, an art museum chairman who owns the Fayette newspaper and radio station, became the exuberant primitive's manager, an arrangement that catapulted showings, demonstrations, interviews, and filming sessions across Alabama and other swatches of the Deep South.
In 1976 Sudduth earned a countrywide reputation when he participated in the nation's 200th birthday party, the American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
"I took a little sugar to Washington," he exclaimed with more than a bit of pride. "I said, 'Y'all ain't got no sugar like we got down in the sweet home state.'"
The folk artist spends much time crafting treasures for locals who value his unique renderings.
"People come get me and kidnap me to paint their houses," he offered in his locomotive pattern of speech. "Maybe go out there and stay a half a day and make $25."
When Jimmy Lee is not painting, playing his French harp, or delving into photography or black history, he's scavenging nature for paints.
"You go where crawdeds and worms have worked up this here mud and get that," he cited as an example. "Then I mix it, put sugar in it, and paint with that. You go way down in there. That would be white, see."
Sudduth anticipates that widespread drilling for oil and natural gas now under way in Fayette County will add a thrilling new dimension to his style.
"I'm figurin' on goin' to these oil wells," he grinned excitedly. "They got a lot of dirt from way on down in the world now. Drillin', you know. And they're bringin' up all kinds of colors in the world, and I'm gonna see some. They got a lot of colors out there."
No doubt, dirt is one of Jimmy Lee Sudduth's favorite things. It at least has sparked him to artistic stardom: "Every time I see dirt," he expected with laughter, "my mouth turns to water and I say, 'I need to get some of that dirt.'"