At Steinhardt’s 80WSE Gallery: The Devil and His Blues

Untitled 1987 (11.5" height). Unfired clay, artificial hair, sunglasses, wire, aluminum foil, beads, glass marbles, paint. Courtesy of William S. Arnett Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues, an exhibition of work of the renowned Delta blues musician and artist James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, will be on view at 80 Washington Square East Gallery from June 9 to August 7, 2015. Taking its title from folklorist William Ferris’s seminal text on Thomas’s work, The Devil and His Blues will be the first major institutional solo presentation of James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas’s sculpture to take place since the artist’s death in 1993.

The exhibition will include 100 of his unfired clay objects in addition to two documentary films on his work: ‘Sonny Ford:’ Delta Artist, made by William Ferris in Leland, Mississippi in 1969 and JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: ARTIST made by filmmakers Jeffrey Wolf and Zach Wolf, using footage shot of Thomas in 1982 while exhibiting his work as part of the seminal touring exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, which has been edited on the occasion of this exhibition.

Widely celebrated as a major figure in the evolution of the Delta style of blues music, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas was born near Eden Mississippi in 1926, later moving to Leland, Mississippi, where he lived with his wife and children from 1961-1993. His formative years were spent frequenting the rural house parties known as ‘jook joints,’ where locals would spend their weekends listening to blues music, dancing, drinking, and gambling. The traveling musicians he was exposed to as a teenager, notably Elmore James and his bottleneck’ style of guitar playing, contributed greatly to his pursuit of music and the evolution of his unprecedented approach to songwriting and singing, which chronicled life in the Delta.

Untitled Date unknown (7.5 x 5.5 x 4.5"). Unfired clay, aluminum foil, human teeth. Photograph by Marie Catalano; Courtesy of Thomas E. Scanlin Collection

Thomas’s uncle Joe Cooper taught him to play guitar beginning at the age of eight and also taught him to sculpt the local ‘gumbo’ clay, from which Thomas initially made his own toys, resembling dogs, horses, and the numerous Ford model tractors that earned him the local nickname ‘Ford.’ He chose to keep this name throughout his professional career as homage to the place from which he came.

Thomas made sculptures regularly throughout his adult life, creating hundreds of unfired clay pieces from a repertoire of subjects, many of which date back to his youth. His birds, snakes, squirrels, and fish are all representative of Delta wildlife in addition to holding symbolic significance in the African-American folk spirituality known as ‘hoodoo,’ in which he believed.

The skulls for which Thomas became known were first made as a mischievous ten-year-old, with the purpose of scaring his grandfather. After a ten-year period working as a gravedigger, from 1961-71, Thomas began making skulls again, this time with the aim of accurately representing the dead, often using real human teeth or dentures and a dull white paint he created to simulate the look of bones. He deemed these works inappropriate for children, yet also intended that they be used as utilitarian objects including pencil holders and ashtrays. After his time working as a gravedigger, while reflecting on his sculpture and the topic of death, Thomas stated, ‘We all end up in the clay.’

Numerous busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were made in part for their general popularity and subsequent sales and yet they also speak to the history of slavery and its residual oppressive policies, which Thomas faced throughout his lifetime. The cotton wigs that he created for each Washington bust reflect Thomas’s own history with cotton, which he picked with his grandfather to earn a living as a young man. As an adult, Thomas grew cotton as a sharecropper, requiring that he rent the land and buy overpriced supplies from its white owner, incurring tremendous debt that made earning a living impossible. Thomas’s sculpted quails reference the local ban that was placed on the right of African Americans to hunt them. Due to their high meat content, quails were reserved as a delicacy for hunting and consumption by white people only.

The bust portraits, which constitute the majority of Thomas’s creative output, portray numerous members of his community as well as imagined faces, often incorporating marbles as eyes, wigs, real human hair, found sunglasses, and jewelry that he fashioned as he became increasingly interested in the use of embellishments. Thomas also created a small number of miniature clay dioramas, often depicting full figures chopping wood, eating watermelon, playing music, or posed dead in coffins. These works reflect the scenes of daily life and death, which he observed.

Paradoxes of meaning and function are central to Thomas’s intent, imagination, and intuitive approach; the quotidian and the abject, beauty and ugliness, excess and austerity, significance and meaninglessness, commercial viability and histories of oppression, and documentation and spirituality often co-exist simultaneously in a given piece.

In 1968, Thomas met folklorist and scholar, Dr. William R. Ferris, with whom he made his first musical recordings. The two formed a close professional and personal relationship, collaborating on numerous projects over the twenty-five years that followed. The greater exposure and widespread recognition that came with the circulation of these recordings and Ferris’s scholarship led to numerous subsequent albums and live performances outside of Mississippi; these became profitable for Thomas and allowed him to tour internationally throughout the 1970’s. While Thomas was known for his music and not his visual art, from a young age he quickly became aware of the monetary value that could be placed on his sculpture. He first sold pieces in order to pay for school supplies and later, throughout his adult life, he traded with friends and eventually consistently sold pieces to tourists and collectors as a lucrative source of supplemental income.

During the 1960’s and 70’s, the work of self-taught artists became increasingly visible, aided by the formation of the Museum of American Folk Art in 1961, a growing interest amongst art historians in expanding the canon, the formation of commercial galleries that focused exclusively on presenting self-taught artists and a devoted group of collectors. In 1981 Thomas’s work was included in the exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, which was organized by Jane Livingston and John Beardsley at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. and later toured to venues throughout the United States. The exhibition was the first time that an American museum had given major recognition to the work of 20th-century self-taught African-American artists, and it contributed greatly to establishing the prominence and historical significance of artists such as Bill Traylor, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, and James Hampton. Despite a subsequent first solo exhibition at the New Mexico State University Art Gallery in 1985, Thomas’s sculpture remains widely unknown today.

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues seeks to consider the entirety of Thomas’s output in music and visual art as a remarkable document of American history: an epic autobiographical narrative, connecting mortality, nature, community, spirituality, and the culture of the region in which he lived.

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues is organized by Jonathan Berger, Mary Beth Brown, and Jessica Iannuzzi Garcia, in collaboration with NYU curatorial praxis students Jason Chau, Chia-Yin Chen, Alexandra Goullier, Marion Guiraud, and Jaclyn Levy. The exhibition is made possible through the support of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and the generous collaboration of Amy Adams, Nathaniel Allen, Velma Allen, James and Elizabeth Arient, Matthew Arient, William S. Arnett, Ross Browne, Scott Browning, Caroline Cargo, William Ferris, Harriet Finkelstein, John Ollman, Thomas Scanlin, Ronald and June Shelp, and Jeffrey and Zach Wolf.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication designed by Julian Bittiner, including contributions from Thomas’s sister Velma Allen, folklorist William Ferris, curator Thomas Lax, and historian David Serlin.

80WSE Gallery is located at 80 Washington Square East, between West 4th Street and Washington Street. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 10:30AM-6PM. For more information about the exhibition, please contact the gallery at 212-998-5751 or email 80wsefrontdesk@nyu.edu.