The typically taciturn Sudduth brightens as he recalls his breakthrough moment at age 7. “I went with Daddy and Mama to their jobs at a syrup mill and, with nothing better to do, smeared mud and honey on an old tree stump to make a picture,” he says. When he returned days later after several rains, the painting was still there; his mother, Vizola, saw it as a sign that he’d make a great painter, and encouraged her son. “That’s when I found out I had something that would stick,” says Sudduth. “I counted 36 kinds of mud near my house and used most of them one time or another.”
Eventually, Sudduth experimented with color. “I’d grab a handful of grass or berries and wipe them on the painting, and the juice comes out and makes my color,” he says. In the late 1980s, a collector who was concerned that Sudduth’s mudon-plywood paintings might fall apart gave the artist some house paint and encouraged him to incorporate it into his work. (Art dealer Marcia Weber, who exhibits Sudduth’s work in her Montgomery, Alabama, gallery, isn’t worried about how long his earliest mud works will last. “How permanent are the caves of Lascaux and Altamira?” she asks.) Sudduth now uses both paints and mud to render the houses of Fayette, trains, and his dog, Toto.
For the past 13 years, Woodie Long, 61, and his wife, Dot, 46, have made the drive up from Andalusia, Alabama, or, since 1996, the Florida panhandle, to show his work: rhythmic and undulating figures that dance across paper, wood, metal and glass in bright acrylics. Long, who had been a house painter for 25 years, started making art 15 years ago. His paintings, based on childhood memories, have names such as Jumping on Grandma’s Bed and Around the Mulberry Bush. “People look at my art and see themselves—it’s their memories too,” he says. “They just feel a part of it. Every day there are new people that see my work, and the response just blows me away.”
Sandra Sprayberry, 46, has introduced new people to Long’s work for about ten years. Sprayberry, an English professor at Birmingham-SouthernCollege, befriended Long when she took a group of students to meet him during a tour to visit Alabama folk artists. “I wanted the students to experience the stories these artists tell both orally and in their artwork,” she says. Sprayberry says that primitive folk art grabs her emotionally more than technically proficient art, and it was Long’s fluid lines that first caught her eye. “When other folk artists attempt to portray movement, it appears almost intentionally comical—which I often love,” she says. “But he paints it in a lyrical way in especially bright and vibrant colors. I love his perpetually childlike enthusiasm. And Woodie truly likes his paintings. Every time I pick one up, he says ‘I really love that one!’ He’s the real deal.”
Folk art is often referred to as visionary, self-taught or outsider art; experts don’t agree on a single descriptive term or even on what is, or isn’t, included in the category. They do agree, however, that unlike craftspeople who often train many years to attain extraordinary skill with materials, folk artists are largely untutored. Theirs is an often passionate, free-flowing vision unencumbered by rules and regulations of what makes “good” art.