Exhibition Review of JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: The Devil and His Blues
by Kiara Ventura
“Blues is trouble. Anybody can get the blues. Some people have the blues and don't even know it,” James Thomas said in the 1982 documentary, James “Son Ford” Thomas: Artist. Thomas was mainly known as a leading blues singer from the Mississippi Delta area and worked as a gravedigger from 1961 to 1971.
Other than singing his soul out as a Blues musician and burying souls as a gravedigger, James Thomas dedicated a part of his life to sculpting. Born in 1926 Eden Mississippi, Thomas began sculpting animals and made his own toys out of clay from the local Yazoo River (believed to mean “River of Death”). As a young boy, he made many Ford Tractor clay models which gave him the nickname, “Ford.”
Some of these works that he had created throughout his life were first displayed in an exhibition called Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. This exhibition was said to be the “first time an American museum had given major recognition to the work of 20th century African American self taught artists…” Now Thomas's work is being shown at the 80 WSE gallery and this is the first time his individual work is being shown at a major institution after his death in 1993.
When entering the JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: The Devil and His Blues exhibition at 80WSE, I was greeted by a clay skull that had tin foil outlining its eyes and real human teeth in its mouth. I was amazed and examined each crooked off-white tooth. At ten years old, Thomas made his first skull to scare his grandfather and carried on in creating them into his adult years. I studied the wide array of clay figures on display: sweet birds, one dark snake, a sparkly fish, a gold hand, and a wide array of skulls. I sensed an eerie feeling throughout this exhibition. I even sensed hints of sadness (or blues) within the sweet birds and the sparkly fish. In fact, Thomas believed in ‘hoodoo,’ which is an African American folk spirituality that gave significance to animals.
After watching two short documentary films called James “Son Ford” Thomas: Artist and ‘Sonny Ford:’ Delta Artist, I began to see how his life as a musician and sculptor went hand in hand. It seems like the feelings or ideas he sang about also translated into the works he sculpted. The theme of death kept recurring in my mind especially in the second section of the exhibition displaying a wide array of suited men in coffins with the name ‘SON THOMAS’ engraved in some.
To finish off my visit, I observed a wide array of clay heads. Each one was unique. Some had blonde wigs, silly glasses, pink lipstick, and dangly earrings. It seemed like each face was ready to talk and blurt out their life story. I imagined that creating these heads were pure fun. Each facial expression made me smile. Even though, it could be seen that Thomas did not aim for an overall realistic look for each face, it seemed like each work was inspired by real people. I soon found out that some were. For example, Thomas made representations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Some faces were inspired by members of the Delta community while others came straight from his imagination.
As eerie as his work may be, we may all relate to his creations since they constantly touch upon the idea of death and maybe even sadness. After all, Thomas did state that “Anyone can get the blues” and “We all end up in the clay.”
JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: The Devil and His Blues (June 9,2015 - August 9, 2015)
New York University
80 Washington Square East
New York, NY 10003
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