Sometimes you have to drive 1500 miles to find something worthwhile in your own backyard. Back in the early 1990s I took a road trip south to Georgia and Alabama in search of contemporary folk art. I had a knowledgeable friend in Atlanta to helped me navigate the backroads of the rural South, where I had never ventured before. It was fascinating, as you might imagine, but one of the great finds took place toward the end of the trip as I was about to head home.
My friend and I were talking about folk artists worth pursuing, and he pointed to an image in a recent book and said, "you ought to try and find this guy." It was an artist originally from Mississippi who settled in Syracuse, New York, about an hour from my home in Utica. His name was memorable: Sulton Rogers; and his works were unforgettable, grotesque figures with twisted grins and crooked noses.
I managed to find Sultan by asking around, and visited him at his home. He was in the southern part of the city. A friend described how to get there but declined to accompany me, saying it was "not my neighborhood." With the prospect of finding a great folk artist, I went anyway.
It was a decision I won't ever regret. Sulton was very friendly, and there was little about the area that seemed threatening besides the general run-down look of some of the houses. I remember entering Sulton's home and being surprised at how dark he kept the entryway and the living room. The first time I went in he introduced me to some people who, I realized suddenly, were sitting right in front of me. We went into his basement, where he did most of his carving.
Sulton dscribed how he got started. He came fron an artistic family in Mississippi; his father was a carpenter and whittler and, if I'm remembering correctly, his mother was a great quilter. Sulton was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1922 and settled in Syracuse in 1952. From about 1970 he worked for Allied Chemical, where his job of monitoring equipment left him with time on his hands. That's when he started to carve in earnest.
Sulton's favorite subject was people, especially if they had expressive facial features that he could caricature. He did these constantly, and the results are hysterical, as you can see from these examples. Sulton's work station at Allied was full of these carvings, and they were popular with coworkers.
Too popular, in fact. After people kept stealing them, Sulton had an idea. He started carving his figures in coffins. Nobody touched those. In fact, he even had the bright idea to leave the legs off the figure so that he could put valuables or money in the empty space in the coffin.
We have several of Sulton's figures, including one in a coffin, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. And you know, as I write this, it occurs to me that I have never checked the empty space to see if Sulton left anything inside. I'm not sure I ever will.
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