Some of the first things I ever did artistically as a somewhat mature person were bas-relief carvings. In a way, it formed the technique that I adopted as a painter. I suppose that’s why I am so drawn to carvings when I come across them. There’s something very appealing to me in the idea of a flat surface that has this raised, tactile surface. Like a painting that is also available in braille. I can imagine the artist running his hands over the piece as he works, the ridges and valleys sliding gently underneath in a most comforting way.
I recently stumbled across the work of Herbert Singleton , a New Orleans folk artist who made wonderful and colorful carvings such as the piece at the top, Glad You Dead You Rascal You, which depicts a New Orleans funeral procession. Singleton’s life story is similar in may ways with other folk artists– a life filled with missteps and violence, run ins with the law and addictions. He spent the better part of 14 years in prison and died in 2007 from lung cancer at the age of 62. But in his short time here, Singleton created a powerful body of carved work that documented his world and goes well beyond the label of folk art or self-taught art. It is not benign work . It often rails against social injustice and hypocrisy with great gusto.
I was first attracted to some of his Voodoo Protection Stumps, such as the one shown just below, which are carved from half of a log with multiple colorful faces emerging from one side and the bark remaining on the backside. There is an immediacy and vibrancy to the images and color that make them really ring out. Singleton’s work is such a great example of an artist who will not be held captive to their circumstance, will not succumb to the hardships and obstacles that that they face. They use their life and whatever means they can muster to express their place in this world.
The piece at the top of this post, Glad You Dead You Rascal You, was based on the song You Rascal You made popular by the great Louis Armstrong in the early 1030’s. Here ‘s a Betty Boop cartoon from 1932 that features the song in an interesting mix of cartoon and live action with Armstrong and his band. Hard to believe this is from before my dad was born on this day back in 1933. Happy birthday to my old man.