James Thomas was born in 1926 in Eden, Mississippi. He never really knew his father and was raised by his maternal grandparents, who also gave him his lifelong nickname “Son” as a term of endearment.
As a young boy, Thomas developed two interests that would play a significant role for the remainder of his life: music and sculpture. His sculpture was made from clay he collected from banks of the nearby Yazoo River. He enjoyed making trucks from the clay, which earned him the nickname “Ford”. The art took a darker side, though, when he decided to play a joke on his grandfather who had a deep fear of the paranormal. He shaped a frightful skull, complete with teeth made out of corn and placed it in a dark location that would become fully lit when his grandfather turned on a light. The effect was terrifying.
Thomas would go on to shape these skulls the rest of his life, often using actual teeth that he would collect from local dentists. Thomas suffered from poor health his entire adult life, which gave him the appearance of being much older than he actually was. Back pains and emphysema were constant plagues. In 1981, he was accidentally shot in the stomach, and in 1991 he had surgery for a brain tumor. Despite his fragile condition Thomas continued to perform in blues concerts throughout the South until 1993, when he died from a massive stroke.
Johnnie Swearingen was born near Chappell Hill, Texas, in the African-American community of Camp Ground Church. His parents were migrants who worked in the cotton fields of East Texas. Swearingen attended school sporadically through the eighth grade, then joined his parents in farm work. Hopping trains during the Great Depression, Swearingen somehow got married but soon divorced. He headed west to pick grapes and cotton, until he found work as a longshoreman in California. In his spare time he began painting, using shoe polish and house paint on cardboard, the only materials he could afford.
From 1950 to 1993, Swearingen painted rural Texas scenes, religious themes, and events that were important in his life. A born storyteller, he often incorporated several tableaux in one painting. With oil paint on Masonite and later on, canvas, he depicted cotton picking, hog raising, ranching and rodeos, and family gatherings, employing bright colors with heavy outlines to make joyful paintings about everyday life. He also made allegorical religious works, showing saints and sinners both in this life and the next, and in keeping with their more serious nature, chose more muted and somber colors.
Charles Smith was born in New Orleans and was raised by a single mother in a suburb of Chicago. In 1968 he began creating a personal art environment in Aurora, IL, as a tribute to the more than 7,000 African-Americans who died in Vietnam. Among the many events that affected him during his own stint in the military there was the loss of his best friend just moments after the two were photographed together. While Smith earned an honorable discharge with a Purple Heart, the lasting effects of Agent Orange and the horrors of the war are still with him.
After he returned from Vietnam, Smith felt divinely inspired to create art that bolstered the self-esteem of African-Americans and other people of color. The site, which he named the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veteran’s Archive, eventually grew to become a memorial to all Africans and African-Americans. Following disputes with local authorities, the Kohler Foundation saved and relocated Smith’s environment to Sheboygan, WI. Smith has since begun building a new version of the Museum and Archive much closer to his origins, in Hammond, LA.
Frank Signoretti was born in the Maxwell Street area of Chicago in 1921 and grew up on the Southside. He graduated from Lane Tech High School attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) on the Gl Bill and went on to become a technical illustrator at Caterpillar Corporation in Peoria, IL. He recently moved from McAllen, Texas, where he was in retirement, to Michigan City, IN, to be closer to his family.
In 1967 Signoretti noticed a pile of buttons when picking up his wife at her job at a Goodwill store and soon began experimenting with creating images made from buttons. He made a number astonishingly cohesive and original button works over the next five years, demonstrating a sophisticated sense of color and contrasting backgrounds to offset the texture and pearlescence of the buttons.
Kevin Blythe Sampson, who lists his occupation as artist, teacher, retired police officer, and community organizer was, born in Elizabeth, NJ. He grew up in a household committed to civil rights and community concerns, since his father, Stephen Sampson, was a key organizer of civil rights marches and demonstrations, and frequently met with nationally-known rights leaders in his barbershop and kitchen.
Kevin Sampson became a police officer, and composite sketch artist in the city of Scotch Plains, NJ, where he served for more than 19 years. He took early retirement after the death of both his wife and infant son, in separate illnesses.
Sampson says some of his sculptures express the community’s conscience, while others testify to his feelings for his family. “I rescue other people’s memories left in the objects they leave behind, and use that power to fuel my creations.”
After leaving his wife and children in Mexico to find work in California, 36-year-old Martín Ramírez found himself homeless in California with other victims of the Great Depression. Picked up by authorities, he committed to a mental hospital where he spent the rest of his life, mostly in silence. Once institutionalized, Ramírez began creating complex multilayered drawings using available materials, including paper bags, scraps of examining-table paper, candy wrappers, melted crayons and book pages, all glued together with a paste made of corn mush and saliva.
The work reflects both Mexican folk traditions and twentieth-century modernization: images of Madonnas, horseback riders and trains entering and exiting tunnels amid landscapes rendered as parallel lines. Migration and memory seem to factor strongly in every image. Ramírez died having spent half of his life in mental institutions, leaving a collection of over four hundred works, ranging in size from two inches to nine feet.
Aldo Piacenza immigrated to the United States as a teenager but never forgot his homeland in Italy. Piacenza settled in Highwood, IL, where he sold vegetables and gradually saved and invested for his retirement. He lost all his savings in the stock market crash of 1929 and barely made it through the Great Depression. As he aged, Piacenza increasingly turned to making art.
He immortalized his homeland with murals he painted on the exterior of his home and surrounded it with elaborate birdhouses he made of scrap wood and found objects, modeling them after the famous architecture of Italy. Some were readily identifiable as historic structures like the cathedrals of Milan or Pisa, while others included architectural components from several different structures.
Leroy Person spent his entire adult life working at a sawmill near Jackson, NC. At the age of 63, he was forced to retire because of work-related heath conditions. Soon thereafter he experienced a “divine calling” to “praise nature through art.” Person used carving and drawing to decorate nearly all of his surroundings with images local flora and fauna as well as depictions of the tools of his trade.
Person constructed sculpture and furniture (including throne-like chairs) from scraps of wood and found objects, incising them with a knife and covering them with leftover paint and crayon wax. As he aged and his health continued to deteriorate, he turned more often to drawing on found cardboard and paper. After he purchased his first television in 1977, new imagery made its way into his work, especially NBC’s multihued peacock emblem, although rendered in Person’s inimitable style.
Burl “B. J.” Newton said that he heard God speak to him one day out in the exercise yard at California’s Folsom State Prison, where he seems to have wound up on a regular basis. Instructed by the Lord to paint, Newton began making art with tremendous vigor. He worked as a cook in the prison, where he sometimes signed his name ‘Backward Jesus.’ His work was seen by Chicago artists Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt in the late 1960s, and was later included in several exhibitions of work by self-taught artists. He painted primarily in oils in a style that is both presentational and expressionistic, favoring subjects from religious stories, fantasy, and mysticism. It is not known if he is still active or alive.
The third of nine children, Mr. Imagination began creating art as a young boy growing up in Chicago’s Southside. His first piece of art for public display was a sign announcing a celebration at the New Star of Bethlehem Baptist Church, where his family attended Sunday services. For many years he made jewelry, decorative objects and other small works from found objects for spending money, but didn’t begin serious art-making until after a near-fatal shooting during a mugging in 1978.
Following the death of his brother, Warmack moved to Bethlehem, PA in 2001, where he continued to produce and receive many commissions, including the “Unity Grotto,” an entranceway arch to the (Walt Disney World) House of Blues “Voo-doo Garden”, and “Cool Globes” at the National Botanical Gardens and Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C. On Sunday, January 20, 2008, while he was away in Florida, Warmack’s home, gallery, collections and art studio in Bethlehem were gutted by fire. Everything was lost including the centerpiece of the house, his bottle-cap throne. Also lost in the fire were his beloved dog, Pharaoh, two cats and 3 kittens.
Warmack now lives in northwest Atlanta, GA.