He found shades of green in Columbia’s Red Bluff and reds in Copiah County creeks.
Such colors make up the palette of a Mississippi artist who is gaining a reputation for his mud paintings, inspired by those of slaves.
Hazlehurst resident Charles Jenkins, 63, began “mud painting” after a tour of plantations in St. Francisville, La.
“One of the guys who was narrating everything said these are mud paintings done by slaves,” he said. “They couldn’t tell me anything about it, so I came back and started doing research on it.
“The Smithsonian didn’t have anything on it, although the last mud painter of any significance was a fellow by the name of Jimmy Lee Sudduth in Alabama.”
Sudduth, 1910-2007, began making folk art as a child and later created finger paintings with natural elements like clay and plants on refuse wood.
“He died at 95 and was still doing mud paintings,” Jenkins said. “He was the only reference I have.”
Alex Stelioes-Wills, Mississippi University for Women gallery director, said “mud painting” is a term often used to describe Sudduth’s work.
“He actually painted with clay, dirt and house paint,” she said, “really just about anything that was cheap and available.”
Technically, much of the history of painting is tied to mud painting.
“Artists have used clay and earth pigments since prehistoric times,” Steve Cook, a Mississippi College art professor, said.
Cook said several regional painters use mud and natural pigments, such as plant dyes.
“This is part of a new trend to find beautiful, safe, natural paints, which respect the great tradition of artists making their own materials from scratch,” he said.
It’s fitting that Jenkins would return to nature where his love of art began.
The Thomastown native was raised on a dairy farm and inspired by his paternal grandfather – a carpenter who frequently drew house plans, and his grandmother, who gardened.
Drafted into the Army, he was sent to Heidelberg, Germany, where he drew illustrations for an education center.
“During my stay there, which was almost two years, I got to know some art people, and one of the owners of the Italian restaurant had a gallery in his restaurant,” said Jenkins, who held two shows there.
Jenkins received his master’s degree in art education at Delta State in 1975 and later earned a master’s degree in vocational counseling. He eventually went on to work for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Although skilled in the use of oils, pencils and watercolors, Jenkins remains fascinated with mud painting.
“I have progressed from landscapes to facial features,” he said, adding the process is similar to oil painting, except it takes longer to build up layers of color.
“Here in Copiah County, there are a lot of gravel pits, and most of them have anywhere from five to eight different color clays,” he said. “Down in Columbia, Red Bluff (also known as Mississippi’s Little Grand Canyon) has 15 color clays. There’s even a green.”
Oregon resident Steve Werblow, a freelance writer, learned about Jenkins work through a friend who edits The Progressive Farmer.
“I am amazed at the breadth of the color palette Charley is able to gather from his excursions to the clay deposits, and I love the way he uses them,” said Werblow, who purchased a landscape. “I also respect his interest in the historical legacy of slave mud paintings.”
–LaReeca Rucker, Clarion-Ledger