James “Son” Thomas is a sculptor and a Blues singer and guitarist living in Leland, Mississippi. His work is in the permanent collection of the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee; of the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford; and of the Mississippi State Historical Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. His work has also been included in the following traveling exhibits: as part of “Black Folk Art in America” at the J. B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky; at the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York; the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, California; the Institute for the Arts at Rice University in Houston, Texas; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; at the Smithsonian as part of “Folk Arts and Crafts in the Deep South”; and at the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of “Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts.”
Phillip Walker You live in Leland, now. Where were you born?
James “Son” Thomas Eden. E-D-E-N. Eden, Mississippi. About three miles east of Eden. On the river. 1926. October 14th.
PW How did you get started doing sculpture?
JT My uncle used to play in clay; used to try to make something look like a mule because, at that time, black folks didn’t have nothing but mules. Like you see tractors in the fields, now—they didn’t have nothing but mules in the field. And that’s all he’d try to make was a mule. So I tried to make a mule, and just kept on trying to make the mule. Finally, I could make the mule. Then, after that, I started making different things, you know, like birds and rabbits squirrels … stuff like that. And from that what caused me to start making a skull, I made a skull to scare my grandfather with.
PW For a joke?
JT Yeah. See, he was scared of ghosts. And I made the skull to scare him. It worked but he made me take it out the house. I was just a teenager and he made me take the thing out the house. I’ve got some real teeth up there on the shelf that somebody gave me. I believe it was in Memphis. A jar full. I just ain’t got around to doing no work.
PW Are you going to put them in skulls?
JT Yeah. I’m going make them into skulls and faces and different features, you know. What I’m trying to do, which I could have done did but I’ve been throwed behind.
PW Are those human teeth?
JT Yeah, I got human teeth up there. And I had some more human teeth had gold on ’em and I jumped up and sold this. I sold this for $100 when I could have doubled that money, ’cause it had gold on it.
PW What do you think is the most important thing to consider when making a sculpture?
JT Okay. You don’t look like Bo, Bo don’t look Joe, Bo don’t look like my boy. Everybody’s a little different and some people’s favor resemble each other. Now, that’s the stuff you got to watch. When it comes down to that sculpturing work, I don’t care how much school learning they got, they can’t equal up with me. They ain’t no need to trying, they can’t do it.
PW Because they’re not watching that?
JT They don’t know about that. See, they read up on mine, and I think up on mine.
PW When you look at another piece of sculpture, do you think you can tell whether they did it that way—by the book—or thought it up?
JT Oh yeah, I can tell. See, white folks, they reads up on this. That’s like you have a puzzle: this here piece don’t go here, it goes here. That’s the way you do that. But now, when you come down to this sculpture, you do this dabbing and you can’t mess that up … Just say you got a puzzle and you want to make a dog. OK, you know if you try to put the tail here, and the dog’s backbone goes here … you can’t put the dog’s backbone there because that’s the tail.
PW So when you do a sculpture, it’s like doing a puzzle?
JT Right, you got to figure that. But now, the different features in the world, you can’t figure that out because it’s too hard, because everybody don’t look alike. You go down there and you see twenty suckers on the street and don’t near one of them suckers look alike. Some of them suckers down there got money and some of ’em ain’t; their features don’t look alike. I can look at them and tell what I’m going to do. I’ll tell you what I can do: I can let you tie a rag around my head. Bet you five hundred cash dollars right today. You tie a rag around my head where I can’t see nothing, give me a ball of clay, I’ll take that clay, if you want a quail, I’ll make you a quail, I’ll make you a damn quail and I ain’t even had nothing on my eyes. Can’t see nothing. I’m talking about blindfolded.
PW Just by feeling it?
JT Feel it. Feel my way out. I’ll feel it out right today for five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars I’ll bet you.
PW So, when you’re sculpting, the most important thing is to feel it rather than to see it?
JT That’s the most important part: feel it. Feel what you do. Some folks go … “I got to see what I’m doing” … You ain’t got to see. If you know what you doing, that’s all you got to know.
PW When you start a sculpture, do you have a clear image, a clear picture of what you’re going to make, or do you make it up as you go along?
JT I have a clear picture in my head … what I’m going from.
PW Where do you get those pictures?
JT I’m thinking about it right here. While I’m doing, I’m thinking.
PW Why do you make one face instead of another? What makes you choose one over another?
JT Well if you trying to do a certain feature, that’s hard to do because I got to remember. I’ll shut my eyes and I’ve got to remember how you look. But if I shut my eyes on what I’m looking at—how I want to do it—that’s a different story.
PW How old were you when your uncle started teaching you to sculpt?
JT I was real young … eight or nine years old. Something like that.
PW And you’ve kept it up since then?
JT Yeah, I kept it in my head because I had to teach children that in school. I used to teach that … for nothing. I had a job just like the teacher did. At that time I wasn’t getting no money for it.
PW Where were you teaching?
JT In Yazoo County. I was born in Yazoo County and raised there. And I’d teach these children how to do this stuff … and try to learn them best I could. I don’t know whether any of them are doing it today or not but I was teaching them. And since then … before they cut those grants out, they was paying eleven hundred and fifty dollars every two weeks. And they cut them grants out. That knocked me out of a job because I had a job at Yazoo City. I taught school over there … teaching children. Teaching sculpture.
PW When did they cut the grants out? With Reagan?
JT Right. And I believe I’m going to talk to his wife. I’m going back up there and talk to her.
PW Tell me about that. You met her?
JT Yeah, I met her. I just had got shot in the stomach.
PW By a bullet?
JT Yeah, a bullet.
PW Let’s back up. Before you tell me about Mrs. Reagan, tell me how that happened.
JT Well, my old lady had shot me with a 22. I got out of the hospital and I had four or five days before I leave. And I left here and flew to Washington, DC. My ticket had come and I was in the hospital. And I got out and went on to the airport and left and flew on up there. And I could have made some extra money but I taken sick while I was up there. I had to go on to my room and lay down. But they had a party. In this hotel they had a party. I wanted to be at the party so bad I didn’t know what to do. Man, they had whiskey and money there.
PW So you had an argument with your wife?
JT No, it wasn’t an argument.
PW She just shot you?
JT Mm hmmm.
PW So, how did you meet Mrs. Reagan?
JT My artwork was up there. The Smithsonian had it but it was at the Corcoran Gallery at the time. I went to the Corcoran Gallery and she was coming over to interview all the artists. And when I left the White House, I went onto the Corcoran Gallery. I first played at the White House.
PW Who was there?
JT All the folks that work at the White House. I stopped all them suckers. Everyone. Womens and all. When I left the White House, I went to the Corcoran Gallery. That’s when I met the president’s wife. She had a lady in the front of her—her guard, I imagine—and told me she was coming through. I said, “Well, I’ll be here when she comes by.” And when she comes by, she throwed her arms around me. When she put her arms around me, she put a hand right where they cut that bullet out.
PW That must have hurt.