Down in the Clay

Some people just have art in their bones. They wake up and they go to sleep thinking of how to translate their visions into something they can share with others. It is a beautiful thing. It is rare in this world we have made where we like to put a price on everything. It is not easily quantifiable. It’s common to say it’s not essential but really, we need it. We know we need it because it is a drive that is older than history and it is one of the first things we all do as children as soon as dexterity allows.

James Thomas was a man that lived to make art. From the first time he molded clay into a form he knew he was good at it. It was waiting for him to begin.

By his own account, as soon as he realized he could make even the smallest bit of money from making sculptures or playing guitar he was done with work. It says more about America than it does him that these things constituted the opposite of work in his mind and in his world.

He did “work” for ten years in Leland, Mississippi as a grave digger before his back decided that was no longer possible. His art also focused on death. He believed in the human fascination in its own demise. Most of his sculptures are busts with skull-like features. He often used human artifacts like glasses and cigarettes to give them talismanic properties. Part of his myth is that he made his first head to scare his grandfather, who immediately demanded it be removed from the house they shared and they really are that effecting.

In addition to a large body of sculptural work Thomas was a musician for most of his life. He played and sang the blues with a refined voice and guitar style that reflected his quiet, intelligent demeanor. That is not to say he couldn’t kick up a storm to move a crowed but his way of playing the oldest forms of blues music was as uniquely his own as his clay heads.