One of the reasons I love living in Alabama.

It has nothing to do with football and everything to do with storytelling, kinship networks, folk art, and happenstance. Mr. Kenneth “Skip” Henry, the oldest son in a family of 12 children, dropped by to see if our home could use some exterior paint. What began as a brief chat stretched into an hour-long discussion about life, family, faith, entrepreneurship, and Skip’s brief foray into folk art.

You see, Skip had a friend named Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Jimmy just so happened to become a well-known folk-artist who made more money than he ever wanted or imagined. (Skip said Jimmy didn’t care about the money for money’s sake- he liked the money for all the people it kept around him.) All the striving hipsters in Tuscaloosa crave a Sudduth for their dining rooms, but it is in a hipster’s nature to crave and all this craving is neither here nor there. Speaking of there, let’s get back to it.

Sometimes Skip would go and get mud for Jimmy. Legend has it that Jimmy could squeeze 36 colors from the dirt, mud, and rocks he gathered from his yard and fields in the surrounding area. To create additional colors, he mixed these pigments with house paint and occasionally with juices from leaves, grass, and berries, as well as soot from his chimney and leftover pieces of chalk. By applying these mixes with his forefinger and thumb, Sudduth made his “mud pictures.” Sometimes he did other things, like burning parts of the wooden backgrounds for his paintings or carving into the wood with a knife or even scratching details into the surface of the mud.

A painting by Jimmy Lee Sudduth.

Jimmy always encouraged Skip to try his hand at painting, and Skip always found a good reason to put it off. One day, when he stopped by Jimmy’s house, Skip found a piece of wood with what looked like the beginnings of a female form on it. So Skip decided to take it inside and give the painting a try. As he painted a woman, none other than Oprah Winfrey began to peer out at him from his painting. So he added a microphone to keep the Oprah spirit in the painting happy. And then he left it in the studio.

The next time he dropped by, Jimmy was smiling big. He told Skip that someone had come in and taken a painting (stolen, taken, nabbed, something…) and it just so happened to be Skip’s painting. They chuckled and expressed surprise over this event, and Skip didn’t think much of it for the next fifteen years.

Then, one day many years later, after Jimmy had passed away and Skip had spoken at his funeral (or maybe it was a home-going), Skip was in downtown Tuscaloosa. He stopped by Chuck’s Fish and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the spirit of Oprah staring back at him from the restaurant wall. It was his painting! How on earth do you start that conversation with the restaurant managers? How do you tell them that you painted that “Sudduth” on their wall and then the rest of the amazing story that has everything except a technicolor dreamcoat?

I loved talking to Skip- loved the way in which he acknowledges children as little people (rather than the common expression of polite annoyance). Skip Henry is more than just an accidental folk artist. He is also the owner of Sticky City Painting on Greensboro Avenue and the inventor of the Sticky Grip golf glove. Because Skip is the kind of man that doesn’t do just one thing- and he’s the kind of neat person you just happen to meet on a mosquito-frenzied afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And he’s the kind of person you should hire to paint your house if you like painters with a little folk-artist-inventor inside. I sure do.

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