By Anton Haardt
Juanita Rogers claimed to have been born in a place called "Indian, where the black mud swallows up the cars." Her family insists, however, that she was born in Tintop, Alabama, a small community in north Montgomery. She said she left Indian at the age of five and caught a carnival freight train to Montgomery, where she was later adopted by the Rogers family. The Rogers family insists she was born to Thomas and Sally Rogers and invented the tale of her origins.
Juanita Rogers began making clay sculptures as a child. She claimed that a neighbor, the well-known blues singer Clarence Carter, taught her to "make mud" when she was very young. She explained that he said, "Come here and roll the mud in your hand and it will get bigger." Her father's response to her story was "Lots of people make mud as a child, but that doesn't mean you have to go and lose your mind over it."
I met Juanita Rogers in 1980 when I was introduced to her by a social worker. The social worker had heard of my friendship with Mose Tolliver, and hoped that I might help her client who would not accept welfare because she "already had a job making mud." I agreed to accompany her to visit the "lady who made ceramics." We travelled the ten mile journey south of Montgomery to Snowdoun, Alabama, where Juanita lived. Her remote clapboard and tin two-room shack was nestled in the middle of a cow pasture bordered by a barbed wire fence. There I first saw Juanita - a small dark woman with piercing eyes that avoided direct contact. She was thin except for a protruding stomach that gave the appearance of a pregnant woman. Her porch and house were filled with strange sculptures. Human, animal and vessel forms of cracking clay were embedded with mule and cow bones, teeth, fossil shells, glass, Spanish moss, and coffee grounds, identified by their maker as "Ram Men," "Goat Men," "Mermaids," and "Jungle Women."
Over the several years that I knew Juanita, we talked of her sculptures and how and why she made them. She devised a story that explained her activities. She claimed that making "funny bricks" was her job and that her employer was a man that she referred to as "Mr. Stonefish," also called "Stoneface." She explained that he was part of the Secret Service, and had ordered her to make the objects "to help the colored people, crazy and poor people around the world."
"Mr. Stonefish, he don't want nobody hanging around the mud pieces but me," she warned.
About one particular piece Juanita explained, "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, right? That mud piece-that's the piece there to support yourself. In the slave market, they made dirt so they won't be in the slave market. That piece balances the world. That's Santa Claus to them. It's a devilish piece to play with cause it's sold as a slave piece."
She referred to her house as "just a graveyard where I am covering up bones with dirt." Her yard was inhabited by what she called "graveyard ants" (large velvety red and black ants often found near cemeteries and other similar terrain in the south). She insisted that "Somebody hired the Baron to find me when I was small." (I wondered could he be the Baron Samedi, Vodun guardian of the graveyard?)
I learned from Juanita's sister, June Swan that Juanita had become pregnant as a teenager. I was told that she tried to abort the fetus apparently by drinking lye. She never gave birth, but after the supposed abortion, she began to take on the look of a pregnant woman. She was told she had a tumor, but resisted all urgings to go to a doctor. She claimed that she had a "man in my stomach."
She attended the Catholic Nazareth Mission school as a child, and was befriended by Sister Mary Topp. She explained, "I had my hands washed in the Holy Water at the mission. Sister Mary on her dying bed asked me, Juanita, will you promise to work in this mud for the rest of your life?And I said, "Yes, Sister, I will."
Juanita Rogers had a close relationship with her mother who was part Creek Indian. After her mother's death, Juanita, who was about twenty at the time, became more reclusive, eventually with drawing to her rural pasture home with her common law husband, Sol Huffman. After his death in 1980, her creativity escalated. She denied any participation in "hoodoo" and was aware, but renounced African-American funerary and charm traditions, and preferred to embrace instead her Native American heritage. A closer examination of her art, its derivations and intentions, will certainly place her in the middle of many traditional cultural cross currents.
An easy assumption has been that Juanita Rogers was insane. A more interesting possibility is that some trauma as a child or possibly the attempted abortion deeply affected her, compelling her to substitute for herself an alternate identity and personal history for her psychological salvation. Her convoluted stories of her life and the need to surround herself with surrogate protectors or perpetrators (whichever the case may be) created a strange mystery around her. Perhaps by not caring for the sculptures permanence, she was self fulfilling an inner desire to create and destroy, to breathe life into the dead dry bones and procreate life in the only way she could. By creating these scary creatures, she perhaps attempted to exorcise the demons within her and breathe life once more into her spirit as well. Only Juanita could have really told us for certain. Perhaps the fetus she tried to abort never passed from her body but calcified in her belly, eventually killing her. Whichever may be true, all these influences and more were the nutrients for her incredible creativity.
Juanita Rogers lived in a strange world that she created in her own mysterious way to have a purpose. Perhaps her employer, Mr. Stonefish was imaginary but he was the impetus for her mud creations. Her mission was a compulsion she could not squash. She was in the literal translation a true Outsider artist.
Juanita Rogers' work is now hanging in prominent collections in: L'Aracne Museum, Paris, France, Art Brut Museum, Lausanne, Switzerland, Outsider Archives, London, England, as well as many private collections, such as Michael Stipe, REM. Her work has been shown in such exhibits as: Retrieval: Art in the South, 1984; Baking in the Sun, 1982, and Passionate Visions, 1994.
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Copyright © 1998 ANTON HAARDT
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