“Art is a great generosity, that is my definition. It is giving everything of yourself. When I am finished painting, I am exhausted because I have given it all I have.” Tut Riddick
Wearing red glasses, painted shoes, and bright lipstick, everything about Tut Riddick is colorful and alive. She wears a necklace that says, “Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.” Often described as the “Godmother of art” in Mobile and her hometown of York, Alabama, Tut is 88 years old and still constantly curious and creative as she paints or writes poetry and letters every day.
She says she was black in a former life and raised on the Bible and Oscar Wilde. She has had “too many miracles happen in my life not to be spiritual.”
In the sunniest corner of her living room stands an easel surrounded by tables covered with paint brushes, tubes of acrylic paint, a skull, a teddy bear and a shirt that says “create your own reality.” Other people’s paintings also hang on the walls, each with a story or memory. The quotes in the Amos Kennedy posters are hers: “Art is a bridge,” and “How can you know Jesus if you can’t write a thank you note?”
Her bedroom shelves are lined with journals filled with stories of trips, conversations, phone numbers, sketches, and church bulletins covered in notes such as “we should never outgrow our need to study.” Every journal is labeled: New York 1974, The West 1981, and Penland 1979.
Books on politics, art, injustice, and a $500 house in Detroit are piled next to a statue of Barack Obama on the nightstand by her bed. Hats are stacked on mannequin heads and newspaper stories about friends are tacked to her closet door. Outside is a walkway made of pens, broken bits of pottery, a telephone cord and glasses. The neon heart on the roof is a gift from her husband, Harry, and she turns it on when she knows friends are stopping by. A sign by the front door says “Welcome to the Fun House” and Tut’s schnauzer, Zorba, is always by her side.
Tut has lived with her husband, Harry, in the Fun House for 60 years. All of those years he gave her the encouragement and space to be herself. In the hall is a collage with two pairs of eyes and a picture of the couple. Beneath the picture she wrote, “We aren’t here to see through each other, but to see each other through.”
Tut has just been recognized as one of five artists who are an “integral part of the contemporary art scene” in 5 Mobile Artists at the Mobile Museum of Art. The exhibit opened October 6 and displays some of her portraits from the 1950’s to ones she did a few weeks ago.
She has received the Governor’s Arts Award and is in the Black Belt Hall of Fame for her contributions to art in Alabama. There is also a collection of her paintings in the Riddick Art Gallery at the University of West Alabama. She went to art school in Paris and New York and spent 30 summers at her beloved Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. She has worked in photography, screenprinting, plaster, etchings and lithographs and could have been a successful artist anywhere in the world, but stayed in Alabama and dedicated herself to bringing art to Mobile and York. She was recently given the Lifetime Achievement Arty award from the Mobile Arts Council.
“Mobile is a diamond mine. This is a spiritual town and all great art is spiritual.”
Tut’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Arty
Words, not art, brought Tut to Mobile. She was the first female debate champion at the University of Alabama and was hired as the debate coach at Murphy High School. She also taught art and literature at Glendale High School in Prichard.
“I had lawyers in my family so debate and standing up for people came naturally, but I was also surrounded by art and my grandmother had a degree in art,” she says. “My grandmother and aunt raised me and growing up in a female household was the best thing in the world for me. My family, the Altmans came over in a covered wagon from South Carolina with books and a bed and put education above everything. They encouraged education for all people, including blacks and women, and for us to have differing opinions. That was unusual in the South at that time.”
The Altmans owned timberland in Sumter County and the family money came from her Uncle Henry who collected gold and cotton and hid them in the swamps of the Tombigbee River at the end of the Civil War. He lived next door to his brother and one was for the war, the other against it. When the war was over, Henry took the cotton to Mobile and sold it for a large profit. The money was later passed down to her grandfather who opened the first bank in York. She says coming from a prosperous family of free thinkers gave her the armor and courage to be herself.
“Tut was a child of the Black Belt with an unconventional youth, adored by the people and town who raised her,” says Mobile artist Mary Elizabeth Kimbrough who was mentored by Tut and her family also grew up in the Black Belt. “That created a fearless, confident woman.”
Tut is also sensitive and appreciates feeling emotions from other artists as much as she does expressing herself. She screams at a painting of a woman screaming because it was the way she felt after the presidential election. She goes quiet and puts her hands over her heart when she is moved by a mural of an old man’s overworked hands.
Mobile potter Charles Smith was the first artist she claimed as her son. They met when he was a senior majoring in art at Jackson State University. “She walked straight up to me with eye contact and I didn’t know who that white woman was,” Smith says. “I was shocked when she took me in, but she made me feel like I was special.”
Tut bought Smith’s pottery through the lean years, giving him breathing room to be creative and become an artist. He says her knowledge kept him from reinventing the wheel, but he had to listen.
“She is an artistic angel and a living treasure,” Smith says “Back in the day, she was big stuff. Tut could make a phone call and get things done. She walked into a room and all of the sunshine went to her. She was ahead of her time.”
The two recharge and energize each other and made pots together with lines from Tut’s poems circling Smith’s clay. He calls them “collaborative pieces to clean out the system,” and each of her lines has a memory:
I am back in the sun with a good dog and a good man who comes home with vegetables
I am glad that I danced on tables, screamed loud at games, and walked in the rain
When Darrel laughed, stones giggled, fish wiggled. the knots of winter went slack and we floated away on a lizard’s back. “Darrel used to work in my yard.”
Tut was often advised to get out of the South to be a successful artist, but a teacher in New York told her if she refused to leave she should ‘Paint the black people. No one has done it well and you can,’ she says. “My teacher was right. I stayed where I was needed, where I could make a difference.”
Art has always been her response to injustice and the wrongs of history. Her painting “Grenada” depicted black children being stoned on the way to school in Grenada, Mississippi. “We have so much rancor, racism and hate in the South. It is heartbreaking. We have to hold on to ourselves and pull together.”
She paints the beauty of black faces, creating art that has soul, vitality and life to help us understand each other. Some of her favorites are a collection of portraits of performer Josephine Baker and a wall of portraits showing the range of emotions of Tameka, who cares for Tut and Harry in their home.
“Running Water” is a portrait of a young black man wearing headphones with the words: “You can’t stop running water. You can’t kill the fire that burns inside. Don’t deny our flesh and blood…Don’t forsake our sons and daughters…” written around the edges of the painting.
Tut created the Coleman Center in York in 1985, and gave much of her career to bringing art and hope to her hometown and the Black Belt, one of the poorest regions in the country. Supported by state and national foundations including the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the center still provides art classes, a library and place of creativity for children. Kids cover roller skates in paint and glitter and read Sherlock Holmes and Huck Finn.
“My son was mentored by Tut and he is proud of being from the Black Belt,” says Glenda James, who works in the library at the Coleman Center. “I want her to know that her work is not in vain and we are building on what she started. Our young people are thriving and art is becoming important to them.”
Tut brought in artists to teach at the Coleman Center and some stayed in York for years. Letterpress printer Amos Kennedy is a Glasgow Artist Fellow and in 2016 received a $50,000 Artist Assembly grant. He lives and works in Detroit, but his breakthrough happened when he moved from New York to York.
“I was not in a happy time of life before I met Tut. Her love of making things is infectious and she encourages other people to explore their talents,” he says. “Her success is painting people she loves and giving the portrait to them. There are hundreds of paintings around Mobile that she has just given away. She loves to see people happy and she restores your faith in the good of humanity. She is a prophet in her own land and will never be properly appreciated for what she has done.”
Lilly Mack worked at a garment factory in York and made clothes and quilts on the side. After the factory shut down, she joined Black Belt Designs started by the Coleman Center to help factory workers who lost their jobs.
“I started doing more artistic work and making high-end clothes with Black Belt Designs,” Mack says. “I have sent clothes to Italy, Australia, and California and never imagined I would meet the people I have met or do the things I have done. I make clothes for Tut, too. When Tut opened the Coleman Center, I had never even been to a library. Now, I have a sister who is a poet and has published two books of poetry. Tut changed our lives.”
Tut is still changing lives, but can’t get out as much as she used to, so the world comes to her through books and visits from friends. She writes poetry in her journal to help the world make sense:
I can’t be out the gate,
But, early or late,
I don’t have to wait.
The world comes to me.
The World Comes to Me, May 2017
Tut has survived cancer on her vocal cords with surgeries where it “hurt too much to cry.” She only has one vocal cord now and says being a survivor and an old woman gives her permission to say what is on her mind.
“I am not a fearful person and I am not afraid to say what I want to say,” she says. “If people don’t agree, that is okay. I am like Virginia Woolf, ‘I don’t care what you do in bed as long as you don’t scare the horses.’”
“If I hadn’t gone through all of these stages, how would I understand anyone else? Even the pain makes you richer,” she says. “It is about being compassionate. I end up mothering people, but they need it. Everyone needs more than one mother.”
Part of her “mothering” is writing notes and letters to the people she takes in. She calls it her “ministry” and sent out more than 1,000 letters last year. Notes of encouragement and congratulations, thanking someone for a visit or suggesting a person to meet. The letters often include a poem she just wrote or a photocopied picture of a painting. Letters signed with “Love and Joy,” “Love and gratitude,” or “Darling, I’m proud of you’ and mailed in envelopes painted and glittered with Riddick Fun House on the return address and “Nothing is worth more than this day” written across the bottom.
“65 years is a long time to paint. I am blessed to have so much support and a rich, layered life with a diversity of friends,” she says. “I have given it all I have and life is the only thing that gives you something to say.”