Herbert Singleton: The Life in His Art

By Isabelle Haines

There are things about Herbert Singleton, the renowned New Orleans folk artist, that any museum plaque can tell you. The simple facts of his life are dates and places: born in Algiers in 1945, died in Algiers in 2007. The living in between is harder to pin down – Singleton led a complicated life that included many violent encounters, a narcotics habit that had him in and out of prison for nearly 14 years, and a clear-eyed understanding of a complicated era in New Orleans history. Singleton’s carvings were often autobiographical, but they also drew on religion, history, and everyday life in Algiers. He captured jazz funeral processions in mid-step, incidents of police brutality, lynchings, as well as historical and biblical scenes. The effect of Singleton’s talent is almost alchemic – every pair of eyes contains emotion and every background pops with colors as vivid as hothouse flowers.  

“To be able to accomplish that with just cans of enamel paint and a chisel is masterful,” says Bradley Sumrall, a curator at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Sumrall is referencing Singleton’s 1992 piece Leander Perez, which depicts the notoriously racist democratic leader of Plaquemines Parish looming menacingly over a crowd of black New Orleanians who had come to help rebuild the parish after a hurricane. Even when capturing sweeping historic scenes such as this, Singleton’s knack for detail shines through: every face in the carving is unique. 

Terms like ‘amateur,’ ‘self-taught,’ and ‘outsider’ have been attached to Singleton’s carvings since they started appearing in exhibitions and galleries. Like the setting for a diamond, this is the context in which his work is most frequently placed. However, many feel that these labels undercut his talent: “It might have been outside the art market or outside the art world, but he was very much an insider in the city and an insider in the subject matter he was depicting,” says Sumrall.

In the ‘80s, Singleton found a foothold to the New Orleans art scene in Barrister’s Gallery, a renowned establishment that dealt in folk and ethnographic art. Over the years, he developed an enduring friendship and creative partnership with Andy Antippas, the owner of the gallery. 

“I was indolent, and I hated to drive,” Andy Antippas says. Typically, folk art dealers spend their time driving pickup trucks down winding country roads, on a ceaseless search for the virtuoso in the backwoods or the genius in the swamp. Antippas preferred the city and his gallery on Royal street. Over the years, Antippas built a community of local artists, including the renowned illustrator Roy Ferdinand and, of course, Herbert Singleton. 

Yet Singleton’s life as an artist didn’t start in the gallery on Royal Street. It started along the west bank of the Mississippi River, where Singleton built mud sculptures as a child. It started with tree stumps and pieces of driftwood that he transformed into canes and sold around his neighborhood as a teenager to pay off drug debts.  In a piece that Andy Antippas wrote for the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Singleton described his process: “When the river was low, I would find a plank of wood to carve. I would look at it and wonder if someone’s life fell apart.”

“The canes, incidentally, had a life of their own,” Antippas says. So the story goes, a buggy driver from the French Quarter beat a man to death with one of Singleton’s sticks. Although this incident remains unconfirmed, the anecdote alone was enough to earn the canes a new nickname: ‘killer sticks.’ When word of this incident reached Singleton, he stopped carving the canes altogether. Much later, he became known for his bas-reliefs, which were carved on repurposed doors in the back of Barrister’s Gallery. 

“He would come every single day, get money for a six-pack and cigarettes, and go out in the back,” Antippas says fondly. Although Singleton always had a singular vision for his art, there was a collaborative component to their friendship: “I asked him: ‘Could you do something as if you were looking out the window of your house?’,” Antippas says. In Singleton’s line of sight was a community full of pain, humor, and subtlety. One of Antippas’s favorite social critiques appears in one of Singleton’s many funeral carvings: a priest appearing to comfort the wife of the deceased is really trying to seduce her. 

“Herbert actually told me that there were congregations in New Orleans of people who were entirely related to the minister,” Antippas laughs. Singleton’s work is replete with hidden meanings of this nature, as well as more biting commentary on New Orleans’s communities. Roy Ferdinand, another artist featured prominently in Barrister’s Gallery, drew upon similar themes in his drawings. 

“Both of them became very, very serious critics of their own community,” Antippas says of Singleton and Ferdinand. “They saw the disaster that had befallen the young people who were killing themselves.”

The disaster to which Antippas is referring was a period of unrest in New Orleans that began in the ‘80s and lasted through the mid-’90s. During this time, a nation-wide crack epidemic metastisized to neighborhoods like Algiers. Incidents of police brutality saw a significant increase, as did the rates of robbery, assault, and murder. In 1992, New Orleans was declared the homicide capital of the country. One of Singleton’s carvings from that same year, entitled Strawberry Woman, depicts a forlorn woman standing over a tombstone. Beneath her feet are the words: Ashame of being shame. Two years later, a record-breaking 424 murders made 1994 the most violent year in the city’s modern history. In the middle of this rolling boil, Singleton carved out the zeitgeist. 

“I wanted him to reflect the community,” says Antippas. “He understood beyond what I was asking for.” 

Singleton’s own life was punctuated with violence. In the early hours of November 9th, 1980, a white, 23-year-old cop named Gregory Neupert was found lying in a ditch a few feet away from his police cruiser with a bullet in his neck. Neupert had been on patrol near the Fischer Projects in Algiers that night, and in response to his death, the NOPD raided the neighborhood, killing 4 civilians in the process. Among the victims was Sherry Singleton, sister to Herbert, and her boyfriend Reginald Miles. Sherry Singleton had been taking a bath when the police raided her boyfriend’s house and was shot dead in the tub. She was 26 years old. In addition to the killings, several individuals, including Singleton himself, were taken in for questioning and beaten by the police. The abuse in Algiers sparked city-wide outrage, and in 1981, 7 of the police officers involved in the brutal interrogations were indicted, giving the Algiers 7 tragedy its name. Three of those indicted officers were later convicted for their misconduct, but the NOPD never faced any legal consequences for the deaths of Sherry Singleton and the other 3 victims. 

Although images of police brutality and racial violence appear are recurring motifs in Singleton’s body of work, there is only one carving that overtly references the Algiers 7 case. The carving depicts Singleton tied to a chair with a plastic bag over his head, flanked by 2 white policemen. One of the policemen holds a phone book, an allusion to the beating Singleton endured during the siege.

The end of Singleton’s career and the decline of his health began with Hurricane Katrina. While the rest of his family evacuated to Houston for the duration of the storm, Singleton remained in Algiers and was among the estimated 100,000 people trapped in New Orleans after the storm. When his family returned, Singleton was nowhere to be found. Together, Antippas and Singleton’s mother called all the hospitals in the area and then all the military installations as far as Baton Rouge with no luck. Just when it seemed like Singleton had walked off the end of the earth, the phone in Barrister’s Gallery started ringing. Singleton was recovering in a military installation in Baton Rouge, and the gallery phone number was the only one he could remember. Due to a malfunctioning liver that released toxins in his brain, his memories of the storm were vivid hallucinations: Klu Klux Klan members sodomizing his brother on the roof of his house in Algiers and a helicopter lifting his grandmother from the branches of a tree in the yard. In reality, Singleton’s brother had taken refuge in Houston along with the rest of his family. His grandmother had been dead for many years. 

In the wake of the storm, there was great anticipation within the New Orleans art community for a Singleton Katrina piece. Collectors and curators clamored to see his hallucinations made tangible in wood and brought to life in color. They were waiting for a piece that would never come.  

“They wanted all the grotesque, insane things. He didn’t want to do anything,” Antippas says. With his body weakened first by Hurricane Katrina and then by lung cancer, Singleton gave up carving during the final two years of his life. Gone were the days of beer and cigarettes in Barrister’s Gallery. Instead, Antippas met up with Singleton to get his prescription refilled, and also paid frequent visits to the artist’s home in Algiers. He came bearing pre-sanded wood, a brand new set of carving tools, and enamel paint. 

“I went over on a regular basis because of the outside expectation that I would get a piece that I would send to the Smithsonian,” Antippas says. “I went to the extreme of getting a piece of his that I had at the gallery, an unsold totem piece, that I pretended needed to be repainted.” The totem carving might have been an excellent Trojan horse, but it didn’t matter. Nothing could entice Singleton to pick up the chisel. The last thing he ever painted was a canvas portrait of Pope John Paul II, which he presented to Antippas in jest during one of their visits. The portrait was so traditional in its composition and so unlike the rest of his body of work that it registered as a prank. 

“I told him, “no one is ever going to believe you did this Herbert. For the first time in your life, I want you to sign the piece.” So he signed ‘Singleton’ on the back of it,” Antippas says. “That’s the piece that I think I’ll get buried with.” 

Since his death in 2007, Singleton’s work has continued to sift through collections and exhibits around the world. In recent years, he has been one of many black folk artists to receive fresh attention from museums. Bradley Sumrall is aware of the significance of this folk art renaissance: “They never got the museum shows that they should have at the time. And museums are correcting those mistakes now.” 

Notably, in 2015, a solo exhibition of Singleton’s work at the Ogden Museum received glowing reviews. Although some still might consider folk artists like Herbert Singleton to be amateurs, Sumrall thinks that their artistic legacy is more profound.

“These were the social commentary artists of New Orleans in the ‘90s,” he says of Singleton and his contemporaries. “These were the people that were really opening up a dialogue of the problems that the city was facing – just like Goya did, just like Courbet did, just like artists have done throughout history.”

Cover photo by Andy Antippas

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