Sulton Rogers was born on 22 May 1922 near Oxford, Mississippi, and attended school for only a few years. When he was young his father, a carpenter, taught him to carve, making small animals and canes. Rogers married for the first time at age nineteen and went on to father ten children by several different women. He abandoned his family and ultimately settled in Syracuse, New York, in 1952, and found a job working the night shift for Allied Chemical. He began carving again to fill the time.
His carvings are usually a hybrid of animals and people, such as a cat’s or bird’s head on a neatly dressed woman’s body or a dog’s head on the body of a man wearing a suit and tie. Most figures measure between twelve and fourteen inches tall and are painted. Rogers found his inspiration in his dreams, in memories of people and animals from his childhood in rural Lafayette County, and in people he met during his travels.
Rogers’s witty creations often use satire to ridicule the human condition. His figures—singly or in couples or funeral or wedding scenes—are amusing and disturbing. For example, a pair of legs wearing tidy shoes emerges from a snake’s mouth. The faces of his figures are sometimes walleyed or are twisted into grotesque grimaces, with noses and mouths curving toward the back of the head. Sometimes a bystander is two-headed, is visibly injured with blood dripping from an empty eye socket, or has three legs. Snakes emerge from mouths or wrap around breasts or legs. People grin or stick out their tongues.
Rogers also created explicitly sexual scenes and figures, often humorously outrageous. One dog-headed man has his pants down and is aroused as he clutches the third breast of woman with the head of an owl. One woman gives birth to a dog-headed baby and makes an obscene hand gesture while a doctor with devil horns looks on. Rogers’s “ghost houses” or “haint houses” depict bodies in open caskets, snakes, and vampires. Often his figures have devil horns or are holding pitchforks. Some do not believe that animals have souls and therefore cannot be “haints,” so Rogers’s fusion of animal and human creatures has an even more disconcerting effect.
Rogers retired from Allied Chemical in 1984 and moved back to Mississippi, where he created hundreds of carvings and scenes and began to receive recognition as an artist. His work was included in major museum shows, among them Black Art: Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1989 and Passionate Visions of the American South at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1995. His figurative sculptures are found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; the University of Mississippi Art Museum; the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore; and the Billy R. Allen Folk Art Collection at the African American Museum in Dallas.
Rogers died on 5 April 2003 in Oxford.
- John Foster, Folk Art Messenger (2003)
- Robert V. Rozelle, ed., Black Art: Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art (1989)
- Wilfrid Wood, Folk Art Messenger (1997)
- Alice Rae Yelen, ed., Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present (1995)