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March 6, 2001

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This Week's Cover Artist

Tut Altman Riddick

by Michael Smith

To conduct this interview, Tut had to stop working on a poem, "How can you go off and leave two Japanese Magnolias?" She works tirelessly, bringing a wealth of experience to the project du jour.

Tut was born in Mississippi but grew up in York, Alabama in Sumter County. Her parents divorced when she was young and she lived with her grandmother and Aunt Elizabeth. In that small town, she soon knew everyone, including the Blacks who provided valuable domestic service to the Altman family; she loved them as family-members. While the divorce was painful to Tut, it made her mindful of those less fortunate around her. The experience enriched her in that it instilled the need to know both sides of a story to determine the truth of it.

Her childhood was not all painful, however. Her Aunt Elizabeth regularly took her to the theater in Birmingham where they would see the stars of the day perform. She was also given the intellectual freedom to read what she wanted, an uncommon thing in her time.

After studying both at Huntingdon College and Livingston University, Tut completed her B.A. degree at the University of Alabama where she was active in both theater and debate; she had a minor in history. As a member of the National Championship Debate Team she was selected as the southeastern woman debate champion. Debating helped her art. "Debaters are unsure, in advance, which side of a topic they will argue and so must be prepared to argue either side. Similarly, artists must know all sides of their subject to faithfully render it."

Following college, Tut came to Mobile and taught art and literature at Glendale Elementary School. She soon met Harry Riddick who, on their second date, read letters to her which had been written by his brother to his wife and their mother from France during World War II before he was killed. (Incidentally, Harry has published those letters in a book entitled Bread & Wine with W.W.) Although Tut had never really considered marriage--"I wanted a career"--she knew that Harry was special and married him several months later. Tut still taught but her young lawyer husband encouraged her to quit that and paint.

Tut painted in oils, her first love, for fifteen years and was encouraged to move to New York to pursue a career. She believed, however, that Mobile was her destiny and stayed here to fulfill it. She was never ambitious in the political art scene, believing it would have kept her from her work. She became involved, however, with civil rights in Mobile because she felt the injustice Blacks were experiencing. Tut's painting "Grenada," which depicted children being stoned in Mississippi, won an award in a Mobile Art Museum show. She was instrumental in establishing a coffee house, a day care center, a playground, and a quilting club to foster better community relations during troubled Mobile times. She also helped rehabilitate a poor neighborhood and said of it, "If you show somebody you care, they start to care more about themselves."

All the while Tut kept painting. One problem with oil paintings, though, is parting with completed canvases. Tut solved her dilemma, however, when she learned printmaking from Paul Feldhaus, an instructor at Spring Hill College. After immersing herself in printmaking etchings and lithographs for two years, Tut missed painting and went to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina where she learned silk screening. On the last day, she did a photo silkscreen. Influenced by Warhol's silkscreen portraits, she worked on her technique and returned to Penland the following summer to study photography with Lee Freidlander. Though her silkscreen prints were not commercially successful, the Birmingham Art Museum selected one for exhibit, naming Tut one of Alabama's outstanding women artists.

Tut has also written books, four of which have been published. Her first book, People to Know, is a photo collection of Mobile people published by Domingo Soto and The Azalea City News & Review. This book contains sayings and words of wisdom collected by Tut by those pictured in the book. Another book, If You Ain't Dyin' Get Up!, is a book for and about Tut's housekeeper, Ozzie, of many years. In Get Up, Tut shares the wisdom of Ozzie and includes Ozzie-graphs she had taken over the years.

Tut penned a book on her hometown entitled The Monuments of York: A Community Scrapbook. Assembled in three months, Tut combined collages and writings on the railroad town her family had pioneered. Tut said the book "was something she needed to get out of her system." She personally tracked down much of the information presented as record-keeping was almost non-existent in York. Tut sold nearly three hundred copies of the paperback within two days.

tutart.jpg - 16746 BytesTut was instrumental in establishing in York what is now known as the Coleman Center, which houses the City Library, a small art museum or gallery, and a workshop used for crafts and other activities. Tut found the property containing three buildings owned by the Coleman Estate and persuaded them to donate the property to the City of York. Money was raised to completely restore and remodel the principal building thanks to some available public funds and the generosity of several York families.

After writing, Tut felt the need to paint again. She had tired, however, of the framing that was constantly required for her canvases. She studied with Fran Merrit at Penland who introduced her to the technique of plaster painting. Plaster paintings are paintings which have been made in plaster; it is not simply a painting on wet plaster like a fresco painting. (Editor's note: See article on how to make a plaster painting.) Tut's studio and home exhibit many one-to-two-foot tall plaster paintings of irises, scenic road byways, quotations and cemeteries which take on the shape of their subject-matter, providing depth not available on canvas. The plaster paintings can be carved and accommodate buttons, beads, or whatever else Tut might wish to incorporate into the completed painting. She has recently added photographs to the plaster pieces and finds her work becoming more abstract. A similar process with concrete has provided stepping stones and yard art at the Riddick Fun House. The process is laborious, but rewarding: "There are no short cuts to art -- it must be lived."

Currently, Tut is collaborating on one hundred pots with good friend, and well-known potter, Charles Smith. In no hurry to complete the project, they finished fifteen pots last year. Charles throws the pots; Tut takes them while the clay is still wet and carves a line from one of her poems onto each pot. Charles applies the initial glazing and Tut finishes with a glaze, experimenting with various colors.

Tut has worked for many years, providing Mobile with mosaics, paintings, drawings, sculpture, silk-screens, photographs, and books which celebrate life, relationships, and survival following confrontation. Experiencing Tut's work makes celebration easy.


How to Make a Plaster Painting

as explained by Harry Riddick, Tut's able assistant

Draw a color picture, on vellum paper, and place it upside down on a flat surface. Put a piece of flat glass over the drawing and build a frame wall of clay or wood on top of the glass to match the drawing perimeters. Mix some clear gelatin and pour it onto the glass, into the frame mold, to a three-eighths-inch depth. When the gelatin hardens, the drawing should still be visible through both the glass and the gelatin. Select a color from the drawing and cut out all of the gelatin shapes of that color. Mix a small amount of plaster with gouache paint of the desired color and pour into the gelatin holes. Let the plaster harden and repeat the process for each other color. Once all colors are properly plastered, but before the plaster is completely set, take a sheet of hardware cloth, cut slightly smaller than the borders of the drawing, and place on the top of the plaster; a chain should be attached to the hardware cloth so that the plaster painting can be hung. Cover the hardware cloth with one-half inch of white plaster. After the back plaster is set, lift the piece from the glass. The plaster will still be a little soft, so the artist can carve it or embed objects (beads, buttons, etc.) into it if desired. A full year is required for each piece to cure.


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