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A fish out of water...Rufus Snoddy

Anne Stanton - September 7th, 2006
As a black artist whose trademark work is a little edgy and urban, Rufus Snoddy is feeling out of place in Traverse City.
He warmly greeted me at his bi-level home nestled in a Williamsburg subdivision. It was a hot summer day and his little girl Maya and a friend were running in and out of the backyard sprinkler. It’s comfortable, to be sure, but a heck of a change for a guy who is used to living in a huge Los Angeles artist loft complex.
“I like it here, but originally, I didn’t want to move. I was used to L.A. I had quite a reputation there as a premie, up-and-coming West Coast artist. If I had stayed there, a lot of things would have happened. But L.A. was getting too big for me.”
Snoddy was introduced to the area by his wife, Robynn James, whose mother lives in Suttons Bay. He met James, a fundraising consultant, about 12 years ago at an art auction in Venice, CA.
“It was just magic — we talk about it all the time,” he said.
What’s been a little less magical has been the necessity of adjusting his art to the tastes and pocketbooks of Northern Michigan. You can see his new work in the local art galleries of Gallery 50 (in Building 50), Belstone Gallery, and the Michigan Artist Gallery. A major exhibit is scheduled for next June at Gallery 50.
The walls of Snoddy’s home captures the wide range of his work; the stairway decorated with a large black and gold shield. There is a landscape piece in his downstairs studio that captures the soft curves of California’s brown hills, evocative of a woman’s body. The frames on his pieces are sculpted from wood or pieces of plastic or “found” objects.
“I’ve always hated store-bought frames, and I couldn’t afford them anyway,” he said. “My friend and I used to do a lot of bin-diving —- our favorites were the bins at a plastics manufacturer and a cabinet shop. We’d just knock on the door, introduce ourselves as artists, and ask permission to go through their bins.”

Snoddy has faced challenges before, actually pretty early in life. Born the 10th of 12 kids, he grew up near Longview, an East Texas town, in a community of about 100 people. His mom cleaned houses, cooked in a cafeteria, and ironed clothes; his dad worked mostly as a janitor. Their family was poor, but many others were too. In the summertime, he played for hours in the woods and fields. During the school year, he rode a bus 30 miles to a segregated black school instead of attending the all-white school, about a 10-minute walk down the road. (He later found the complaints about busing for integration pretty humorous.)
When he was nine years old, life took an abrupt turn. The late Carl Estes, who ran the “Longview News” and had close political connections with Lyndon Johnson, accused his dad of belonging to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in about 1956. It was untrue, but his dad lost his job setting type for the paper and was told he’d never work in Texas again.
His dad and mom moved to California where there were some relatives, taking only their youngest child with them. “They left us behind for two years. It was a very, very emotional time.”

That’s when Snoddy turned to art for solace. He began pulling apart plants and cars and his sister’s dolls. Sometimes he sketched them. It was a metaphor of sorts -- if he could figure out how things were put together, maybe he could figure out how to do the same with his own family.
At 11, he rejoined his family in California; the traffic, bad air and squeezed-in houses spun him into culture shock. He was laid low the first year with whooping cough and asthma. His neighbor kids befriended him, but brought him trouble a couple of years later.
“I was 13 and really naïve. They were constantly constructing and deconstructing bicycles in my yard, asking me to help them. It turns out they were stealing these bikes, but I had no idea. So one day, I got arrested and taken to juvenile hall, and the police wanted me to confess. They scared the living daylights out of me. They had these big people in this little room, calling me a liar, threatening to beat me if I didn’t admit it. They finally let me go, but from that point on, I knew I never wanted to have that experience again. I was scared straight, not that I wasn’t straight already. I became a loner, a recluse and I got more interested in drawing.”
Snoddy avoided the junior high art classes because the first one was so boring and “not much about art, but about competing and tracing stuff.” But he sketched like crazy—hot rods, monsters and Big Daddy Roth’s Rat Fink. He charged $5 to draw a character on notebooks, clothing and yearbooks, his first professional gig.
Snoddy became a bit of a split personality. At school, he earned straight As, served as class president and excelled in sports. He steered clear of troublemakers. At night, when he walked home through the projects and gang territory, he’d turn into the black, cool guy. He had two different ways of talking, walking, and relating. Everybody liked him. It was subconscious, but really about survival.

In college, he plunged himself into art classes. He evolved from a pragmatic conservative to a ’60s guy exploring the meaning of his life. He transitioned from graphics -- a practical decision -- to fine art and sculpture.
He hit fame pretty quickly with a mural for Pacific Southwest Airlines, painting a 110-foot mural of clouds with the trademark pink, red, orange and white. For years, he was known as the cloud man.
In his college years, he broke off a traditional marriage (he had two sons) and lived for 14 years in a commune of white, mostly Jewish professionals, who decided to raise their children with a supportive community rather than the “nuclear” family model.
“One of the things they found out was that some people have tremendous parenting skills with other people’s kids, but are really bad parents with their own kids—they get too close, too invested and can be overly critical and judgmental.”
He married a woman who lived in the commune, and he was in high demand as a muralist, an art form that is far more popular in California than here.
Snoddy eventually divorced again and grew tired of the closeness of the commune. He moved into a Los Angeles complex of artists, and soon met Robynn James. They moved to Santa Fe, where Maya was born. A few years later when her parents became ill, James grew anxious to return to Michigan. Snoddy had reservations about moving, not knowing how he could support himself or his family, but finally agreed.
Snoddy has always moved freely over the boundaries of the black and white world. He long ago had stopped “performing” -- talking and walking one way with his black friends, and then reverting to his un-jived speech for the white world.
“My head has always been in a universal place. I am a mixture and a hybrid of a lot of different experiences. That’s that. I don’t try to fit in. I am. And that’s what my work is about.”

An exploration of his African roots triggered a whole new direction in his art. He began creating huge shield paintings that symbolized how people protect their intimate, personal space from the ugliness of the outside world.
His shield, “Nemesis of Urbania,” for example, is about the plight of young black men in the big urban areas.
“They have shields, but they’re not working for them …gangs, addiction to drugs, music, fashion, fast food. All the stuff urban kids are into. Most of these things are daily coping mechanisms, but they tend to be destructive.”
On another shield titled “Memory and Longing,” there’s a small frog that looks a little adrift sitting on narrow boards. The piece symbolizes Snoddy in a chasm of lost history -- his ancestral records only date back to 1850. The frog, he said, holds an important place in his mind because it symbolizes metamorphosis and survival, the story of his life.
“As a child, I would never have thought I’d ever have the experiences I’ve had. My head wasn’t that expansive.”
Snoddy’s move to Traverse City four years ago is the biggest morph of his 59-year-life. He’s confronting a new challenge of adapting to local taste. Murals -- for which he is known in California -- aren’t much in demand here. And some art gallery owners told him that his renowned shield paintings wouldn’t sell -- they’re too edgy and expensive. So he’s mixing up his modern sculpture with pictures of landscapes.
He’s also dabbling now with sculptures of nature such as a shiny metallic fish -- his very first fish—that went on exhibit at the Michigan Artist Gallery in Suttons Bay in late July.
He considers his landscape painting as a little tongue-in-cheek.
Although Snoddy has to adapt his art style, he has had no problems meeting and befriending people. In part, that’s because he’s a really likeable guy and just a tremendous storyteller.
“I’m adjusting, I’m really adjusting. But I have this little girl here and that’s my joy. She also has a 15-year-old brother, and I didn’t want to raise those kids in L.A. There are too many distractions for the kids. It’s expensive, there are too my people, too many cars, and it’s materialistic.
“In Los Angeles, people can be very pretentious and very surface. You rarely meet people and find what you meet is what is real in L.A. With people I’ve met here, there’s not a lot of game playing or pretense going on.”
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