Leroy Person

 

Person was a wood-carver who spent his life in the small rural community where he had grown up in a family of African American sharecroppers: Occhineechee Neck, on theedge of a swamp in northeastern North Carolina. He had little formal education and remained functionally illiterate throughout his life. In his adult years he earned aliving by working in a sawmill, until he took early retirement owing to a severe case of asthma. To occupy his time after retiring, he developed a singular chip style of wood carving that he initially applied to his small wood-frame house, incising the lintels and the frames of its doors and windows with decorative patterns and imagery.He then carved a number of wood slabs that he used to construct a fence around his small yard, surmounting them with silver-painted hieroglyphic signs. Unfortunatelyfor later admirers of his work, his embellishment of his house and yard was not appreciated by his family, and before his work reached an audience outside hiscommunity, he removed the fence and his hand-carved architectural details and disposed of them.Soon afterward, in the mid-1970s, a neighbor who noticed a box of scrap lumber that Person had saved to burn as firewood suggested that he instead carve thesewood blocks into objects that might be used as teaching devices for the blind. Although none of his works were ever used for that purpose, Person began covering flat boards with incised patterns and images like those that had previously ornamented his house, and he also started carving small figural objects in the round that he thengrouped to create tableaux. Among the favored subjects that he rendered in his distinctively stylized manner were birds, snakes, aquatic life-forms, vegetation, and tools(for which he used his own tools as stencils). Like traditional wood sculpture from sub-Saharan Africa, to which it has often been compared, his work has extensive dense geometric patterning.He also made desks, cabinets, and chairs that he called thrones from some of the wood scraps he carved. People who acquired Person’s furniture sometimes painted the pieces, but he himself colored most of these works with bright-hued wax crayons.Person found his inspiration primarily in nature, on television, and in his dreams. A highly prolific artist, he took up drawing late in his life, while he was hospitalizedduring one of his more serious bouts of asthma.