Art New Orleans,
              Visionary Art, Outsider Art, Barrister's Art Gallery
Art New Orleans, Barrister's Gallery, Outsider art,
                Visionary art

2331 St. Claude Ave and Spain, New Orleans, LA 70113  • 
504-710-4506  •   Tues-Sat 11am-5pm  •  Directions
Herbert Singleton
Died July 5, 2007

Herbert Singleton featured in


Algiers is a part of New Orleans that most visitors never see. Its small Baptist churches, dangerous looking bars, dilapidated houses and vacant industrial lots are home to some of Americaās worst urban poverty and crime, but good people also live honest lives there, in a culture steeped in spirituality and religion.

Algiers is also home to Herbert Singleton, one of Americaās acclaimed vernacular artists, whose walking sticks, sculptures and bas-relief panels form part of most major collections of contemporary Southern folk art in the US (and also appear in the Collection de lāArt Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland). Sitting on his front steps sipping a beer, Singleton eyes the street running past his narrow front yard, and muses on the 60-inch television set inside his barely furnished home: he bought it after hitting the lottery. Talent and will go further than luck in Algiers, and in his front room, pieces of driftwood and scavenged wood planks awaiting revelations from his chisels and mallet are the raw materials of Singletonās most reliable angle on survival.

Singletonās workspace is a patch of grass in his backyard and the bare wood floor of his living room. With a set of well-worn tools, he carves tree stumps and limbs, cedar cabinet panels and cypress doors, then paints their complexly layered wood surfaces with a bold but limited palette of glossy enamel house and car paint. He marks the walking sticks and sculptures with geometric motifs, vivid color contrasts, emphatic figures and depictions of reptiles, and applies similar aesthetics to the masterfully stylized bas-relief panels. All reveal striking parallels with the traditional carvings of West Africa, but their themes of racism, violence and religion, and the handwritten script recalling roadside signage and religious messages from another era, are distinctly of the American South.


atch Me If You Can
Herbert has been, from time to time, preoccupied with this Zarathustra-like hero who dances on the abyss and spits into the mouth of the volcano -- this panel is a splendid realization of that theme. Cedar (41x21)

The subjects of Singletonās wood panels also include depictions of street life in Algiers: the black struggle, New Orleans jazz funerals and biblical stories. Many read like autobiography, written in raw, personal imagery, both literal and metaphorical. Their simple, cartoon-like figurations convey irony and humor as well as stark emotions. One piece, showing a shackled black man pursued by dogs declares: ĪMy affliction have brought me to shame. I am among a nation of people that have no mercy on the hearts and souls of black people. I can only say this is a good night to die.ā A sign on a casket in one of his jazz funeral scenes reads ĪGlad You Dead You Rascal You,ā a line borrowed from a 1929 song by New Orleans jazzman Sam Theard and made famous by Louis Armstrong.

Singleton has spent nearly 14 of his 58 years in prison, most of them in the Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola, a former plantation once worked by African slaves. Two .38 bullet wounds testify to his violent past. His furrowed face can change from a stoic mask to a charming smile in a flash as he deflects questions about talent or inspiration. ĪPeople make out that my art is some kind of great thing, but for me it aināt no big deal ö it pays the bills,ā he says.

Singleton started carving at age 17, first making voodoo-inspired walking sticks from river driftwood. With a long tradition in African-American culture, such sticks are perhaps the most direct link in American folk art to African influences. Gallery owner, art historian and Singleton patron, Andy P. Antippas wrote in Souls Grown Deep (1), that in both African and African-American cultures walking sticks historically played spiritual, functional and decorative roles, and were used in witchcraft, divination and healing ceremonies brought to the New World by African slaves.

ĪIn Africa,ā wrote Antippas, ĪAs migratory tribes became more settled, the walking sticks once used as implements for herding or warding off predators ·often became more formally decorative staffs, usually bearing emblems of hierarchal rank or social position among African-American carvers, you begin to see similarities with European canes·and the influence of the Old Testament, with its many references to staffs. Singleton makes both walking sticks ö sometimes used in New Orleans for protection against two legged urban snakes, and larger staffs which convey power and authority with seemingly priestly intent ö either in voodoo or referencing Old Testament prophets. In his pieces, snakes going up a staff represent the effort to re-enter heaven and the snakes going down represent the Fall into Perdition.ā



He Fell From Grace
This is a very personal piece for Herbert
with a complex history (which will follow, upon request).
Cedar, (41x23)

As with most African-American vernacular artists, no readily apparent reason exists for the strong African impulses in Singletonās work. Speculation that there is an inexplicable connection to African blood-roots has fascinated many critics, but Herbert Singleton has never revealed interest in African or other ethnographic arts. Some of his carved doors are remarkably similar to Yoruba panel doors in present-day Nigeria, and his carved tree stumps resemble Yoruba divination pieces to the deity Shango. But the tall totemic poles also recall indigenous cultures from the American Northwest. Antippas concludes that these Īinterestingā parallels are Īprobably the fortuitous results of the materials he works with.ā

Voodoo is the indisputable link to Africa. It was brought to New Orleans in the 19th century by slaves from Haiti, and is still intricately wound into the local culture. Singletonās early totems, carved with grotesque faces, included the words ĪVoodoo Protectionā. In many African cultures, such pieces are used to scare off wandering spirits. The hundreds of spirits in the voodoo pantheon invest their power in both African imagery and in corresponding identities, including Catholic saints. Voodoo symbols including skulls, crucifixes, coffins and African animals, all inhabit Singletonās artwork, alongside intrinsically personal representations of decadent street life in Algiers, guns and drug paraphernalia.

Many of Singletonās first walking sticks were sold to pay drug debts to a local pimp known as ĪBig Hat Willieā, who occasionally used them as weapons. That relationship also led to the first sentence in Angola, which deprived him of nearly a decade of carving. On returning, the artist went to work for a self-styled voodoo doctor named Charles Gandolfo, assisting with swamp tours, and taking visitors into the woods for staged rituals. From the driftwood he picked up, he returned to carving and Gandolfo sold walking sticks for him, often adorned with carvings of snakes and crocodiles, which became known as Īkiller sticksā after a French Quarter buggy driver supposedly used one to beat off a mugger.



John Coltrane: ''Monkey on His Back.''
On the far right, Singleton has intuited the presence of Miles Davis. Part of the Baltimore Visionary Museum's exhibition.
Cedar, (60x20)


Around 1988, Singleton started experimenting with bas-relief panels. While the raw materials of his walking sticks and sculptures limited the compositions to natural wood forms, doors and cabinet panels offered a broad, blank canvas for his imagination. He initially drew on voodoo imagery for inspiration, then experimented with more personal subjects. Still recovering from a near-fatal shooting and in the process of kicking a drug habit, Singleton suffered from a stomach ailment which he was convinced was caused by snakes ö under a voodoo hex. Two autobiographical pieces from that time interpreted the illness through voodoo imagery and, he believes, produced a cure. The first shows a skeleton with red and yellow snakeheads poking through its ribs: serpents representing his unhealed wounds, his addiction, and the malignant spirits which held him. A second piece shows a black man pulling two large white snakes from bodily orifices. ĪAfter I done it, that pain went away,ā says Singleton. At the same time, he was creating totems for a local spiritualist church whose members ö like the voodoo practitioner ö used them in healing rituals.

An outpouring of panels followed. Their subjects ranged from the Old Testament to the exploits of ĪMop Topā, a prison cohort who terrorized fellow inmates with broken mop sticks. Perhaps his most powerful pieces deal with the struggles of Americaās black underclass. Singleton strikes the difficult balance between recapitulating stereotypes and ridiculing them in broad burlesque. Drawing on history, New Orleans street culture, and his own life, he interprets not only the racial oppression of a dominant white culture but also the self-destructive conflicts within his own black community.



Strange Fruit
Singleton's response to the ''Without Sanctuary'' exhibition reflecting upon the Southern ''tradition'' of photographing lynchings. The design of the tree must be considered brilliant. Carved, in this case, from a pine panel. (59x19)


New Orleans Slave Auction: ''Africa Done Sold You
New Orleans Inspects You.''
Cedar, (41x20)


Mr. Death:
An unusually text filled piece
which will be explained at length. Cedar (44x20)


Killer Stick
Singleton has not made a ''killer stick'' for a decade. This is a vintage staff from c.1990. It features a demon's head at the top, a trident at the bottom, and a snake creeping up the shaft.
Oak, (59'')


Glad You Gone You Rascal You:
A rare painting by Herbert.
Oil Enamel on Canvas

Among his most visually complex and detailed pieces, Singletonās biblical panels often draw on personal experience whilst seeking broader truths. Humanityās sinful nature, a search for salvation, and the retributions of a personal God are recurrent themes. A recent example, ĪHell is Deep and Hot,ā shows archangel Michael defeating Satan as two African angels fall into the dark abyss. Accompanying text reads: ĪWhosoever causeth a man to go astray in an evil way shall fall himself into his own pit·You can see the prophecies of Revelations out on that street ö brother killing brother, daughter against the parents and parents against the daughters. The Bible says all of that was coming to pass.ā

Although he knows the Bible from cover to cover, Singleton is no churchgoer. ĪThe Bible is right there for anyone who wants it ö thatās my church, all the church I need. What voodoo comes down to, what it all is, is faith by proxy...donāt matter if itās a voodoo queen or preacher or psychiatrist. Itās faith by proxy.ā Turning to a cedar panel, Singleton returns to his carving, not knowing where the piece will take him but sure that paradoxes and revelations are waiting in the wood.

1. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Volume One, eds. William Arnett, Paul Arnett. Tinwood Books, Atlanta, Georgia, 2000.


Dr. Kilikey, the Heroin Man:
A dreadful fellow upon whom West Bank junkies called when they couldn't find a vein. Part of the Baltimore Visionary
 Museum's exhibition.
Cedar, (41x21)

Herbert Singleton


If you wish to
sell any of Herbert's work purchased
from Barrister's Gallery, or elsewhere, please contact
us and I will help you find a buyer. Because I have
been Singleton's dealer and friend for over 15 years,
I am most familiar with his carving and painting
techniques and can provide you with a document
certifying the authenticity of your piece.

It came to my attention eight years ago that,
unhappily, while I was in the complicated process
of moving thousands of pieces of inventory from
Royal Street in the Quarter to what is now my
former location on O. C. Haley Blvd, in 1999-2000,
unscrupulous, pernicious dealers acquired pieces
which were unfinished and subsequently augmented
and painted by others--an enterprise, apparently
that began even earlier—I have already tracked
down six of these forgeries. It has also become
apparent that another New Orleans carver has tried
to emulate Herbert's style and subject matter and
already passed on some of his own work as Herbert's.
Put your mind at ease, or go get your money back.

E-mail jpegs to

Or call  504 710 4506