John Solomon Sandridge was only 15 when he sold his first drawing, but he still remembers the joy that comes from seeing one’s work appreciated.
Despite his age and lack of artistic training, he decided at a young age that he wanted to become a cartoonist. He called The Alabama Sunday Weekly, and was given an offer: Send in his drawings and the “gag” [the cartoon text], and if the newspaper accepted, he would receive $5. Elated, Sandridge immediately mailed in four sets of cartoons – three of which were picked.
Although he soon received payment from the newspaper, however, the cartoons didn’t immediately appear. After weeks and weeks of anxiously scanning the Sunday newspaper, Sandridge eventually became tired of waiting. He forgot all about the cartoons until one bright Sunday morning when his father silently walked into his bedroom, holding the paper.
“I’m wondering what this is all about – if I did something wrong and I’m going to be chastised,” says Sandridge. “And then he opened it up and he showed me the cartoon, and he smiled. That was the best experience I’ve ever had with my father – he was so proud of me.”
Now 61 years old, Sandridge has come a long way from his modest beginnings. He’s perhaps best known for being the first African-American to be contracted to create artwork for Coca-Cola. However, his most recent work, currently being exhibited in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, is of a far more personal and transcendent nature. This new collection – a mixture of both impressionist and abstract paintings and sculptures revolving around his heritage and personal life – stems wholly from a spiritual place.
Sandridge defines his new style of work as “Numinousneoism” – a method of creating art defined by receiving rather than giving inspiration.
“Numinousneoism is art that is totally spiritual,” says Sandridge. “I don’t have to consciously conjure up an idea or thing or concept or colors. It’s something that I just receive. I just stand in front of the canvas and it seems to appear, and the next thing I know is that I’m creating something.”
At first glance, Sandridge’s definition of Numinousneoism seems a little anticlimactic, and almost clichéd; many artists, after all, claim to be privy to a sort of otherworldly, universal force that powers their work. But in the context of his own life, this form of inspired (rather than created) art is both relatively new and seemingly, highly profound.
Although clearly talented and passionate from a very young age, Sandridge’s creative ambitions were repeatedly stifled, first by poverty, then by practicality. Growing up poor in a three-room house, he received little direction or support from either his parents or his traditional schooling.
After years of working “real” jobs while painting on the side in order to support his wife and children, he desperately began to research corporations in the hopes of learning the secret to success. It was here that he learned how Coca-Cola had never used African-Americans in any of their early 20th century advertisements – something Sandridge wanted to correct.
After receiving the company’s blessing and becoming licensed officially under the Coca-Cola brand, he quickly set about rewriting history, distributing vintage-style artwork of smiling African-Americans sipping the world’s most popular beverage. He not only received recognition for his work, but more than enough financial stability to support his family – something he says “felt like heaven.”
But after five years of signing autographs and traveling to museums, Sandridge hit a dry spell in terms of inspiration. He no longer had the strength to rewrite history for a fee and ceased producing art altogether for almost eight years – a silence that was broken, he said, only after connecting to his own ancestors. He began researching and writing about his great-great-grandfather, a freed slave called Nimrod.
“I started writing the rich history and the atmosphere in the room would change,” says Sandridge. For the first time, he felt as if he was connecting to something far beyond himself – deep into the world of the original Africans. “Now I receive my inspiration for Numinousneoism from those ancestors, and that’s what this exhibit is about.”
Although Sandridge acknowledges that his art is highly personal, he feels like it has the ability to touch others, regardless of their own personal background. “[I want to push people] to discover their own story,” he says. “To discover their immediate family history, to discover slavery through a different lens than just whites killing and enslaving black Africans, to understand that there was more to it than just suffering and pain, and to realize that we’re all brothers and sisters under the same skin.”
Sandridge’s Numinousneoism, which includes more than 150 paintings and sculptures, will be on display through March 23 in the BCRI’s Odessa Woolfolk Gallery. Sandridge is also promoting his book Red Book and Cotton, based on the history of his great-great-grandparents. The art in the exhibition and the book are all for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to the BCRI. Another portion of the sale of Sandridge’s art supports the nonprofit he started, the Number 2 Pencil Foundation, which aims at teaching youths how to use his art style to “Save Their Own Future.”
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is located at 520 16th St. N, and is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. General admission is $12. For more information, call (205) 328-9696.