Bones of invention
Taft Richardson Jr. has an advantage over artists who have to buy raw materials. He finds what he needs in the street.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published August 13, 2006
Taft Richardson Jr. is a bent-over man with a bald head and a generous white beard tipped with dreadlocks who walks Busch Boulevard like an Old Testament prophet or maybe John the Baptist.
He is a natural-born preacher, Lord Almighty. You ought to hear him testify. You ought to see his worn-out Bible. He doesn't stalk the streets to preach, though if someone needs spiritual help, he is happy to give it. He is merely looking for dead animals along the highway he can drop into his sack and take home.
He believes in the resurrection of the bony.
Perhaps the dead cat in the middle of the road stinking to high heaven isn't really a cat. Maybe it is something else. Maybe it is an angel of God. Or maybe just clouds, man, just clouds.
The dead cat has a beautiful tail. Back home he uses the bones in his sculpture of a lizard. He also uses bones from a cow, horse, dog, pig, turkey, armadillo and turtle in the sculpture. But the very end of the lizard tail is the tail from the road kill cat.
He calls this sculpture Watch and Pray.
"The eyes follow you, man," he says. "And that piece of bone on the head, that fish bone that looks something like a headdress, it represents prayer."
Florida has no shortage of artists. They paint pictures of sunsets and pelicans. They blowtorch mangrove roots out of copper. They whittle grouper out of wood and mold panthers out of clay.
Of all the artists in Florida, Taft Richardson Jr. is among the most unusual.
"Bones, man," he says. "It's like I can keep the animal alive if I make something out of his bones, a-huh. The bones aren't dead to me, a-huh. Sometimes I can pick up a bone and the vibe is so strong I got to put it down, man. Something about bones is sacred to me."
* * *
Taft Richardson lives in a neighborhood called Spring Hill. His place at 1005 E Skagway Ave. is the only house on the block. His nearest neighbors are a brick factory and a repair shop for car wash machines. The railroad tracks are about 100 feet away but seem closer.
When he sits in his yard during the day, Richardson has to talk loud to make himself heard.
POCKETTA-POCKETTA! roars the brickyard machine.
CHOOCHOOCHOO! rumbles a passing train.
"You know what, man," Richardson says in his preacher's patois. "If you listen to it, if you pay attention to it, you hear it as noise. But I get in this state, a-huh, and the noise becomes music, a-huh. I'm building something, man, and I got this music. It's beautiful."
He grew up in the neighborhood. He is 62 now. He left for a while, tried to make a living with his art in Washington, did construction work, but moved back when his mother was ill. He rented the house, turned it into the Garden of Eden. He doesn't call it the Garden of Eden - that would be immodest - but everybody else does.
His yard represents the only green in the industrial neighborhood. He grows pecans, avocados, mangoes, oranges, grapefruit. He has shade, man, shade and mosquitoes. The mosquitoes seldom bother him, but sometimes they aggravate other people so he keeps a can of Off! at the ready. Off! doesn't kill mosquitoes; it discourages them. He doesn't believe in killing.
"I used to eat meat but dealing with all the bones I stopped eating meat," he says.
The bone art started 38 years ago at his kitchen table. He was eating beef ribs. He gnawed the meat off the bone and stacked the bone on the side of the plate. Soon he had a stack of bones.
That's what he remembers yelling. The bones had spoken. Make us into a giraffe.
"I didn't do it, God did it," he says. "God gave me my calling."
He was a little older than 20 at the time. He had two great parents. He had friends who cared about him. Yet he felt adrift. He felt the streets calling him, as they called to other men who grew up in poverty and sometimes ended up in jail.
He likes to tell people he was saved by the bones.
* * *
His daddy was Taft Richardson too. He was an auto mechanic and a boat builder. He could make anything with his hands and passed on those skills to his seven sons. His mother could do anything in the kitchen and in the garden. Neighborhood folks said she could heal the sick with plants. As a little boy, Taft Jr. was ill with asthma until his mother fed him herbs, goat's milk and prayer. Even the matriarchs in the community were awed. They called her "Miss Mary," a term of respect.
Taft stuffed his pockets with bones. He stuffed his shirt with fruit. He was always playing with the bones. It was almost like he was waiting for a message.
"I thought he was weird," says his older brother, Harold, 69 now. "Then one day, years later, I came home for a visit. Taft was in the back yard with his bones. I went out there to see what he was doing with them.
"Oh, my God! I never saw anything like it!"
* * *
The crucifix, which he calls The Answer, stands about 4 feet high. He built it out of cat bone and pig feet and cow leg. He built the crown of thorns using teeth from garfish.
Glory Hallelujah! is a crane made from the bones of a rooster, raccoon and dog. The crane's head leans back with open beak and crows at the dawn.
Every once in a while he sells a piece for a few hundred dollars. More often his art is displayed in museums in Tampa and Orlando and in coffee-table books such as Just Above the Water: Florida Folk Art, written by University of Central Florida professor Kristin Congdon and Florida Department of State folklorist Tina Bucuvalas.
"He is an amazing human being and an excellent artist," Bucuvalas says. He is "one of a large group of African-American artists who base sometimes idiosyncratic painting and sculpture upon their strong Christian spiritual beliefs. Many of these people also consider themselves preachers and consider their art as a way to spread the word."
* * *
Richardson carries the bones home and deposits them in his back yard and lets the ants do the work. The advantage of his neighborhood is that he is the only full-time resident on his block. So he hears few complaints.
Used to be he drove his truck along the interstate and collected great bones from deer and alligators and hogs. The gasoline got expensive and he traded the truck for a bike. Now he walks, though his friend with a truck sometimes takes him on a road trip.
Not long ago, outside the city limits, they saw turkey vultures circling. After the scavengers picked clean the bones, the artist hauled what was left of the horse all the way to his back yard.
"I'm going to make it a serpent," he says. "That's what the bones told me."
A friend ate a freshwater turtle and presented it to the artist.
"That was one angry turtle," he says. "I'm going to make that turtle into a cobra."
In the back yard he has lockers full of white bones. He has containers of glue made from crushed bone and paste. He has interesting rocks and plants and pieces of tin. The house he shares with his wife, Rosa, is somewhat of a museum as well, full of paintings and bone sculptures. "Hey, man," the artist says. "What do you think of John the Baptist's head?" Fish. Cat. Turkey.
John is among his favorite Biblical figures. John was a prophet who spoke spiritual truth to power. John was an eccentric, too, wearing animal skins and eating locusts and honey. Richardson likes honey but he would never eat a locust. That would be killing.
* * *
Florida was different when he was a boy. The neighborhood was different. White people had their own schools and churches and stores and black people had theirs. Of course, separate didn't mean equal.
The artist sometimes misses the old days. He recalls fondly a small community of close-knit families. Most households had a father and a mother. Kids got into mischief, but loving adults often saved them from themselves.
Richardson worries about his neighborhood now. Many children don't know their dads. Some don't have moms at home. Many kids become adults too soon.
For years, Richardson and his brother and other grandparents in the neighborhood have been running an artist's camp at the Garden of Eden. Every day kids from other blocks in the neighborhood come to work on their art.
They draw pictures, they paint, they sing songs, they sculpt. Of course, they hear a lot about the Bible. Some children are older teens, some are too young for school. "If the child can walk, he can dance," Richardson says. "If he can color with a crayon, he can paint."
Sometimes the children and their teacher investigate the curbs for bone, glass and cans, which they use in their art. A bedspring abandoned on the roadside might turn out to be a daddy longlegs spider after all.
"It's a struggle man, from the womb to the tomb," Taft Richardson Jr. says. "We have to take care of our children."
He funds his children's program through his art and collects donations from kind-hearted people. He hopes one day the city of Tampa gets behind him, but until then at noon on Saturdays he holds a fish fry to raise money.
In the early evening, after the kids have gone home, after the brick factory has turned off the pocketta-pocketta machine, he enjoys his yard. He can even hear the cicadas.
"I feel like I'm in the wilderness, man. I feel like John the Baptist. A-huh. A-huh. It's not the wilderness of John, it's an urban wilderness."
The high-crime urban street lights shine yellow through the pecan tree branches into his yard. He walks into the house, grabs his Bible, reads the scripture about the time a disciple asked the teacher for a good prayer.
"Our father, which art in heaven," is what it says in the King James in his lap. The artist is sure King James actually meant to write "Our father, who arts, in heaven."
Anyway, that's how he prefers to read it.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ON THE WEB
Further reading about Taft Richardson Jr. on the Internet: www.folkvine.org/richardson.