Ossie Lee Samuels grew up in south Georgia and north Florida, with all the disadvantages of being black in a time and place where money was scarce and racism deeply entrenched. His heritage was Geechee, aka Gullah, the creole culture developed by slave descendants on the southern Atlantic coast. Kept out of school as a child, he was put to work performing menial jobs. As a young man who had tried washing cars, driving a truck, and working in gas stations and pulpwood mills, he moved to New York in search of better opportunities. There he became a prizefighter, until he sacrificed his career by refusing a mobster’s demand that he intentionally lose a match. Returning to Georgia, he settled in Moultrie, a small town where he established himself as a tree surgeon. The job sustained him until 1982, when a tree-topping accident left him seriously injured, temporarily disabled, wheelchair-bound, and deeply depressed. During this period of inactivity he recalled his grandmother’s recommendation of woodcarving as an effective means to calm a troubled mind, inspiring him to start what soon developed into a prolific output of distinctive wood sculptures.
photo © Ted Degener
Samuels carved natural subjects, especially animals, as well as human subjects, extraterrestrial characters, cars, and aircraft. His work’s distinguishing characteristics include its imaginative hybridity – its frequent conjoining of physical features from two or more different animals in a single sculpture – and its idiosyncratic surface details. The sculptures are painted and/or finished with glossy layers of varnish or clear lacquer, sometimes in combination with lurid shades of glitter paint (Samuels was colourblind, according to his longtime dealer Jeanne Kronsnoble, owner of Main Street Gallery.) They’re often embellished with faux jewels, marbles, metal foil, animal teeth, bones, and other ephemera chosen to add flash and personality. Coinciding with his late-life art pursuits Samuels built a lectern and moved several pews into his house to set up a church where he preached sermons on Sundays and whenever the spirit moved him. The small sanctuary doubled as an exhibition space for new works and special pieces that weren’t for sale. Years after regaining his strength and mobility, he continued to make art and preach. When he moved to Tallahassee, Florida, in the 1990s, he brought his sculpture practice with him, along with his church and its trappings
Samuels’ health took a turn for the worse in recent years, primarily due to heart and blood-pressure problems. Visitors to his home in 2016 found him physically diminished and seemingly not long for this world. Kronsnoble visited him in May and found him “in very bad shape” and under hospice care. He died on July 6, 2017.
by Tom Patterson