When Sam Mockbee died, somewhere down South a tree fell—big as an oak, a 57-year marvel in its own place, it drew sustenance from generations of loam and deep water, weathered storms and bent and grew broad, threw off shade and color for all that came and sat beneath it, sheltered all comers, an elemental force that rained out new growth, and, on December 30, returned to its own soil.
If art is seeing and making, to an uncommon degree Sam Mockbee had the soul of an artist. Although a gifted tale-teller, Sambo’s métier was not the written word, the usual currency of his region, but graphic and plastic expression. “You know, what I really love to do is make prints,” he confessed in a honeyed drawl from a porch swing more than 20 years ago, after hearing Mississippi writers Shelby Foote and Ellen Gilchrist read from their own work. In the studio, this bearded, Richardsonian man lightly skimmed over a drawing board in a far corner of the room, apparently burning with his art, perpetually encircled by a haze of smoke from colored pencils and spray paint and student breath; then the drawings would emerge from a messy pile of tracing paper and blow the room clean.
His elemental love of making art, of looking fearlessly and closely at his own world, translated over time into three-dimensional architecture for people. His houses for the affluent, fiercely unsentimental and rooted in contemporary culture, were complex, unfashionable, personal interpretations that drew inspiration from vernacular traditions—including galvanized roofs, rusting metal scraps, dogtrot forms, porches—and recast them into jazz. Sambo found his voice and made the South sing again.
With that same level gaze, this iconoclast, a humorous, self-described “subversive” who was “going to war,” saw injustice. Down the back roads of his native region lay shacks with plastic sheeting for doorways, where a reluctant hand would draw the curtain, hiding its private troubles from passersby. Consistently, unapologetically, Sambo raised the curtain and went inside. Although he had grown up in segregated Meridian, Mississippi, just an hour from the earthen dam that once held the bodies of civil rights martyrs, Mockbee came of age later in the army, where he confronted a richer, more racially multidimensional world: His art and his architecture had discovered their subject.
Early on, his work stood apart. In the late 1970s, his practice in Jackson, Mississippi, included formally powerful, simple churches and residences. After winning a Progressive Architecture Award for a series of small houses for the rural poor in Madison County, Mississippi, where he lived with his own family, he eventually founded Auburn University’s Rural Studio with D.K. Ruth. Based in part on Clemson University’s semester in Genoa, Italy, Mockbee improbably reinvented the semester abroad for Hale County, Alabama, a land drenched in sunlight and greenness and rich soil but blighted by persistent poverty.
Sambo’s “Redneck Taliesin” raised the temperature in the humid little town and attracted the students. The Rural Studio, which soon garnered international attention, required total engagement of student and teacher (including residency, first in a Faulknerian mansion in Greensboro, later at a farmhouse in Newbern). In a way their mothers never could have imagined, students cooked and cleaned; studied regional architectural history; drew; read literature’s great voices; played music; sat up late; met the townspeople; and, especially, planned and built buildings with their hands.
Unusual materials (abandoned tires, shards of concrete, hay bales, and rejected windshields) helped provide uncommon personality and presence for the small structures they made, including houses, chapels, and community centers. Simultaneously, the phenomenon multiplied throughout the country, the Rural Studio flourished, and Mockbee’s legend swelled.
In lectures, Mockbee frequently quoted Alberti’s dictum that we must choose between “fortune and virtue.” Sam Mockbee chose virtue, not as judgmental prissiness, but in a robust, compassionate sense of knocking on doors, finding need, and answering it. By engaging students with authentic clients in Alabama communities, he tapped into the natural optimism of the young, freeing them from the more insular, abstract cynicism and formal obsessions of the design studio. A generation of students, now some 400 strong, inspired by the Rural Studio’s social activism, has followed in Mockbee’s prodigious wake. His real accomplishment, his real art, may lie outside his artful buildings, in the potential work and lives of those that follow, nurtured and liberated and heading out to build. Who among them might take his place?