Juanita Rogers, aka the Mud Woman, created strange sculptures and paintings that were often dark and disturbing.
She kept cow and mule bones under her bed, spoke to spirits, and called her house an ant graveyard. Was she a voodoo priestess as well as an incredible artist?
We dug into Ms. Rogers’ life to uncover more about this intriguing woman.
Let’s jump in!
The Story of Juanita Rogers
Rogers grew up in rural Alabama and lived in a run-down shack. She claimed she was born in a place called Indian, though her family said she was born in Tintop, Alabama.
She started her creative work at an early age when a neighbor taught her to sculpt. Clay, bones, animal teeth, and anything else she finds interesting make up her figures.
Her paintings depicted the world around her, the visions in her head, and the TV shows she constantly watched at home.
Juanita used to say that her job was to make sculptures for a man named Mr. Stonefish, whom she believed worked for the Secret Service. Stonefish was often discussed but never actually seen.
In addition, Rogers referred to her house as a graveyard and said her yard was home to graveyard ants. She was a very religious woman who claimed to have received several messages from God and Jesus.
Juanita’s personal life was certainly tough. After a teenage pregnancy, she developed a cancerous tumor that made her look pregnant at all times.
An Unlikely Friendship
A fellow artist, Anton Haardt, met Juanita in 1980. She spent many years learning about Juanita’s life. And though the two women didn’t trust each other at first, they eventually became friends.
Rogers needed money after her husband died, and Anton helped her in exchange for some of her paintings. Haardt documented the experience and published a book about their friendship, which we’ll discuss later.
Juanita couldn’t care for herself later in life, so Anton helped place her in a hospital. Unfortunately, the cancer was all over her body by the time she went, and Juanita died in 1985 with Anton by her side.
Galleries around the country, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, still display Ms. Rogers’ artwork.
Where Did Juanita Rogers Find Inspiration?
Juanita’s art is truly one of a kind. She made each piece intentionally, and the world was her inspiration.
She collected cow bones and embellished her sculptures with fossil shells, glass, Spanish moss, and even mule teeth. And she hid these relics beneath her bed for safekeeping. Ms. Rogers then added mud to these items to create an original piece of art. She referred to her sculptures as “funny bricks.”
Juanita struggled with her mental health throughout much of her life. She insisted that her work was assigned to her by her friend and mentor, Stonefish, who she believed had supernatural powers.
Her paintings are often dark and sinister. They remind Anton of images related to Voodoo, though Juanita claims to have never practiced the dark craft.
However, Rogers’ TV set was always on in the background of her home. In fact, some of her work appears to be inspired by characters from TV shows such as the Coneheads on Saturday Night Live.
Many people believe her messages from God and Jesus also serve as an inspiration for some of her pieces.
What Mediums Did Juanita Rogers Work With?
As a gifted sculptor, Juanita prefers to work with her hands. As we mentioned above, her sculptures are constructed of mud, bones, and other objects she finds around her graveyard.
Juanita’s paintings are striking, often exhibiting a child-like wonder. She frequently worked with tempera and pencil. Although, late in her career, she began using oil paint provided to her by Anton.
She was also a fan of yarn art. Juanita would unravel sweaters to create new pieces of clothing, such as socks and booties. Closer inspection shows that Ms. Rogers sewed the openings to the socks and booties shut so you couldn’t wear them. What was she telling us by doing that?
Emotive Pieces by Juanita Rogers
Black Beauty is a drawing of a young woman made using pencil and paint.
The woman is lying on the ground next to a tree and a basket of fruit. A small teddy bear stands next to the tree but isn’t particularly excited to be there. The woman has her legs crossed and looks at the viewer.
This could be a self-portrait, perhaps while waiting for Anton to stop by and visit. Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know the full meaning of this piece.
Trailer Park is a pencil and tempera painting featuring two women in the foreground. The background is two trailer homes. One woman works, and the other smiles and waves while carrying a pitcher of water. Both women wear pink dresses.
Juanita left part of the drawing uncolored, potentially considering her time at the park as unfinished business.
In addition, you can see that the wheels are still attached to the trailers. This provides a feeling of the park being a temporary place where weary travelers might stop while on the road.
The trailers are on a dirt lot surrounded by tall trees with green leaves, which expresses a sense of calmness. It’s a snapshot into a typical day at the trailer park and a window into time standing still.
Woman With Fish
Once again, we’re left feeling something is missing with this piece. Why does Juanita choose to leave half of the painting unfinished?
This work features a woman seated with her legs stretched out on the ground. She has beautiful long pink hair pulled back into a bun. The woman is wearing green flat shoes, yet her top and pants are unpainted.
In addition, her right hand rests on her belly while her left arm is outstretched, holding a long stick with an arrowhead at its tip. A large fish hangs from the makeshift spear, and a green bucket rests at the woman’s feet.
This painting brings forth the story of someone working to provide for themselves. Perhaps this woman spent the morning fishing and proudly shows off her catch.
We wonder if the hand on her stomach represents hunger. The bucket tells us that this fish will go home with her, and today’s catch will probably become tonight’s dinner.
Juanita later starts to sell her paintings to Anton to pay her bills. It’s possible Rogers saw her paintings as the fish she was catching to turn into life-empowering food.
Where Is Juanita Rogers’ Art Displayed?
Collectors and curators worldwide celebrate Juanita’s work, and you’ll find it in many outsider and folk art galleries. We found two museums where you can see her art live and in person.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)
The Smithsonian provides the public with an incredible collection of outsider and folk art. It currently houses just one of Juanita Rogers’ pieces, Two Women in Landscape with Red Orb.
The museum is actually in two locations, both in Washington, D.C. The primary SAAM museum is at the intersection of 8th and G Street NW and offers art from the colonial period to now. The structure makes its own history by being the third oldest federal building in the capital.
Just over a mile away at Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW, the Renwick Gallery exhibits contemporary crafts and decorative arts.
Both museums are open seven days a week, have free entry, and offer online photos of their collections.
From the Muse: SAAM isn’t currently displaying Ms. Rogers’ art, so check the website before you go if you want to be sure it’s viewable.
Montgomery Museum of Fine Art (MMFA)
This museum is truly part of its community. Aside from all the fantastic artwork, it provides free and paid classes and workshops, online interactive learning features for kids and adults, and a free festival every April.
MMFA holds four of Juanita’s paintings, including African Girl and Dog and Seated Female Figure. The museum doesn’t show the display status of its artwork, but it does state that not all of its work is on display at all times. It encourages people to contact MMFA if they want to see specific pieces.
As with SAAM, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art offers free entry and has online photos of its collections. However, the galleries and sculpture garden are only open Tuesday through Sunday.
Is There a Biography About Juanita Rogers?
In 2015, Anton released a dual biography entitled Run toward the Sun: Remembering Juanita Rogers. Photographs and quotes from Ms. Rogers fill the book.
It also contains an essay on Juanita and her work. Plus, folk art scholar, Tom Paterson, provides an art-historical appraisal of Juanita’s sculptures and paintings.
We couldn’t find the biography at any of the major sellers, so you may have to scour local or online second-hand bookstores to find a copy.
Juanita Rogers Will Always Be Surrounded By Mystery
Ms. Rogers is a national treasure. Her sculptures and paintings provide a view into her troubled world. Anton and Juanita’s friendship gives us hope that people from different backgrounds can come together to find peace and comfort. And, though Juanita struggled throughout her life, her art lives on today. That’s more than can be said for many of us.
What do you think of Juanita Rogers’ artwork and inspirations? Let us know in the comments!
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!