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Man of Steel

The Art and Life of John "Pudding" Moore

By Julian Rankin
Photographs by Rory Doyle

 

    There aren’t many metalsmiths named Puddin. Even if Greenville, Mississippi, artist John “Puddin” Moore isn’t the only one with the moniker, he’s certainly one of a kind. 


    He got the nickname as a 4-day-old babe, in the arms of some distant uncle. Sweet as pudding. The name doesn’t fit Moore’s grizzled countenance. He’s sinewed and strong with blue eyes that shine with sparks from an arc welder. The craftsman has been bending metal for a living since he was 16 years old. You can find Moore’s work in almost every state and in 19 foreign countries. But he’s never left – and will never leave – his hometown.

 


     Before he begins any project, he blueprints mental schematics. "I don’t use any pictures. Any drawings. I visualize the finished product of whatever I want to make, and I just start making it.” Moore told a man recently that if you brought together all the things he’s made over six decades, not even the New Orleans Superdome would be big enough to hold it.


    Moore’s art comes in every shape and size: volleyball-size spherical fish and eight-inch tall alligators playing guitars; sculpture made with metal adornments and salvaged driftwood from the Mississippi River, with cypress knots that reveal themselves to Moore as a slew of animal heads – including a bear, a loggerhead turtle and a goose; and a giant metal tree on the campus of Greenville Higher Education Center, 20 feet tall, with alloy twigs so delicate they look like they’d snap off in your hand like midday icicles. Moore always considered himself an artist. Everything he’s ever made has been custom, crafted with an improvisatory curiosity that makes them thoroughly unique. 


    Moore’s mastery has impressed art aficionados and captivated laymen. His formal art training is nonexistent. He taught himself to draw as a boy. While his classmates doodled in the margins, Moore drew like a polished draftsman. In high school, he saw a newspaper ad for one of those art institutes in the northeast that invited aspiring artists to send in their work by mail for critique. “I’d send in the assignments and they’d send me more things to do,” Moore recalls. One day he came home from school and a man from the institute was in his living room. They offered Moore a scholarship, but he turned it down. He wasn’t ready to leave. 

 


    Around this time, in the early 1960s, a Greenville man with a Venetian blind business hired the 16-year-old Moore to create metal window guards. It was meant to be a two-day gig but the man hired Moore, who was already one of the most skilled workers around, to a full-time position. After a few years working for this man, Moore opened a metal shop of his own. He was 21 years old. He’s been working for himself ever since.


    “At one time I had three guys working for me,” Moore says. “But they didn’t do work that satisfied me. I’m the type of person that if it doesn’t suit me, it’s not walking out the door. I couldn’t find qualified guys so I did it on my own. And that was the extent of me having employees.”


    About 20 years ago, Moore realized that he could sustain his business on artwork alone. He stopped taking on as many of the ubiquitous restoration projects and focused instead on the ideas in his head. When he walks into his downtown Greenville shop these days, he doesn’t need a plan of action; the ideas pour out like cascading flotsam from an overstuffed closet. His only challenge: which notion to bring to life first?


    “I can do anything in the world with metal,” Moore says of the possibilities. “I can work it like clay. I heard a guy say that I can do more with a piece of metal than a monkey can with a banana.”


    Moore keeps his shop open to the public, which is how he became Greenville tourism’s unofficial ambassador. Travelers and wandering strangers find their ways to his doorstep, and he treats them all like dignitaries. History Channel’s American Pickers sought him out for his collection of Indian artifacts and dinosaur bones and assorted vintage treasures, which Moore has always hunted for as a hobby and displays in a corner of his shop that he calls his museum. He met a European tourist once who made small talk for an hour before revealing he was the German Minister of Defense. 

 


    The United States Army came calling on numerous occasions. A general from the first cavalry commissioned a decorative iron brand that matched the horse-head patch on his uniform. Then the Army came back with a more pressing problem: a minor but critical design flaw in their fleet of M1 tanks, stationed all over the world. When soldiers fired the machine gun downward at a steep angle, the open ammo canister hung on the roof and paralyzed the gun. Naturally, Moore solved in one afternoon a problem that had slipped by the finest military engineers; he fabricated a metal piece that bolted in to keep the artillery moving smoothly. Later, another officer visiting Greenville came by the shop. When he found out Moore was the man who’d fixed the tank’s machine gun, he wept. “Do you know how many lives you’ve saved?” he asked him. 


    Moore is as tireless at 72 as he was at 30. He’s a bottomless well of stories. His art is unlike anything else around. But he’s inimitable not only because of these idiosyncrasies. In today’s Mississippi, perhaps his greatest accomplishment is that he’s turned his fanciful dreams into an ironclad business with no college or technical instruction and no guide book to show him how.

While others fled north on Highway 1 in search of better opportunity, Moore doubled-down on his own imagination and cultivated a clientele that has no borders. On his lunch break, he still walks the same sidewalks on Walnut Street that he did as a child. Moore has molded the circumstances of an austere Delta life in the same way that he molds metal; fashioning something delicate and heartfelt and innovative out of cold and rigid steel. 


    “People who watch me don’t understand how I do any of this,” says Moore. “There are people my age and younger who retire and sit down and don’t do anything. They don’t last long. I’m not that type of person. I’ve got to keep going."

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