Episode 111

Thaddeus Mosley on Making Art to Be Appreciated for Centuries

Interview by Spencer Bailey

Born and raised in the heavily forested state of Pennsylvania, the 97-year-old Pittsburgh-based artist and sculptor Thaddeus Mosley has a deep and enduring obsession with wood. In his late 20s, he began to use the material for art, carving works in his basement studio, but not because he was pursuing an art career; instead, as he says on this episode of Time Sensitive, making art was something he simply enjoyed doing. In fact, he built his life as an artist while also working a full-time job in the U.S. Postal Service for four decades and raising six children, carving during whatever free time he could find. Represented by Karma gallery since 2019, Mosley has only now, in the past decade or so, begun to receive the international recognition and attention he has long deserved. 

With his sculpture-making spanning 70 years, his enduring dedication to his craft is practically unparalleled. Taking inspiration from the abstract language and alchemical level of craft of his sculptor forebears Constantin Brâncuși and Isamu Noguchi (the latter of whom apprenticed for the former in Paris in 1927, just a year after Mosley was born), Mosley shapes and carves wood into striking abstract forms that often appear as if they’re levitating while honoring and preserving their organic, natural character. There’s something about his sculptures that makes them seem animate or alive; in his hands, wood sings. As with the work of Brâncuși and Noguchi, Mosley, too, strives to make sculptures that, in his words, beyond today, “will be interesting in a hundred tomorrows.”

On the episode, he talks about the language that poetry, music, and sculpture all share; his early years as a sportswriter for a local newspaper; and his life-transforming relationship with the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.


Mosley discusses wood as his primary material for artmaking, as well as the considerations that come with working with the material.

Mosley reflects on the vast impact that the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh has had on him, from his first show there in 1968 to exhibiting in the Carnegie International fifty years later, in 2018.

Mosley speaks about the time he’s spent engaging with the work of the artists Constantin Brâncuși (1876–1957) and Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), and how their philosophies and rigorous approaches have helped shape his own thinking and art-making.

Mosley looks back on his early life, from his childhood in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, as the son of a coal-miner father; to his time serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II; to working as a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier.

Mosley considers the parallels between poetry, jazz, and sculpture. He also talks about the memorial quality of many of his works.

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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Thad. Welcome to Time Sensitive.

THADDEUS MOSLEY: Thanks for inviting me. This [Spencer’s library] looks like an intellectual oasis.


SB: I thought we’d begin today on the subject of time through the lens of trees. Your friend the late artist Sam Gilliam wrote a 2020 poem in which he noted that “Thad is the forest.” So I wanted to ask, what are your thoughts on forests, trees, and wood when it comes to time—or from a temporal perspective?

TM: Well, I would imagine that trees were here long before any of us were. And of course, my earliest memories…. My father worked in a coal mine, Number Five mine near Grove City. My earliest memories, maybe when I was 3 and a half or 4, were playing around the house. And of course our backyard was nothing but trees. The country school I started in, right there on Route 208, it was a one-room schoolhouse and in the back of the school was nothing but trees. I grew up pretty much surrounded by trees.

Of course, coming from Pennsylvania which has lots and lots of trees. As you say, as an artist, my speculation has always been trees as material for art. And another thing, of course, is when I’m looking at bare trees, particularly driving or someone riding me through the roads and stuff, I look at the bare trees and I see such beautiful shapes that you don’t have to really carve them [laughter]. The trees grow because of the climate or temperatures. They do all sorts of interesting shapes.

SB: Right. And they grow so slowly that it’s only in the circles that we humans can actually see the time in which the tree has aged.

TM: That’s true. Well, trees, I think particularly the use of them in parks…. Of course, people nowadays, they’re really against plastics and they’re against cutting down trees. And of course they’re also not in tune too much with concrete as [the material for] an indoor building, but you have to make compromises somewhere. And of course, trees are usually the foundation for most buildings, at least on an individual scale.

SB: Yeah. There’s a whole mass timber architecture movement now. What are your views, literally or philosophically, on what you might call your “carving time,” the time that you spend making the sculptures? And I guess also, extending out of that, how do you think about your sculptures as time?

TM: I’ve been fortunate enough to live a fairly long time—I’ll be 98 in July, which is not too far away. But actually, sculpture time, for me, it probably never ceases. Even if I’m in bed, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do tomorrow or what went wrong or how I can correct this or…. Because what I make is not like working with ceramics, where you just mix up the clay and decide which way you want it to go. But when you’re dealing with trees, you’re dealing with a circular form. You’re also dealing with a form that’s very organic and natural. There may be big knots in the middle. There may be wormholes. A lot of trees are cut down because they’re damaged, either through weather or through insects. You have to deal with those things.

Besides that, I’m thinking about a piece I’m working on now and I’m thinking about…. I’ve been rounding out the insides. And so when people see that, they think the wood is very smooth, but the grain goes in all different types of ways and so you have to keep changing tools to get the shape, whatnot, that you want. Over time you learn how to deal with that. But the main thing is that the material pretty much decides how you’re going to work and what you can do, unless you decide to have the wood cut into slabs and kiln-dried and laminated and make something else. 

I’m thinking of the artists that laminate wood and they make tables and stuff out of the lamination—or even furniture. But people that work with raw forms such as I, you have to really respect that you’re working in this circle and also that you’re working with organic material.

SB: You mentioned your age, and I think we have to mention here, you’ve been making art since your late twenties, so seventy years, practically. I was wondering if there’s anything you could share about what it’s been like to engage so intimately—so deeply—with this medium, wood, for so long?

TM: I think those of us who have a passion—and some people think it is an obsession—I think we’re quite fortunate, although people around us may not feel that way. 

SB: [Laughs]

TM: I was married twice, and as I’ve gotten older, I look back on those younger days when I wasn’t thinking about the other person as much as I was thinking about what I wanted to do and so forth. And I don’t know that creative people are good companions. 

The people who aren’t necessarily creative, people want to spend a lot of time just sitting and talking and indulging in what I think is pretty trivial stuff…. If you’re, like, a musician, poet, or whatnot, in order to—I don’t want to say master it because I don’t think anyone really masters anything much—but you keep trying to better your work, and that takes a great deal of time. 

And when you think about all the other things like earning a living and taking care of children and buying groceries, that we have to do…. But I spent a great deal of time thinking about what I wanted to do and how to do it. And in my working days when I had ordinary jobs, I spent so much time trying to find time. [Laughter] Because as you know, on working days, time goes fast.

But my second marriage, I had three children with me and I set up a very strict routine. My youngest son now tells people, “Living with my father was like living with a drill sergeant.” [Laughter] We had routines, bedtime, food time, study time, and all this stuff. From 5 to 10, I would go to the studio, but on the weekends I might put in ten or twelve hours, because finding time to really work…. Because I know people that weren’t concerned with that very much. I shared a studio with an artist and she’d maybe come in two or three times a week. I never understood how you could produce at that rate. [Laughs]

SB: In preparation for this, I was thinking about it: For forty years, you’re working this job at the post office while you’re raising these kids and somehow carving out—pun intended—time for your sculpture-making.

TM: Yes.

SB: You must have become an expert in time management.

TM: Well, I had to do a lot of that, and fortunately as the children got older, teenagers and stuff… but I still had to be there. I remember one time my son, he was about 17, he wanted to have a party. And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I got to do such and such.” He said, “Well, we can do the party without you.” I said, “Oh, no. You won’t do a party without me. I gotta be here.”


SB: I thought we’d also highlight that you’ve spent so much time in this same place, Pittsburgh.

TM: Yes.

SB: And there’s this very strong connection between you and the city. How do you think about your “Pittsburgh time”? 

TM: I know a lot of people really don’t like Pittsburgh. I’m not saying I’m enamored with it, but for most times it was the best city for me. And also, like, I’ll point out that I grew…. One reason why I took to wood is because it was readily available. There were a lot of parks and I knew the manager of the park where they took down trees and stored them, and I could go and pick any material I wanted. And artists, particularly those who don’t have a lot of money, one of their problems is paying for material, whether it’s paint, whether it’s other materials, canvas. But I had this ready material. And then also, sometimes I was lucky enough to find something that was already made by nature. 

And also the rent in Pittsburgh is considerably less than, say, New York or Philadelphia. I have a fair amount of space that I work in and it maybe runs about five, six hundred dollars a month depending on utilities, and I could not nearly come up with that kind of space in a large city. And another thing, Pittsburgh’s not New York—it’s abbreviated New York. But also getting my children through school, which was my main focus, I could do it easier in Pittsburgh than I could have done hardly anyplace else.

Mosley in his studio. (Photo: Jason Schmidt. Courtesy the artist and Karma gallery)

But also fortunately, I had—early on in the late fifties—I had a few people in a position of power, or at least the director of the Carnegie Museum. He took an interest in my work. And when you have someone who has a directorship, they can see that you can have a show. My first show was at Carnegie in ’66, somewhere around that. 1966. [Editor’s note: The exhibition Mosley is discussing opened in 1968 and presented nine new sculptures.] And for a rather new artist, that was amazing and very fortunate and that led to other things.

Another thing about Pittsburgh, they’ve always generated lots and lots of talent, I guess with eyes toward New York City. [Laughs] There was always a lot of great talent around, particularly music and dance and so forth. So you could always enjoy that at a price that… Particularly where I lived, in the Hill, you could go to the grill and hear all the great jazz musicians and so forth. Whereas people that live in New York, particularly if they lived in Queens, the Bronx, “I’m not going down the Village to hear someone play. I don’t have the money or the time.”

SB: You mentioned Carnegie, which I did want to bring up. The show, remarkably, was within, really, your first twenty years of working as an artist, or practicing as an artist. What was your response when you heard the news that they wanted to have a show of your work? Do you remember that at all? It’s also worth saying this is not just any museum, this is the Carnegie, where you went to the Carnegie International and discovered all these artists, [Jean] Arp, [Alexander] Calder, [Pierre] Soulages, [Jackson] Pollock, [Willem] de Kooning.

TM: I was very excited because I had very little experience. I did not know what doing a museum show, or any single show, felt like. I had a year and a half to do the show, which in my mind was a long time. But within a year I only had about six pieces made. [Laughs] And then I began to panic because I only had six more months to make about six more sculptures to make a show. And when you’re a novice, you have no idea what it means to put up a gallery show, a museum show. Most people, they do two or three paintings and show them somewhere, but not realizing the amount of work you have to produce—because some things are going to be rejected, they won’t make the show, won’t enhance the quality of the show. So none of that stuff I understood.

But as I kept at it and kept looking…. Of course, I credit the Carnegie as being pretty much my university. [Laughs] Because back in those days, the Carnegie was free. You could go in any time. And early on, when I went in the post office, and also even before that, I used to work as a darkroom technician when they had black-and-white film and enlargers and all that stuff, which is pretty archaic now. I don’t know if there’s a darkroom anywhere. [Laughter] But I used to do that stuff. And the good part about it was it was in Oakland near the Carnegie, and you could just walk in it and there was four or five others that were learning on our own. We would go in and try to figure out how things were done, and we would look at amazing paintings.

There was a large [James McNeill] Whistler painting of a Spanish violinist, mostly in black. And we were very intrigued about the shades of black you could get in one color and that sort of thing. So it was an education. Then of course, when the internationals would come, I saw every international from the fifties on. And this gave us an international window to what was happening in some parts of the world. So it was an educational haven for me, and it still is. A lot of times if I think I’m slightly ahead of the game, I’ll take off and go to the Carnegie just to see what’s up. [Laughter]

SB: Yeah. And in 1976, they acquired or purchased your work, “Georgia Gate Number One,” which entered the permanent collection.

TM: Yes.

SB: Then remarkably … And I think this is maybe a pinnacle moment of the story, full-circle: In 2018, you exhibited in the Carnegie International.

TM: Yes. It’s a failing I think of many museums that are more home-timey than, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York museums that don’t show so many locals. And I remember particularly after [the Carnegie Museum’s former director] Leon Arkus left, he always had four or five regional artists in the International when he was director. But after he left, it was many, many years before they had any regional artists in the International. And of course that was a very big opportunity for me to do large sculptures in a big space.

By that time, I had matured some and seen things a little more clearly. I think it’s always an honor. I think it’s always… I maybe want to say luck or whatever. It’s always an unusual opportunity to show in a museum space because you know the amount of artists there are that are striving to get in those situations to be shown like I’ve shown at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and I’ve shown some in the Whitney. It’s just things I had really never thought about when I was a younger artist, but I think that you’re lucky. It’s not a matter of being so good because there’s a lot of great artists out there. So I think I’m fortunate to have that opportunity.

SB: One of the things I wanted to bring up today is this great quote from Isamu Noguchi —and I thought I’d quote him on time. You have a big affinity—we have a shared affinity for Noguchi. [Laughs] There’s this great archival video of him, and he says, “Sometimes I think I’m part of this world today. Sometimes I feel that maybe I belong in history or in prehistory, or that there is no such thing as time. But if you’re caught in time, or the immediate present time, then your choice is very limited. You can really only do certain things correctly belonging to that time. But if you want to escape from that time constraint, then the whole world—not just the most industrialized world, the whole world—is someplace you belong.”

TM: [Laughs] I think people have different ideas of how they see themselves, say, on the planet. And you can go to Noguchi’s mile-high sculptures and see that he may have thought of himself as being a timeless object or being able to, as people say, go back and forth in time. But I think that no one can really escape the space and time that they’ve come to. You might look at people like [Paul] Gauguin, who went to Tahiti, or people that go up in the woods someplace, but time will come after you. You cannot escape it. 

And I think we’re all, I don’t want to say a victim, but certainly we’re all property of the time we come up in, and that is reflected in our clothes, our tastes. I don’t know many people who love things that weren’t a part of their time and their education—particularly education. 

When I went to school in junior high, we had music appreciation. We learned about the symphony, we learned about Bach, and we learned Beethoven. You had to be able to identify when they played the records at the end of year, who it was. You had to pass music appreciation. And now they think all that stuff’s a waste of time. And I remember we had to memorize poetry—Shakespeare, the mercy speech, and all that stuff, King Lear.

And I’m talking about in high school. But my children didn’t have to do that. And I don’t think unless you have been exposed to that type of education—of course, there are people who’ve never been exposed that somehow become fascinated by it—but I think that is the reason for the decline in what we think of as classical culture and people appreciating a technical skill in music, art, or literature. I don’t know how much of that is still prevalent.

SB: Well, we hope it doesn’t die. [Laughter] As I was preparing for this, I was thinking about time, and particularly the year you were born, 1926. And mainly because in 1927, just a year later—and this is still staying on the Noguchi thing a little bit—Noguchi worked under Constantin Brâncuși in Paris. 

TM: Yeah. 

SB: So you were alive then.

TM: [Laughs] Yeah, barely.


SB: But decades later, the works by both of these artists came to inform so much of your thinking, incredibly. Could you speak about the time you’ve spent engaging with their work, Brâncuși’s and Noguchi’s?

TM: It might be…. Particularly Brâncuși, I have an accumulation—I never say a “collection” because that means they’re studied—

SB: Intent.

TM: And engaged and knowledgeable. I have an accumulation of African tribal sculpture and whatnot. And early on, I think I go back to my education at the University of Pittsburgh in 1948, I took a choice of a history class. I had three minors, and one was history of world culture. And this was based on how one culture was pretty different from another. And they used Brâncuși’s idea of imitating some African tribal arts. And the “White Negress” and the “Princess [X].” And a lot of them, at that time, were carved in wood.

I was remarking to someone that those Brâncușis, you don’t see much anymore. You see the “Bird in Space” and the bronzes. I said, but it was the good things that attracted me first to him. And then of course, I was attracted to Noguchi because of Martha Graham, and not his sculptures at first. But the settings he did for, like, Appalachian Spring and that sort of stuff, the wooden structures and forms. And they had more of an intuitive approach than the formalized things that he did much later. And of course me just starting out, that was on my level, so to speak. [Laughs]

I was always very much influenced by the ideas of Noguchi, of Brâncuși, about time, like you was just saying. Because back in the day, I guess there still is that impulse: As new things come up, you should change your art. You shouldn’t keep doing this and doing that. Of course, Brâncuși said, “Well, fashion changes every year.” And I want to do something that when people come back in fifty or a hundred years, it will still look like an interesting piece of art. And that is one thing I’ve always strived for, is to try to do something that’s not only interesting today, but will be interesting in hopefully a hundred tomorrows.

SB: Yeah. This idea of…. It’s almost a relentless single-mindedness.

TM: Well, I’m good at single-minded.


SB: I know you once met Noguchi at a talk he gave in Pittsburgh, right?

TM: Yeah. I met Noguchi twice. I met him when…. Martha Graham’s from Pittsburgh, and she went to what used to be the Western Pennsylvania College for Women. They call it Chatham University now. And she wanted to do Appalachian Spring at her alma mater. And I had a friend that was a photographer for a TV station. He did all the stills. He said, “Oh, you want to see Noguchi, you can come help carry my equipment tonight. I’m setting up the practice for Appalachian Spring.” He said, “You can’t say anything, but you can meet them and so forth.” 

Well, I didn’t even get a chance to meet them. They were so busy setting up the set. Of course, Martha Graham was ordering people to do this and do that. But then in the eighties, I guess it was very much in the eighties, late seventies, Leon Arkus, the director of Carnegie, decided to have Noguchi in to give a talk to the Carnegie. And so they said Mr. Noguchi kindly said he would stay by the door and shake hands as people left the auditorium. So I told my wife, “Gee, that’s going to be agonizing. Let’s go out the side door so we won’t be a party to this.”

Leon and the treasurer, the president of Carnegie, they came running across the foyer and they said, “Oh, Thad, Mr. Noguchi, wants to meet you!” And I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah. He’s standing at the door.” So I went back and Noguchi said, “You’re a little guy like me.” [Laughter] And he said, “I really like your work, and I heard you mention my name.” I said, “Yes. I’ve been a big devotee of all the things you do, particularly the segmented pieces.” I said, “That spurred me to my doing four and five elements, putting them together.” When he did the marble slabs and stuff. People are looking, there’s a big long line all the way down the auditorium. I said, “Well, I’m really holding up the line.” He said, “Oh, forget them. I want to talk to you.” [Laughter]

So we stood there and talked for maybe six or seven minutes, and I guess people were wondering, Who the hell is that guy he’s taking all this time talking to? [Laughter] I thought he was remarkable in many, many ways. There’s not very many artists that have the business sense, entrepreneurship that he had. And of course, I always feel that there are many people who really didn’t get the recognition because of their race or where they came from or what they represented. But that in no way diminishes what the person has done.

SB: Truly. Truly. Noguchi also, similar to you, and many writers have noted this, had this in-betweenness. There was an in-betweenness that I think lives in the person and the work. Could you talk about how you view this notion of in-betweenness in your own life and work?

TM: I don’t know if I’m so much in between, but I think that…. There was a situation that came up last year. They had fourteen people getting their M.F.A.s from Carnegie Mellon. The dean of sculpture decided to bring them over to my studio and asked if I would talk to them. And we were talking about what you do for your life and what you do for your art, as you say, “in-betweenness.” And of course, I said, “Well, I had children. And somehow they think that they’re going to just be an artist.” And I said, “First thing, I never thought of myself having an art career as such. I thought art was something I did because I wanted to do it.” 

I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but I just think that the thinking of art, or if you’re a poet, you’re always thinking of the sounds of words…. The thing was, I was an English journalism major and I wrote some stuff I passed off as poetry way back. [Laughter]

But I think Noguchi would’ve been a hard man to understand because I think he was so much into his work, his life. I don’t know if anybody, any partner or anybody could have dealt with that. 

SB: [Laughs]

TM: I know I’ve been married twice, and in my wife I have a friend that’s very accommodating and we don’t live together. And she has always understood…. Well, I don’t know if she understood so much and just tolerated the fact that so much that I do is about—

SB: The work.

TM: About the work. And it is very, very consuming.

SB: I want to take a moment to go back to your childhood in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. And I read that this time you spent with your dad there, there were times where you would see him literally come out of the mine.

TM: Oh, yeah. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father were coal miners. I’m the first male in my family—because my father only had one son—but I’m the first that never was a coal miner. I guess you’d have to go back to people in Kentucky. My great-grandfather was born in Alabama, but my father and his brothers, they were born in Kentucky in the coal mines. It was almost like migrant work in the sense that when one mine went down, you moved to the next mine, because there’s only so much coal anywhere. My three oldest sisters, they were born up in Elbon, Pennsylvania, near Cook Forest [State Park]. And me and my youngest sister and I, we were born in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. But the mine was out near Grove City, Number Five mine.

And so when I was a little kid, maybe about three years old, we moved out of Newcastle to Number Five mine because it was such a job—it was like maybe eighteen miles—such a job for my father to go back and forth to the mines every day so we moved there. But I remember when I was a little kid before I was…. We didn’t have kindergarten, you started at first grade. So when I was 4 and 5, I’d run across the road and wait for my father to come up out of the mine. And even though I was only four or five years old, I would look down there and I said—I may not have been a brilliant child—but I said, “I never want to do this.” [Laughs]

SB: It’s wild how, if you think across time too, I imagine…. It’s understood at least in some of your studios, you were in the basement.

TM: I’m in the basement now.

SB: [Laughs] So were your kids peering down into the basement at Dad, the sculptor?

TM: Well, I also worked in my own basement for a while.

SB: You’re still going underground. It’s a family tradition. [Laughs]

TM: I’m still very much underground. And I think maybe it might be ironic, but I think maybe it’s underground work, what I’m doing.


SB: I also learned, in researching for this, that your father became a union organizer, and these efforts were not very much appreciated by the company.

TM: Well, U.S. Steel, they owned the mines and they owned the houses that we lived in, and they owned the company store. And so when John L. Lewis, who my father worshiped as the head of the United Mine Workers [of America]…. My dad was a big guy. I’m a miniature of him. He was a big strong guy. And so they started unions. One road came down, no houses on the side, and the mine house is on the right-hand side. They’d come down and they’d shoot at our house, whoever the company would hire. And my older sister, my mother, and father would go to bed early, like three or four in the afternoon, as soon as he got off from work, then get up because they’d come around at dusk.

SB: Sounds terrifying.

TM: Of course there was no lights down this country road. But my oldest sister…. I got a sister six years older than me. She would watch downstairs and my father would take the front window and my mother would take the back window with shotguns. But my older sister, I guess she didn’t hear the cars soon enough, or maybe they had the motors off, but they shot and she looked, and until she died, she had buckshot marks in her forehead. Just lucky they didn’t shoot a couple inches late, or she would’ve been blind.

But I remember my dad saying…. I heard him holler. My mother was named Helen. He said, “Helen, I heard them holler. They won’t be back tonight.” [Laughs] So he had shot someone. And of course out there, they usually had one sheriff for about the twenty surrounding miles from Grove City all the way up to Mercer. But they finally did get the United Mine Workers. And of course, U.S. Steel and Carnegie, well, as you know, the labor history in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Strike and stuff. And because they had the money and the power, they could get away with shooting resistors and dissenters—particularly organizers.

SB: I also read your dad was a moonshine distributor.

TM: Oh yeah. Well, that was our means of wealth. We were able to have a car and so forth, and my mother was able to entertain clubs, go to church in Newcastle. But the man that was the manager of the company store…. Like I said, everything was owned by the company, U.S. Steel. And we remember the cans were green-and-yellow labels with “ESCO, U.S. Steel Company.” But the guy who ran the company store was an Italian guy named Patron, and he worked for the mafia, and they distributed the moonshine into Mercer County, and all around there. And my dad rode shotgun with him. [Laughs]

Yeah. I remember they’d come and search. We had a creek that ran through the back of the yard, but my dad would hide the moonshine in the pigpen or farther down the creek. It was a strange container. It looked like it was wood with a metal cone coming through the top. And I guess it held about five gallons of moonshine. But we never wanted for anything in that sense. [Laughs]

SB: Such an upbringing. And you go on to serve in World War II in the Navy.

TM: Yeah. I was up here, in fact. For a while I was at the Naval aviation out in Jamaica [in Queens].

SB: Oh?

TM: For a little bit, yeah.

SB: And eventually you moved to Pittsburgh, where, as you mentioned, you studied English and journalism at the University of Pittsburgh. You had wanted to become a writer and eventually were hired as a sports reporter, freelanced for some magazines like Ebony, Sepia, and Jet. Tell me about this writing life before becoming an artist. What are some of the strongest memories you have from that time?

TM: I worked mainly for the Pittsburgh Courier, but I also did some freelance writing. I wrote the first story on George Benson for Sepia magazine in 1954.

SB: Little child guitar prodigy.

TM: Yeah. He used to play right on the streets, not far from where he lived back then. But I worked for the Courier and I had a byline. I wrote a column called “From the Sidelines.” I still have some of the clippings. But when I was working, I never thought about saving the clippings. My wife said, “You should save some of those articles and stuff that you write.” So she bought a scrapbook and started saving them. But I think the most important thing was in the early fifties, after Jackie Robinson had “broken the color line,” as they say, so many people came through Pittsburgh.

The Centre Avenue Y was across the street, and a lot of boxers would go there and train, like Ezzard Charles and all like that. And then the football players would come in, going to camp. I remember meeting Larry Doby when he was going to Cleveland. The quietest guy I ever met—one of the quietest guys, including [John] Coltrane. But I’d meet all the athletes coming through and all the fighters coming through, like Sugar Ray Robinson and all those guys. At that time, the Courier was the paper, and they had a great circulation. So I got to be known as a sportswriter. Back in those days, they didn’t have videos on high school athletes. So a lot of schools would call and ask me about different high school athletes.

SB: Oh, you were like a recruit.

TM: Yeah. I was like a scout back then. A funny thing was that, even years later, a coach from a college called me and wanted to know…. He had heard this one basketball player was back in town and asked if I knew him. I said, “Yeah, I know him.” And he said, “You think he’d like to come to our school?” I said, “Well, he just flunked out of Las Vegas with a D-minus average.” He says, “I don’t care.” So that was the type of thing you got to see—inside of what college athletics basically were. Well, we’ll find a place for him as long as he could play.

SB: [Laughs] Your interest in language also extended— In 1955, you edited this book, Compositions in Black and White. It was a book of short stories, poetry, and essays by Black writers in Pittsburgh. I wanted to ask about this, because it seems like you were almost like this ringleader bringing all these voices together. What was that like?

TM: Well, I did a lot of that in the arts and…. Well, we formed a writers club. When I graduated, there were three daily papers in Pittsburgh, but in the next ten years, there was only one, and there’s still only one. Of course, Dick Scaife has the Tribune-Review there, but no one hired African American writers, no one in any media as far as I was concerned. So we started this little club. I had a friend that was majoring in journalism at Duquesne and a couple from Pitt and so forth. So we decided we would publish a little magazine on our own, just not do it constantly, but just see what we could do to really think about what journalism and photojournalism was really about. 

So we got all the stories. I found the printer and I edited the magazine. And I think now, in fact, even when I worked at the Courier, they’d always have me come in and do proofreading on the day of publishing because I could really proofread. Now, I don’t know what a proofreading mark is. [Laughs] But it’s just funny how time changes when your interest moves.

SB: Do you see a tie between this early interest in language and the sculptures you’d go on to make? I did notice that many of the titles of your works are…. They have allusions to language and poetry: “Repetitive Reference,” for example, or “Slanted Message.”

TM: I still read a lot, mostly history and stuff like that, but I read a lot of poetry. A friend gave me a book of Chinese poetry, by a translator named, I think, Red Pine. It talks about Li Bo and all those and trying to understand the rhythm of Chinese poetry. Of course, I still have Dylan Thomas, I still have some of the records from Greenwich Village way back and so forth. 

I think that the rhythm of language isn’t so much different from the rhythm of music. And the rhythm of music to me is reflected in…. I was explaining to someone on the gouge marks in some of the…. The rhythmic pattern that directs your eye is like a visual sound. I can’t imagine a person who loved poetry that wouldn’t love anything else but poetry, wouldn’t love the other arts.

So I think that’s sort of natural that I would have affinities, if you want to say for…. I think I was explaining…. They had something on August Wilson, and they had me come up and give a little talk about me knowing him, and I said, “Well, I used to loan him Dylan Thomas records.” And people now don’t have a clue who Dylan Thomas was. I said, “Well, we were all enthralled with Dylan Thomas because he had such a sound with language.” I said, “Even if you didn’t know what he was reading, his voice, he had such a rhythmic, an intonation that I think.…”

I have this series of poetry where there’s about four or five CDs with all these poets reading from Alfred, Lord Tennyson down to Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and all these people. And I said, “But when you listen to some of these people read, no one read like Dylan.” [Laughter] I said, “It was just pure music.” So I think he might be the epitome of that idea, is what I’ve been talking about.

SB: Well, I loved your casual Coltrane mention. [Laughter] You’ve met Coltrane and you’ve met Miles Davis, and we haven’t even spoken about jazz yet, which to those who know you probably is a surprise. You listen to jazz as a daily practice. You used to write about jazz early in your journalism years. There’s even a certain jazz to your work. Some writers I’ve seen even call your work jazz. And these chisel marks—what you were talking about just now, I look at these chisel marks as almost measures of time. They’re rhythmic. There’s something similar to what you were just saying that comes alive in your work, I think.

TM: Well, yeah. It was a funny thing. When I had a show in ’97 at the Carnegie, the sculptor Richard Hunt brought a friend of his in, a big collector, to look at my work. And he said, “What type of machine does he use?” And Richard Hunt said, “What do you mean?” He says, “See, all those lines are so perfectly and they’re so repetitive, the same shape over and over again.” Now, Richard says, “He doesn’t use a machine.” He says, “I can’t believe it.” So it was much later when Richard told me that he thought I’d used a machine. [Laughs] I said, “No, I don’t use a machine.” And someone had given me one of these electric things, but also they make noise and they really vibrate. And you have to keep up with the r.p.m.s rather than them keeping up with you. [Laughs]

Some of Mosley’s works in his studio. (Courtesy the artist and Karma gallery)

SB: It makes me think about Noguchi, how he would talk about “listening to stone.” You’re listening to wood.

TM: Oh, yeah. Well, I tell students when I used to teach that you have to have affinity. You have to feel something about the material you’re working with. And one of the things that always interests me is: Does the artist feel any connection with the material that he’s working with? There’s some people that work in all sorts of materials. I could not have that feeling for four or five different materials. I’ve done some things in stone, but mostly wood. And I like to see that the person has a feeling for the stuff he’s doing. 

I was looking at an old book of Bernard Leach’s pottery, and I said one thing, if nothing else, he had a real subtle sense of clay. And where a lot of places, there’s just bottles or shapes in clay, but they could be made of anything. And I get that from him, just from my own view. And I’m not an expert on clay. I’m not an expert on anything, for that matter. But he’s one of the persons that I feel about his material.

SB: There’s one more thing I wanted to mention about your sculptures, which is that some of them have this memorial or even elegiac quality. Some of them have been tributes to people such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Harriet Tubman, Sam Gilliam. Could you talk about these particular works, how you think about some of the sculptures you make as memorial or as tribute?

TM: I made the sculptures…. One of the reasons was I did a tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer. I’ve done one that’s in Chatham University on Dylan Thomas called “The Long-Legged Bait.” And of course, when we installed it, they had a student reading the poem, “[Ballad of the] Long-Legged Bait,” which is a very long poem [laughs], so in the middle they decided to abbreviate some of the…. I think when I get finished with something, sometimes I feel, well, yeah, that makes me think of ’Trane. I did a piece which someone’s bought that crosses and it’s very aerial and I call it “Air Step [for Fayard and Harold Nicholas].”

A lot of people don’t have a clue who the Nicholas Brothers were, but they were tap dancers from Philadelphia in the forties, and they made some movies. But they could really dance. So to me, I was talking to a group of African American young artists, and they were talking about how all their work is based on racial identity or Black feminism and all this stuff, and they’re asking me, I said, “Well, my ideas are based on aesthetics and then other things can trickle in.” 

But the main thing I’m interested in, like Brâncuși, I want to do something that’s not just appreciated today, but maybe people will come back in fifty or a hundred years and say, “Gee, that’s an interesting sculpture.” And it is not tied to a certain movement or anything.

SB: I want to finish with one final question, which is that, given all the terrain we’ve covered today, do you have any final thoughts on time, on the time you’ve lived or the time you have left, or a Thad time mantra, let’s say?

TM: Well, I think when you’re old, you’re constantly thinking of termination, you might say. Of course I have wills and a trust and so forth. And so in the back of my mind, I’m always hoping I will live long enough to finish the next show, you might say. [Laughs] I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that I haven’t had any disabilities. I can still walk, I can still stand. My daughter used to be in respiratory therapy and she said, “I can’t believe that you don’t have any arm trouble or any back trouble or anything.” I said, “I’ve been fortunate there.”

SB: It’s the carving. [Laughs]

TM: I said, “Well, I never bought a crane until I was 82. I always lifted that stuff myself.” [Laughter] I said, “But you learn how to do things.” There’s a big guy that’s a tree surgeon, he’s about 6’5”, about 270 [pounds]. He and I were harvesting some trees that he had gotten, he was bringing to my studio, and they were maybe a couple of tons apiece and fourteen feet, twelve foot and so big around. He says, “Mosley, you’re moving these logs pretty slow.” [Laughs] And I said, “Joe, I want that log to move when I move.” [Laughter] I learned how to do that.

SB: Well, Thaddeus, thank you so much for your time.

TM: Well, thanks for asking me.


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 12, 2024. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Jason Schmidt.