Welcome to the wild, wacky world of 87-year-old Tut Altman Riddick. It’s a vibrantly complex, outrageously colorful life — apparent from the tips of her toenails, alternately painted lipstick pink and sunshine yellow, right up to the roof of her house, emblazoned with a big neon heart. When she drives, it’s in a flaming orange Subaru.
Tut is an artist in every sense of the word: a painter, a poet, a printer, a photographer, a songwriter, an author and more. The home she shares with her 91-year-old husband, Harry, is aptly dubbed Riddick Fun House, and it is literally overflowing with art. An ever-changing array created by Tut and fellow artists adorns every room and fills every cranny — wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. The kitchen cabinets are a crazy, decoupage collage of her favorite quotations, photographs and other snippets.
The furniture is either art itself or festooned in festive fabric. Correspondence coming from the Fun House is also art. Tut is an old-fashioned letter writer, frequently dashing off poems she’s written to friends in envelopes painted, gilded and glittered by hand. She says, “I have an art show that goes out in the mail every morning.”
Tut grew up in York, Alabama, under the caring influence of two strong, creative women. “After my parents divorced, I lived with my grandmother and my aunt, Elizabeth Altman, who was probably the first liberated woman in Alabama, ” she says. “I am so glad that I grew up in a female household. My grandmother had a degree in painting from Judson College a million years ago, and my aunt was a musician. I got a lot of attention from them, and it gave me a sort of freedom. I always knew I was going to have a career, I just didn’t know it was going to be in art.” Tut says her favorite medium is whatever she happens to be working on at the time. Currently, she is writing a children’s book about a man who lives on a bus. She’s also doing a good bit of collage and painting stunning, unique round canvases she calls her “circles.”
When she’s not creating art herself, she is busily encouraging art in others. “I’m really interested in other people, and I think I’m a real teacher at heart, ” she says. People who pass through her doors and into her life inevitably end up as part of her extended family. She and Harry have one daughter, Renee Wilber, three grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and two (unofficially) “adopted” sons, the well-known potter Charles Smith and the renowned printer Amos Kennedy. (She mentored both men along their artistic paths, and they both think of her as a second mother.)
Two of the women who work for Tut, assisting the Riddicks with shopping and chauffeuring, have become her recent students. With a sort of parental pride, Tut reports that the two have started teaching free art lessons on Saturday mornings to children in their neighborhood. “I just love that. It’s like watching a flower grow and it’s exciting for me; imagine that at 87. I have had a hell of a good life.”
The friendship of Tut & Eugene
“Oh yeah, I knew Eugene Walter, sometimes too well, ” she laughs. “He used to come out here and drink. He had a lot of irreligious ideas that I didn’t go for. But, you know, I owe something to Eugene. When I came to Mobile, I was thrown in with a lot of lawyers’ wives, doctors’ wives and I’d go to bridge club. I mean, I was bored out of my mind. Eugene encouraged me to write. He made me promise him I would write for 20 minutes a day. I said, ‘OK, ’ and pretty soon it just took off.”
“I met Eugene through Adelaide Trigg at Termite Hall. Honey, it was a long time ago. Adelaide and her sister owned Termite Hall, and they were the most fabulous people. I’d lived in Mobile a little while and until I met them I couldn’t relate to a lot of people around here. They were kindred spirits. Adelaide discovered Eugene, you know. He was sleeping in the aisles of the Saenger Theatre. He was an orphan, really, and he would come in The Haunted Bookshop. Then he started working for her. Adelaide was responsible for him going to Europe. She put together a luncheon at Constantine’s, and she had this little boat and asked people to put in donations to help send Eugene to Europe. He didn’t have a dime. So, he went over there and he wrote a lot of things for Adelaide. They were very close.”
The world according to the eccentric artist
Tut on religion
“I guess you would call me a Methodist because I go to a Methodist church. But I could have been lots of things. I could have been a Catholic because I knew some fabulous Catholics. I mean, I don’t push my religion on anybody because I believe we are all going up the same mountain.”
Tut on education
“I grew up listening to my grand-mother quote the Bible and Oscar Wilde. I think that’s a pretty good education, don’t you? I think college is overrated, and I think it has gotten so damn expensive. When I was coming along, I think college was more social conditioning than anything else. I think if you read a lot and you know what you want to do, hell, I don’t think you necessarily need to go to college.” (Tut graduated from the University of Alabama, where she was the first female debate champion.)
Tut on longevity
“I’m not competitive; that’s one of the secrets to longevity. Honey, you don’t have to compete with anybody. We all have a place. And I love fun! I was born to be a happy person. The older I get, the more interested I am in people. I enjoy people, all kinds of people from all walks of life.”
Tut on how to have a long, strong marriage
“We have been married 65 years! We have always given each other space, but we are a unit for sure. My mother always said that I would be up floating around in the clouds and then Harry would come home and I would come down to Earth. He has always let me be me. He has been a rock; he’s still a rock. And he knows a lot about art.”
Tut on how to find your car in a crowded parking lot
“I remember when I had a white station wagon, and everybody in town had a station wagon just like that. I’d go to the mall, and I could never find my damn station wagon. So, I got all these stickers, hearts and everything, and put them all over the car. Well, Harry almost dropped dead when he saw it. And, well, the stickers really stuck; I couldn’t get them off. But, I could always find my car, wherever I went. Later we gave that station wagon to somebody at the church. After that, somebody else told me they saw my station wagon in front of a house of ill repute. We thought it was really funny because they thought it still belonged to me. Now, I’ve got an orange Subaru. I don’t think anyone else in town has one. It really jumps out at you.”
Tut isn’t just an artist on canvas and paper; her passion for entertaining means she’s also an artist in the kitchen. Though not a professional cook, her recipes and meals have been appreciated and enjoyed by many a guest in her home. Here are some retro recipes that Tut says make a perfect repast for fall. She served this quirky culinary combination years ago to folks who came to photograph her house and art.
Harry’s Pineapple Sandwiches
white or wheat bread (Tut says it is fun to use both.)
mayonnaise (Tut prefers Hellmann’s.)
1 can pineapple rings or 1 fresh pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into rings
1 small jar maraschino cherries
1. Lay out the desired amount of bread slices. Spread each slice with mayonnaise.
2. Top half the slices with a pineapple ring and place a cherry in each ring’s center. Top with the other half of the bread slices.
Bing Cherry Salad
This classic congealed salad is Tut’s rendition of a longtime Mobile favorite. This is Tut’s rendition. She likes to serve it sliced on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of good mayonnaise.
1 can Bing cherries
1 large can crushed pineapple
2 (3-ounce) boxes black cherry gelatin
12-ounce cold cola drink
1 cup chopped pecans
1. Drain cherries and pineapple, reserving juices. Boil juices in a saucepan, add the gelatin and stir until dissolved.
2. Stir in cola, cherries, pineapple and pecans. Refrigerate until congealed. Serves 8 – 10.
text by Sallye Irvine • photos by elizabeth gelineau