History Refused to Die-Alabama's African-American Self-Taught Artists in Context

March 14 - May 31, 2015



 

Other wall panel texts from the exhibition

 
Alabama Quilters
Gees Bend, and West Alabama
 
Gees Bend is a small, remote community in Wilcox County, surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The residents of Gees Bend are primarily descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who farmed the lands of the former Pettway plantation, and many generations of black Pettway families originated near Gees Bend, or the community of Camden located across the river.
 
The oldest surviving examples of quilts made by the residents of Gees Bend date from the 1920s, but it is believed that the traditions of quilting there and in other West Alabama communities date from slavery times. Originally quilts were made for the practical purpose of keeping family members warm in unheated dwellings. The makers relied on recycled materials such as feed sacks, worn-out clothing, or raw cotton to make their pieced quilts. Such resourcefulness was born out of necessity, but was coupled with a sense of the poignant beauty and sense of continuity discovered in things cast aside and worn out. Over time, these handmade heirlooms carried a history of association with home, comfort, and family. In the 1960s, as part of the larger movement toward equal rights and opportunity, women from Gees Bend and the town of Alberta formed The Freedom Quilting Bee in order to foster community development by selling handicrafts, including quilts. A contemporary group, the Gees Bend Collective, continues the tradition of selling handmade quilts.
 
Over the past century and a half, Modernist artists abandoned illusionistic form and space in favor of expressive simplification. This transformation helped make it possible to value works of art that depend for their impact not on conventional skills, but on sheer inventiveness and intensity of feeling. Today's audience, trained by Modernism, now cherishes the audacious designs and formal, architectural rigor of these quilts made in West Alabama.
 
 
Thornton Dial (born 1928)
 
Thornton Dial was born in the tiny farm community of Emelle in West Alabama to an unwed teenaged mother. He dropped out of school in the third grade and in his early teens, after his mother married, he and his half-brother, Arthur, were sent to live with their grandmother and great-aunt in Bessemer.
 
Dial had a wide variety of jobs, eventually working until retirement at the Pullman Standard Company in Bessemer. Although Dial began making "things" at an early age and continued to create art throughout adulthood, he originally kept his work hidden, or destroyed it. He feared he might be condemned for some of its content -- commentary on the personal and societal struggles of Black people in the South.
 
His work came to the attention of the outside world in 1987. His varied body of work, usually done in series of up to fifteen pieces, includes paintings, assemblage, sculptures, and works on paper. Dial has dealt with current events of widespread interest -- for example the death of Princess Diana, the OJ Simpson trial, and 9/11 -- and with incidents particular to the artist himself -- local natural disasters, reactions to personal life events or trauma, societal changes he has witnessed. Dial's personal, abstract, and conceptual style, like the work of many other outstanding artists of his genre, contradicts the conventional misconceptions about the work of those characterized as "self-taught" or "outsider" artists. Among the many museums that include Dial in their collections are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
 
 
The Dial Family
Arthur Dial, Thornton Dial, Jr., and Richard Dial
 
Arthur Dial (born 1930) and his half-brother, Thornton, were born in Emelle, Alabama, but were raised from their early teens by maternal relatives in Bessemer. Arthur Dial left school as a teenager to work in a sawmill, and then moved to other jobs before settling at U.S. Pipe for thirty-seven years until his retirement. Along with other members of the Dial family, he lives in the Bessemer neighborhood of Pipe Shop. Inspired in part by Thornton, Arthur Dial uses the materials he knows from factory work to create satirical contemporary updates of regional folklore and biblical events.
 
Born in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Thornton Dial, Jr. (born 1953), or "Little Buck," as he is known (his father's nickname is "Buck"), attended school through the eleventh grade, after which he moved to nearby Birmingham and began eight years of work in construction. Upon returning to his hometown, he found employment with the Pullman Standard Company, where he stayed until the factory closed in the late 1980s. He then began working with his brothers in the family's steel patio furniture business. He often uses animals and religious themes, metaphorically and with a satirical twist, as a vehicle for social commentary in his work.
 
Richard Dial (born 1955), the second son of Thornton Dial founded Dial Metal Patterns in 1984, a small enterprise making metal patio furniture. Previously he had worked as a machinist at the Pullman Standard Company, and, with financial assistance from his family, he was able to construct a small factory building from which to make his "Shade Tree Comfort" line of outdoor furniture. Inspired by this product line, Richard Dial began to make a series of sculptures, modeled after chairs that explored notions of patriarchy and power relations. Architectural, sculptural, and aesthetically poignant, his chair series touched on contemporary issues of race and gender.
 
 
Lonnie Holley (born 1950)
 
"My work is especially for the children so they can see how to make art out of things, understand how art can clean up the world, and realize that all we do on earth becomes a form of art. What is art? Art is everything that we have used, waiting to be used again."
 
In the late 1970s Holley began to make found-object commemorative assemblages, which he placed on his property in the woods overlooking the Birmingham airport. This yard grew rapidly in the 1980s to comprise more than two acres and hundreds of artworks in many media. Holley's works have generally addressed social issues and historical themes -- American history, Black history, and personal history. Holley was eventually compelled to abandon his property, and much of his art there was bulldozed into the ground. Since the early 1980s, Holley has also created original music. Holley's first professionally recorded music was released in 2012 and 2013 and his music tours took him across the United States and Europe. He continues to make art and music from his adopted hometown of Atlanta. Holly's artworks are in many public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the High Museum of Art.
 
 
Ronald Lockett (1965-1998)
 
A relative and neighbor of Thornton Dial, Lockett spent much of his youth observing the older artist at work. Lockett's consuming passion was drawing; after graduating from high school in the early 1980s, he stayed at home drawing and tending to his mother, who was in fragile health, and his great aunt, Sarah Dial Lockett, who also raised Thornton Dial and lived in the house between the two artists. Lockett's other primary source of inspiration for his art was television, especially nature documentaries and news programs. The naturalism and realism of Lockett's style differs from other artists of the Dial family, yet he shares with them an interest in art as social commentary, the use of animals as metaphors for the human condition, and a reliance on the expressiveness of found materials. He frequently scavenged abandoned tin shacks and barns for their age-stained metal siding and roofing material, from which he fashioned nailed-together collages. These unpainted works invoke the legacies of quilt making and vernacular architecture as a means of contemplating historical continuities and changes, including environmental and biological threats, and the psychology of racism and violence. Among the museums that own Lockett's work are the Newark Museum, the High Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 
 
Charlie Lucas (born 1951)
 
"It's just cast-off stuff people throw away. Like people who've been cast off and everybody thinks they're worth nothing. I've been there, beat up, broke down, at the bottom. But I had this dream in my head and that made me more than a piece of junk."
 
Lucas descends from several generations of craftspeople whose work as blacksmiths, quilters, woodcarvers, and basket makers have inspired his sculptural techniques. Raised in Pink Lily, Alabama, about twenty miles north of Montgomery, Lucas dropped out of elementary school, ran away from home, and found employment on construction crews and as a truck driver. When a back injury in 1984 left him unable to work at labor-intensive jobs, Lucas, using knowledge gained from his father, an auto mechanic who had taught him about cars, engines, and machines, began welding sculptures from scrapped cars and other cast-off metal. These artworks depict episodes from the artist's life, characters or personal narratives, or personifications of his attitudes and opinions. Eventually his yard in Pink Lily became a large visible diary, an autobiographical sculpture exhibition. Lucas relocated to Selma, and continues to make artwork and conduct workshops for young people. His work has appeared in solo and group exhibitions at the New Orleans Museum of Art, The Birmingham Museum of Art, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Rosa Parks Museum and Library at Troy University-Montgomery.
 
 
Joe Minter (born 1943)
 
"We as people of Africa have a story to tell about a journey of four hundred years here in America," Minter asserts, "and it finally came back to me that the only way to tell it was through art. Art is the universal thing. Make the art and put a message with it that could heal the wounds everywhere."
Minter's sense of obligation to act as "Peacemaker" and to share the history of his people in the United States drives the constantly evolving yard show he has named "African Village in America." Located adjacent to two historically black cemeteries in Birmingham, Alabama, the "African Village in America" sits on half an acre of land where Minter and his wife, Hilda, have lived for over forty years. In 1989, when Minter was forty-six years old, he began serious work on the Village: "The whole idea handed down to me by God is to use that which has been discarded, just as we as a people have been discarded...what gets thrown away with a spirit in it can survive and grow. A spirit of all the people that has touched and felt that material has stayed in the material." Minter and Hilda remain the primary caretakers of one of art history's most significant extant art environments. Minter's work is included in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the High Museum of Art.
 
 
Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910-2007)
 
Sudduth began painting at a young age -- perhaps three or four years, he remembered -- when he made a mud painting on a tree. As a child he wandered through the bogs and wild areas surrounding Fayette, Alabama, with his mother, a woman of Native-American heritage who foraged plants and roots for use in herbal medicines. The knowledge of natural materials and their properties that she imparted to Sudduth helped inspire his painterly process, which relied upon a homemade palette of mud, clay, berry juices, pulverized leaves and grass, sugar, coffee grounds, and ashes applied with his fingers. Sudduth worked as a gardener for many years but began to make art full-time in the 1980s.
 
Sudduth lived an exceptionally long life and incorporated into his art a significant amount of life experience -- beginning with farm work and gardening, with later experiences based upon his art-making. Sudduth's responses to life as depicted in his paintings engage our interest because we can perceive them for what they are: imaginative, improvisational vehicles for preserving the continuity of history and experience in this distinctive region of the American South. His work is represented in the collections of the Fayette Museum in his hometown of Fayette, Alabama, and in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts collection.
 
 
Mose Tolliver (1921-2006)
 
Mose Tolliver, usually known as Mose T, was one of Montgomery's most prolific and best-known self-taught artists. Tolliver grew up in a family of tenant farmers in the rural Alabama community known as Macedonia, near Pike Road. While still a child, he dropped out of school to go to work. For the next few decades he found employment at a number of occupations, including plumber, gardener, carpenter, housepainter, and furniture deliveryman, making his home in Montgomery. His earliest artworks were made of gourds and roots that he found at construction sites. In the 1960s, Tolliver's left foot was crushed while he was moving furniture, leaving him permanently disabled. To occupy his time Tolliver dedicated himself to painting. From the early 1980s until his death in 2006, he worked at his home on Sayre Street in downtown Montgomery, making paintings using latex house paint on plywood or Masonite boards, many of them brought to him by Montgomerians who appreciated his work and regularly purchased it. His first exhibition at the MMFA was held in 1981, and in 1982 he was included in the national exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 held at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington D.C.
 
Tolliver worked without initial drawings in a "wet on wet" process that mixed colors as they were applied. His typical subjects were animals, people, and others from his direct experience or imagination. He also copied designs from photographs, either originals or pictures from magazines or books. For some thirty years, Mose T created works here in Montgomery that are now widely collected around the country and by museums such as the MMFA, which holds twenty-six paintings by Mose Tolliver, ranging in date from 1970s to the 1990s.

 

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