Earlier this summer, a large audience gathered in the American Folk Art Museum’s main hall to listen to an esteemed panel talk about the life and work of the late Bessemer, Alabama artist Ronald Lockett. A lighthearted gravitas filled the room. As the first ever solo exhibit of Lockett’s art—an admixture of found sculpture, folk, and contemporary painting that defies simple categorization—the evening stood as a testament to that well-worn idiom ‘better late than never’.
Lockett died in 1998 due to AIDS-related pneumonia at 32 years old. The weight of Lockett’s all-too soon passing resonates through the exhibit titled “Fever Within”, which showcases some of the prolific body of work he produced in the decade prior to his death.
Paul Arnett, son to Souls Grown Deep founder William Arnett, whose organization helped support Lockett and many others now known as the ‘Birmingham-Bessemer School’ of artists, was the first to speak. Having grown up the same age as Lockett, Arnett is more than just a great admirer of Lockett’s work, he was also his good friend. Appropriately then, Arnett would introduce us to Lockett by way of personal anecdote.
Unlocking Ronald Lockett
It was an afternoon back in 1987 and Arnett’s mother had just emerged from the tin shed of Thornton Dial’s workshop. “This young man from the neighborhood just told me the most remarkable story about that sculpture,” Arnett recalled his mother saying in reference to Lockett and a Dial sculpture titled “Slave Ship”. The animals, markings and figures in the sculpture turned out to be laden in symbols made known for the first time that afternoon to an outside audience, courtesy of the celebrated artists’ young confidant, whose relationship to Dial was made possible through Sarah Lockett, the cherished matriarch who had raised both men over the years. It would be the first of many of Dial’s pieces that we understand more fully today. “That was sort of Ronald’s first contribution to the art world,” said Arnett, “The guy who opened the door to Thornton Dial’s mind.”
In a similar respect, Arnett continued, it was Dial who helped open up Lockett’s art.
“One day Ronald comes back to my mom—people had an easy time talking with her—and showed her some ‘stuff’ he’d made,” said Arnett. That “stuff” being some of Lockett’s first ever paintings. It was immediately clear Lockett displayed great talent. “He didn’t fit into any category or definition that was then in service,” said Arnett of Lockett’s work he’d soon come to see himself. “He couldn’t be called a folk artist, he was too young and worldly. He vociferously watched television and was literate at a time when the field of contemporary folk art didn’t really exist.”
For these reasons, going to art college seemed the most logical step for Lockett. Instead Lockett contributed his “second revolutionary” act to the art world by choosing not to. “It’s hard to imagine in retrospect how radical this was,” said Arnett, recalling how Lockett rather decided to stay in the “broken down post-industrial suburb” of Bessemer and “sit at the knee” of his still relatively unknown teacher, Thornton Dial. “Ronald realized he was in the presence of a genius.”
Rebirth and Revolution
Not long after that Lockett produced his first artwork on display in the exhibit titled “Rebirth”. The painting depicts a skeletal creature crawling away from a patch of earthly green and into a dark abyss. In both title and content, everything about “Rebirth” is at odds with each other. Informed by Dial’s signature use of animals that contain embedded meaning, Lockett began creating his own mythology in “Rebirth”. And like all good mythology, Lockett’s first major piece was his origin story. In it Lockett already seems to have sensed his fate, placing in the work all the hope, suffering, and anguish that would come to define both his life and art. “It was Ronald’s statement of purpose,” said Arnett.
In another piece made soon after, titled “Poison River”, Lockett approached the work from a different angle. Evoking Jackson Pollock’s technique of pouring paint onto canvas, Lockett found a way to combine the abstract beauty of contemporary art, while at the same time embedding his painting, like everything he made, with a depth of social meaning. In this instance, creating a work that alluded in its figurative depiction of nature and chemical oil spills to the environmental issues caused by the steel industry in Bessemer at the time.
“He was trying to tell a narrative about the world he lived in,” said the next speaker Bernard L. Herman, curator of the exhibit. Contextualizing Lockett within the Bessemer-Birmingham school of artists—who all shared a certain “sensibility” in both the themes and aesthetics of their work. Herman continued, “He was a vernacular artist, but also a postmodern one; his art epitomizes a generational and aesthetic shift.” But what was that shift?
Lockett was born too late to have witnessed first-hand Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Struggle. Instead he emerged as an artist burdened with an intense awareness of how the past had perpetuated itself into the present. “Ronald Lockett’s are the concerns of everyday life and it’s disintegration,” said Herman addressing this unique position Lockett found himself in. “He actively developed a visual and material language for art-making to intervene into life’s most basic and urgent questions, the kind of inquiries in broad strokes that describe the stakes of contemporary art.”
In that sense Lockett possessed an unmatched perspective. Taken together with what many fondly recall as being his unbridled sensitivity, the manifestation of Lockett’s vision on display in ‘Fever Within’ stands as a testament to his timeless creations and what they say about our world. Tragic, wrought with suffering, yet still beautiful in its physical existence.