By Franklin Abbott
Ronald Lockett’s art is breathtaking. Although he is not nearly as well known as his cousin and mentor, Thorton Dial Sr., Lockett is a world class artist with work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a new exhibition “Fever Within” showing at the High Museum of Art in Midtown until Jan. 8. Lockett died in 1998 of AIDS at the young age of 33.
“Fever Within” shows art that represents Lockett’s work from its beginning to its end. Lockett grew up and lived in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama. He lived a few doors down from his talented cousin Thorton Dial Sr. and was raised by the same woman who raised many of the Dials and Locketts who lived in that neighborhood. His great-aunt,a quilter, Sarah Dial Lockett, lived to be 105 and was the source of strenght for him as well as many family members. One of his last works “Sarah Lockett’s Roses” speaks to her influence in his life. Lockett used metal instead of cloth to make her memorial quilt.
Lockett along with Dial and other vernacular artists from the Bessemer/Birmingham area were recognized and brought to international attention by art collector and historian William Arnett. Arnett remembers Lockett as a bright, shy young man who made art privately only reluctantly sharing it with Arnett’s wife. When Arnett was finally invited to view Lockett’s art, which he made in a garage behind his house, he could see that Lockett had extraordinary talent. He says this art was very different, that “not many artists become great.” Arnett encouraged Lockett and purchased his work. Lockett, who was largely self-taught inspired by his cousin and by a How to Paint show he saw on public television, began to work more consistently and with deeper and broader themes.
Arnett says that Lockett, under his quiet veneer, had a temper and convictions. His work on environmental themes in his “Trapped Series” and his commentary on the Oklahoma City bombings in his works on metal are among his most important contributions. Arnett says that Lockett’s influence were both his family and the world he saw largely through television. Although Lockett traveled to art shows he still was most deeply influenced by the urban environment he lived in. Arnett complains that art unlike music is elitist. He says that the art created by Lockett and the Dial family is some of the greatest art to come out of contemporary times.
Gallery owner Bill Lowe compares Bessemer to Renaissance Florence. This art, asserts Arnett, is just as significant as jazz and the blues in changing the way we look at the world. He says that recognition has come slowly because of subliminal beliefs that “educated white men make the best art” and that “uneducated black men cannot make great art.” Ronald Lockett and Thorton Dial Sr and the half dozen other artist who were connected to them by geography and community make a powerful argument about the power of art to change the way we look at the world.
“Fever Within” is a unique opportunity to see the genius of an artist who though never formally trained created great works of art within the limited span of a life tragically cut short. Like other artists whose careers were truncated by AIDS, Lockett did not have the advantage of years to mature his art. What we see in the exhibit is the full expression of his spirit compacted into a few short decades.
Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist and writer.