Gift/Purchase Comprised of Works by Well-known African American Artists of the Southeast, Including Thornton Dial, Ronald Lockett, and Lonnie Holley, and the Quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama
The Philadelphia Museum of Art announced that it has acquired 24 works of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia. Consisting of important examples by African American artists from the southeastern United States, the acquisition contains three major works by Thornton Dial, two assemblages each by Lonnie Holley and Ronald Lockett, a piece by Hawkins Bolden, and one by root sculptor Bessie Harvey. It also includes 15 quilts by several generations of the remarkable women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. These works will enrich the Museum’s collection of contemporary and American art, representing an important black tradition rooted in assemblage and grounded in the expression of profound historical and sociological issues.
Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: “The Museum has a longstanding commitment to acquiring works by artists out of the mainstream, but the collection has been insufficiently represented by the works of African American artists working in a visual tradition that is unique to the Southeast. Now we can present a much more comprehensive picture of the diversity of artistic expression in the post-Civil Rights era. The acquisition will greatly enhance the Museum’s collection and ensure that future generations will discover and experience these exceptional works of art. We are deeply grateful to the Souls Grown Deep Foundation for making this acquisition possible.”
Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, said: "The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is pleased to collaborate with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to ensure that important works by African American artists who represent a distinctive voice in contemporary art are represented in its permanent collection. Partnering with the PMA and a growing number of other museums will ensure that the work and history of these artists is accessible to a broad audience."
Among the highlights of the acquisition are three large assemblages by Thornton Dial (1928-2016), a skilled iron and steelworker, pipe fitter, carpenter, and house painter who lived in the small industrial town of Bessemer, outside Birmingham, Alabama. Not trained as an artist, he began to create assemblages or constructions in the African American tradition of so-called “yard art” typical of the Deep South, driven by his desire to express ideas about black history, slavery, racial discrimination, urban and rural poverty, industrial or environmental collapse, and spiritual salvation. The three assemblages – The Last Day of Martin Luther King of 1992, High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) of 2002, and The Old Water of 2004 – variously combine disparate found materials such as steel, tin, wood, carpet, barbed wire, upholstery, driftwood, goat hides, metal pans, broken glass, a stuffed-animal backpack, mop cords, and a broom.
The acquisition also includes works by artists in Dial’s circle, including his cousin Ronald Lockett (1965-1998) and his friend Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), who also grew up around Birmingham. Lockett’s Smoke Filled Sky (You Can Burn a Man’s House but Not His Dreams) is part of a series done around 1990 referring to violence by fire, including nuclear destruction, racial conflict, and house burnings in southern Alabama during the civil rights movement. Timothy, 1995, is part of Lockett’s Oklahoma series expressing the horror of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April of that year by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. In this series, cut pieces of rusted tin, roofing metal, or iron grillwork are put together somewhat in the manner of a patchwork quilt. Two assemblages by Holley, Protecting Myself the Best I Can (Weapon by the Door), and No Light on the Crosses, each from 1994, show Holley’s penchant for recycling found materials into new artworks; he turned several vacant lots near his home in Birmingham into an enormous yard-art environment that was removed in 1997 when the airport authority took the land for an expansion.
Hawkins Bolden (1914-2005) grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he suffered seizures as a child and went blind at a young age. Nevertheless, he created works—some of them scarecrow-like totemic figures displayed in his backyard garden—from discarded materials scavenged around his neighborhood and kept underneath his house. Untitled, from the mid-1980s, is constructed from a wooden headboard, found metal objects, wire fencing, upholstery fabric, and foam backing.
The quilts in the acquisition, dating from 1930 to 2005, were produced in the small, remote African American community called Gee’s Bend, near Selma, Alabama. The quilters rose to prominence as the result of two important traveling exhibitions: The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, 2002, and Gee’s Bend, the Architecture of the Quilt, which was enthusiastically received when it appeared at the Philadelphia Museum in 2008.
Among these quilts are two inventive works by Mary Lee Bendolph (b.1935), including her graphic red, black and white quilt, called Blocks, strips, strings, and half squares, inspired by Bendolph’s experience at Paulson Press in Berkeley during the summer of 2005. She and her daughter Louisiana P. Bendolph (b.1960), also represented in the acquisition, spent two weeks translating their quilt designs into fine art intaglio prints. The prints in turn inspired a group of quilts made with new fabrics, including this modern reinterpretation of traditional Gee’s Bend wedge-shaped string quilts.
Another highlight is Housetop by Delia Bennett (1892-1976), who was the matriarch of an extended family of quiltmakers that included daughters and granddaughters. This quilt, made about 1955, is a “fractured” variation of the traditional single-block design. It uses four separate L shaped Half-Log Cabin blocks stitched together to make a larger Housetop pattern.
Other quilters represented in the Souls Grown Deep acquisition are Nellie May Abrams (1946-2005); Annie E. Pettway (1904-1971); Henrietta Pettway (1894-1971); Loretta Pettway (b. 1942); Martha Jane Pettway (1898-2003); Sue Willie Seltzer (1921-2010); Andrea P. Willliams (b. 1973); Irene Williams (1920-2015); Magdalene Wilson (1898-2001); and Nettie Young (1916-2010).
Ann Percy, the Museum’s Mainwaring Curator of Drawings, stated: “For more than 20 years, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been committed to collecting works by self-taught artists and to presenting their achievements in the context of an encyclopedic museum. In several shows mounted from our holdings we have emphasized interfaces between work by artists who operate outside the ‘establishment’ and those that are part of the mainstream, as they often share basic approaches and strategies. Thanks to the vision of William C. Arnett, who formed the Souls Grown Deep collection through decades of acquiring and championing the work of African American artists from the southeastern United States, the Foundation now holds an unequalled body of work by these artists. With the current acquisition, the Philadelphia Museum can better represent this important and distinctive component of the history of American art in its collection.”