Ronald Lockett (1965–1998) stands out among southern artists in the late twentieth century. Raised in the African American industrial city of Bessemer, Alabama, Lockett explored a range of recurring themes through his art: faith, the endless cycle of life, environmental degradation, historical events, the sweetness of idealized love, mourning, human emotion, and personal struggle. By the time Lockett died at age thirty-two, he had created an estimated four hundred works that document an extraordinary artistic evolution.
He lived after the great midcentury social struggles were over, when all the big issue had, to him, seemingly already been fought for and decided. His art would consequently be haunted by a quest to locate historical moorings for an existence he believed doomed or trapped. His accomplishment, ultimately, was to have wrought things personal and tough from the rumors, stereotypes, hunches, half-heard reminiscences, and television broadcasts through which he experienced history and meaning.
Death’s siege of life tormented him. His art was death driven, a convergence of his personality, physiology, family, community, ethnicity, and finally, his contracting of a disease he equated with immortal Death. At least in his art, something rejuvenating emerged from his simultaneous sensing of his social death as a black male, the decay of his community and the occupations that sustained his ancestors, the evaporation of shared memories and experiences as ties to the past, the horrors of extinctions and genocides, his nuclear family’s dissolution, his sexual frustrations and fears, and HIV.
Prophesying his life, Lockett's art seemed from the outset to tell a story attuned to his world's ultimate collapse, which ended at the place—premature, unhappy death—he had always feared. He came from one of those dysfunctional families such as Tolstoy might have had in mind when he quipped that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Born in 1965, he lived all his life in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama. To outside appearances—always deceiving—his life was uneventful, almost unlived. Most of his hours will remain forever unaccounted. He graduated from high school but never took nor sought a traditional job. He learned no trade. One of a family of four brothers and a sister, Ronald lived in his mother's house his whole life, while two brothers left home to join the army or law enforcement, and the youngest brother all but left for the dangerous times of trouble with the law. Ronald's father, known as "Short" or "Little Bud," had split with Ronald's mother, Betty, when the artist was young, and settled with another woman in Pipe Shop. Betty suffered at least two breakdowns and finally became reclusive. She stayed home almost continually, until she moved to Texas to live with her daughter a few years before Ronald's death.
Although he seldom strayed from Pipe Shop, he was ill suited to life in Bessemer. He was physically slight, possessing none of the toughness that is demanded of Pipe Shop's steel factory workers and that pumps up local conceptions of masculinity and virility. He punched around the neighborhood after high-school graduation, spending much time helping his relatives the Dials in their various concerns. Having no occupation or trade made him an anomaly—not because he was unemployed, but because he had no traditional ambitions whatsoever. (Since elementary school, Ronald knew he wanted to be an artist, and by the time he was in his early twenties he would call himself one.) Articulate but usually shy and uncomfortable in conversations, with a quietness some would consider furtiveness, depressive, at times enervated, and intensely self-analytical, Lockett was not cool by the standards of the streets or the mills. Ronald's "aunt" and former neighbor, Clara Dial, pinpoints his position in Pipe Shop: "Most folks paid him no mind."1
Birmingham, Alabama, has become the Black Belt's own Rust Belt; and Birmingham's principal satellit, Bessemer, is a place where steel dependence muddles on, doling out hard times to residents whose parents and grandparents migrated from cotton fields to work in mines and mills. Many Bessemerites, surely, descend from the (mostly black) convicts impressed until the 1920s to toil in the area's furnaces as a price subsidy for local industry and a buffer against organized labor. Bessemer is a place founded to do almost as dirty a job as the plantations once performed. Still, despite its heavy industry, Bessemer remains a genetically Deep South land of town, with a church or two gracing every four-way stop, and with hormonal attachments to stock-car racing and college football (the University of Alabama is a few dozen miles down I-20/59).
The human dramas of Pipe Shop play out before a large chorus of out-of-work, forced retirees—men in their forties through eighties, obsolesced by Pipe Shop's economic misfortunes or their physical inability to continue with the labor-intensive jobs available. These men are fixtures in the community, convening at its cafes and joints, and many of them frequently assembled on the elder Dial's porch a few doors down from the Locketts. Ronald was a ubiquitous extra, drinking in the tales, jokes, asides, wisdom, and recollections.
Closer still to Ronald were two family links to bygone black life. Thornton Dial and Sarah "Auntie" Dial Lockett (c. 1890-1995) loomed as steel-willed survivors of Jim Crow and memory bridges to the nineteenth century. Their examples nurtured and dwarfed his sense of the stakes of his existence. Thornton Dial, a lifelong creator of "things," didn't label his stuff "art" in the mid-1980s, but was almost always working on projects behind his home three houses away from Lockett. Lockett probably considered Dial an artist before Dial did, and Dial, one of the few adults who paid Lockett any serious attention, became a mentor to him. Ronald's neighbor and great-grandmother, Sarah Lockett raised three generations of Locketts and Dials, including Thornton Dial, and was still lucid and vibrant until after her one hundredth year. Her mother wit shaped many Dial and Lockett men.
He learned to paint by watching Dial and watching TV, especially those kitsch-laden how-to-paint shows that teach formulaic, motel-art landscape and still-life techniques. In contrast, from watching Dial he picked up an approach to paint that treated the issue of representation as a problem to be attacked by any means necessary—in two dimensions or three, with any materials on hand. His early swirled compositions are Dial influenced but betray an underlying sense of conventional landscape, as in Poison River.
Despite the stylistic influences of the Western painting tradition, his art could hardly be more vernacular, for in at least five crucial ways he reconfigured traditional African American beliefs and practices. First, he used animals as the protagonists in his allegories in a manner that recontextualizes but is consistent with the roles of animals in nineteenth-century trickster tales and fables. Second, he used African American conjurational materials—blackness, rust, wire, poison, smoke—as the theme or physical medium for his works. Third, his preoccupation with instances of psychological transformation reflected a broadly vernacular emphasis on cathartic and ecstatic religious and performance rituals. Fourth, he was intensely concerned with eschatology—last or final things: a foundation of Afro-Christian theology. Fifth, he partook of the hermeneutic approaches of the root sculptor or the preacher, both of which seek prophetic signs in the found nature of a text—whether that text be the earth or the Bible—as a starting point for the communication of wisdom to others.
Wholly a vernacular artist, he was also a postmodern one; his hfe and art epitomize generational and aesthetic shifts. True to his times, he made pastiches of the local and the global, freely mixing artistic vocabularies and influences gleaned from disparate sources, ranging from those most at hand (family histories and lore, street talk) to those almost universally shared—primarily the influence of TV. His skepticism about grand Enlightenment notions—Creativity, Originality, Progress, the New, and so on—ultimately propelled him away from painting and toward collage. He struggled to come to grips with the meaning of history, even though the past was mostly just a quality of "pastness" to him-a style without narrative structure, a story of hints he never could quite weave together in his mind. But he wanted that pastness with all he had.
Wed-Fri: 10am - 6pm
Sat-Sun: 1pm - 5pm
Hammonds House Museum
503 Peeples Street, Atlanta, GA 30310