In Memoriam: Frank Fleming

/ Art News

I was more at ease with nature and animals than people, I lived within myself. I didn’t use words to describe the things I saw, and I’m sure because I didn’t use words, I tended to think in visual images. — Frank Fleming

Two piece sculpture with a unicorn seated on a stump and a bulldog.
Frank Fleming, American, 1940–2018, Spirit Catcher (detail), 1982, unglazed
porcelain; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Members of the Birmingham
Museum of Art, 1982.204a-b

Frank Fleming described both himself and the sculpture he made with those words in 2014. However, it was a personal shorthand he frequently used to explain his speech impediment, resulting in eleven years of silence in elementary and high school, and its influence on his witty, incisive, and finely-made porcelain sculptures.

On March 18, 2018, Frank passed away, and we lost a warm, funny, generous, and extraordinarily talented human being.

Fleming was born in Bear Creek, Alabama in 1940, growing up on a cotton and corn farm in an isolated part of the state. His speech impediment and academic ability opened the door for him to attend Florence State College, now the University of North Alabama, for speech therapy. He took an art course on a whim, discovered he had a talent for drawing, and became an art major. He graduated hoping to teach, but positions in the school system were few, and instead he worked for six years at Boeing and NASA as a draftsman, eventually returning to school, receiving MA and MFA degrees from the University of Alabama.

We are fortunate in Birmingham to enjoy many examples of his sculpture in the public realm and as part of the fabric of our city. His work can be found in the Red Mountain Garden at the BMA, the Birmingham Botanical and Aldridge Gardens and, most prominently, The Storyteller at the center of Five Points South. All of these examples were made of bronze, a material Fleming adopted in the early 1980s.

Bronze gave him a greater financial stability, allowing him to create multiples as well as opening the door for additional public commissions with pieces that could be installed outside.

Frank Fleming visiting children during Summer Art Camp 2015. The camp theme was inspired by his solo exhibition, Frank Fleming: Between Fantasy and Reality, on view at the BMA February 27–August 9, 2015
Frank Fleming visiting children during Summer Art Camp 2015. The camp theme was
inspired by his solo exhibition, Frank Fleming: Between Fantasy and Reality, on view at the BMA
February 27–August 9, 2015

His passion however was clay, specifically porcelain, which he was working in once again at the time of his death. After receiving his MFA, Frank established a studio in Birmingham in 1973 and began devoting himself to making small, finely-detailed, surreal, and often irreverent sculptures which sold quickly to enthusiastic buyers at art fairs. He initially used color and clear glazes, but a major breakthrough came in his work when he stopped using glazes. He wanted to develop a body of work with a serious approach to realism, to try and capture the surface textures of nature. Frank was a close observer of flora and fauna, and had the patience and dexterity to achieve his goal. He attributed his skill to picking cotton as a child. In addition, he employed elements from nature to help, such as using a bird feather to impress exact detail on hundreds of tiny pieces of clay, then overlapping them to create the winged surface of a bird. Removing the glaze was a major breakthrough. The surface texture becomes more prominent, catching shadows to highlight detail and drawing the viewer in to look more closely. The sculptures feel akin to marble, adding to the mythic qualities of the blended human and animal forms created by the artist. Goat Man, a recent gift to the Museum, illustrates these qualities and is also a work which began to unlock the door for greater recognition of Frank’s work, as it was selected for the Biennial at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1977, giving him exposure to a much wider audience.

His expressions were unique, certainly influenced by Robert Arneson’s work and that of other artists working in clay in the 1960s and 1970s, but these were his own astute observations, life experiences, and ability to point to life’s absurdities. As time went on, there were deeper expressions inspired by Southern culture, folklore, and landscape, sometimes pointedly political and even heart-wrenching.

Frank Fleming visiting children during Summer Art Camp 2015. The camp theme was inspired by his solo exhibition, Frank Fleming: Between Fantasy and Reality, on view at the BMA February 27–August 9, 2015
Frank Fleming visiting children during Summer Art Camp 2015. The camp theme was
inspired by his solo exhibition, Frank Fleming: Between Fantasy and Reality, on view at the BMA
February 27–August 9, 2015

The BMA gave Frank his first one-person exhibition in 1974, followed by another in 1982 and most recently in 2015. Frank’s work spoke to people beyond the South, and is included in numerous public and private collections, including all of the major art museums in Alabama, as well at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MFA Houston, and Palm Springs Museum, to name but a few. He received and completed numerous commissions for public art, was represented by galleries across the United States, and had over 40 solo exhibitions in his career.

Frank loved our city and the people here who supported him as an artist. He gave back to all of us, and will be remembered as a great friend of our city and its nonprofit organizations. He was passionate about the natural world, but perhaps equally passionate about Alabama football! Frank said he wanted us to see the honesty in his work, that it was very personal, and meant many things, and there is not just one way to interpret it. Frank found himself in his art, and I think he is asking each of us to take the time to look, to listen, and do the same.