Museum  June 4, 2019

Philadelphia Museum Celebrates Souls Grown Deep Acquisitions with Two Exhibitions

© Estate of Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio/Art Resource (AR), New York. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019

The Old Water, 2004, by Thornton Dial, Sr. Steel, tin, wood, wire, cloth, carpet, driftwood, wood trellis, barbed wire, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound, 7 feet × 12 feet 2 1/2 inches × 44 inches. Purchased with the McNeil Acquisition Fund for American Art and Material Culture, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South, an exhibition including paintings, sculptures, and quilts that celebrates the recent acquisition of 24 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Among them are outstanding examples of large-scale sculptures and reliefs by Thornton Dial, assemblages by Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Hawkins Bolden, and Bessie Harvey, and an impressive selection of multi-colored quilts made by several generations of women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the nearby towns of Rehoboth and Alberta. Many of these pieces were composed of found and salvaged materials and are deeply rooted in personal history of their makers. This exhibition is presented in conjunction with The Art of Collage and Assemblage, a related exhibition of collages and assemblages from the museum’s broad holdings of American and European modern and contemporary art.

Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: “We are proud of this important acquisition from the collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, for it enables us to present a much richer account of the development of contemporary art. We have a long history of acquiring and exhibiting works by artists who have practiced outside of the mainstream. With this acquisition, we are delighted that we can now more broadly represent this distinctive aspect of American art which will enable us to share a more comprehensive account of modern and contemporary art in this country.”

© Estate of Irene Williams/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.

Blocks and Strips Quilt, 2003, by Irene Williams. Pieced polyester knit, cotton blend plain weave, cotton gauze, 8 feet 5 inches × 6 feet 4 inches. Purchased with the Joseph E. Temple Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.

While their subjects vary, the individual works featured in Souls Grown Deep are rooted in artistic traditions of the southeastern region of the U.S. and bound up with the personal histories of the artists who made them. Many of these works represent responses to issues such as poverty, oppression, violence, marginalization and racial conflict. The quilts span the period from the 1920s to the early 2000s, while the paintings and sculptures date from 1985 to 2004.

Among the most important works in this acquisition are three by the late Thornton Dial, who lived in Bessemer, Alabama. In the monumentally-scaled The Last Day of Martin Luther King, 1992, the image of a tiger—the artist’s frequent symbol of the struggle for justice endured by African Americans—represents Dr. King. Even grander in scale is High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man), 2002, a scene of a slave ship formed in high relief out of metal, goat hides, barbed wire, and other materials gathered by the artist. In his The Old Water, 2004, Dial depicts birds flocking to a river and doubles as a critique of equal opportunity and government accountability in the U.S.

The exhibition contains two works by Dial’s friend, Lonnie Holley, also from Birmingham. A musician and poet, Holley uses found objects in such pieces as Protecting Myself the Best I can (Weapons by the Door), 1994, an assemblage consisting of a golf club, baseball bats, and a metal pipe. The artist collected these materials from a neighbor who had kept them by her door to protect herself from potential intruders, giving, them new meaning as a monument to the resistance to violence demonstrated by his neighbor and other African American women.

Two works by Dial’s cousin, Ronald Lockett, also from Bessemer, share the theme of racism manifested as violent public spectacle. Smoke-Filled Sky (You can Burn a Man’s House but Not His Dreams), 1990, depicts a house set on fire by the Ku Klux Klan. Lockett made several works about white supremacist violence against black communities. In Timothy, 1995, the artist incorporates metal, tin, wire, paint, and nails on wood to create a grid-like pattern that resembles a quilt. He made this work in response to the attack on a government building that occurred in Oklahoma City earlier that year, naming it after the domestic terrorist.

Represented by one work each are Tennessee artists Hawkins Bolden and Bessie Harvey. Bolden, who was visually impaired, constructed Untitled 1985, out of material collected around his Memphis neighborhood: a headboard, wire fencing, and upholstery. In Jezebel, 1987, Harvey combines tree roots with shells, glitter, beads, and other adornments to depict the biblical queen. The artist believed that by finding human features in twisted roots she was revealing the beauty of God’s creation.

© Lonnie Holley/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ron Lee/The Silver Factory. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.

No Light on the Crosses, 1994, by Lonnie Holley. Wood, metal fencing, headlight, ceramic lamp, electrical cords, ice cream scooper, metal drain cover, wire, drill bit, rope, drum head, 6 feet 11 inches × 43 inches × 23 inches. Purchased with the African American Art fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.

The fifteen quilts in the exhibition show how artists from in and around Gee’s Bend—a relatively isolated community on the Alabama River just south of Selma—transformed well-worn materials into works of art. The women of this locale recycled clothing and goods of various fabrics including plain weave cotton, denim, corduroy, and sateen to create vibrant and colorful quilts that would not only serve a utilitarian purpose but also provided a creative communal activity. Quilts by Martha Jane Pettway, Annie E. Pettway, and Henrietta Pettway from the 1920s and 1930s are among the earliest examples. The three women were distantly related through marriage: their shared name reflects the history of Gee’s Bend as the place of the former Pettway plantation, which profited from enslaved labor. Works by Delia Bennet, Nellie Mae Abrams, and Louisiana Bendolph show different takes on the “housetop” motif, though they were made in the 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s, respectively. Louisiana’s mother-in-law, Mary Lee Bendolph, is represented by two dynamic quilts from the early 2000s, including one inspired by etchings that she made during a printmaking residency in Berkeley, California.

The exhibition also spotlights the textiles of the nearby communities Rehoboth and Alberta, illuminating the quilting legacies and master quilters unique to these locales. In Rehoboth, homes are spread out along a straight and narrow road, and quilts by residents Sue Willie Seltzer and Irene Williams feature strong vertical bands with perpendicular branches that recall the geography of the town itself. Rehoboth was also the site of the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative founded in 1966 during the Civil Rights Movement, which empowered women financially through quilt auctions and commercial contracts with department stores like Sears and Bloomingdale’s.

John Vick, Collections Project Manager, who organized the exhibition with Souls Grown Deep Foundation Intern Akili Davis, said: “These works enable us to tell a fuller story about American art. They engage with the past, be it with local traditions or events of national significance, and they share an approach to artmaking that values recycling and reconfiguring the stuff of everyday life. They bring us into the present by advancing the conversation about who is called an artist and who is represented in art museums.”

Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.

The Evil Eye, 1947, by Enrico Donati. Painted plaster, acrylic sheet, copper wire, mirrors, glass. 9 3/4 × 11 3/8 × 7 inches. Gift of Adele Donati, 2011.

A related exhibition, The Art of Collage and Assemblage, is on view in the Collab Gallery. As all the works in the Souls Grown Deep acquisition, including the quilts, are pieced together from different material, this exhibition provides an opportunity to spotlight some of the museum’s other outstanding examples of works created using the related techniques of collage and assemblage, two artistic strategies invented in the early 20th century that have had a profound effect on the development of modern art.

The Art of Collage and Assemblage features sixty-three works, some by well-known artists and others who will be largely unfamiliar to visitors. It is organized by groups of works that share certain affinities, such as the Cubist style (Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Archipenko, Man Ray); collages incorporating cut, torn, or interwoven pieces of paper (Jean Arp, Romare Bearden, Ellsworth Kelly, Alvin Loving, Roni Horn); the use of images culled from popular publications like comic books, newspapers, or magazines (Jess, Ray Yoshida, Martin Ramírez, Felipe Jesús Consalvos); and the use of photographic techniques (Joseph Cornell, Lucas Samaras, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg).

Ann Percy, the Mainwaring Curator of Drawings, who organized the exhibition, noted: “The idea of using every day, non-art materials, which is fundamental to collage and assemblage, freed up artists to seek out an astounding variety of things to introduce into their pieces. In this exhibition, the viewer may see components as diverse as hibiscus stems, cigar labels, silk flowers, oyster shells, sand, playing cards, mirrored glass shards, and a French farming manual. Inventively recombined in often incongruous juxtapositions, these elements—natural or manmade, fragmentary or whole, precious objects or junkyard discards—can provoke in the viewer imaginative, even visionary, thoughts and associations. The intent is to provide unusual, intriguing, or illuminating combinations of diverse materials and images.”

Related Program

Beginning Friday, July 5, Art Splash, presented by PNC Arts Alive, returns to the Perelman Building offering families a variety of hands-on activities that are inspired by works in both the Souls Grown Deep and The Art of Collage and Assemblage exhibitions. This summer program is centered on community and invites four local artists to each spend two weeks in residence in the Splash Studio, a space dedicated to artmaking and creativity. Kids ages 12 and under are always free. Art Splash brings approximately 40,000 families to the museum each summer.

About the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is the only nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting artwork by artists from the African American South. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, The Foundation was established with the largest and foremost collection of works by African American artists from the Southern United States– over 1,100 works by more than 160 artists collected since the 1980s–which it is disbursing into the collections of museums around the country to make the work accessible to the widest possible audience. The Foundation advances its mission by advocating the contributions of these artists in the canon of American art history, accomplished through collection transfers, scholarships, education, public programs, and publications. Through grants and other initiatives, the Foundation has also extended its mission to serve those communities that gave rise to the visual traditions of the artists represented in its collection. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of 16 museums to recently acquire work from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The Foundation derives its name from a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes (1902-67) entitled “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the last line of which is: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

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