(Bear Creek, Alabama, 1940 - 2018, Birmingham, Alabama)
Franklin Delnoa Fleming (better known as Frank Fleming) was born in Bear Creek, Alabama in June of 1940, the fifth of seven children.(1) His parents were tenant farmers who raised corn and cotton and Fleming experienced a typical farm-boy childhood surrounded by animals and constantly outdoors. As a child, Fleming stuttered, and as a result of being teased by other children, he often turned to animals for company. He has said he felt more at home with animals than people as a child.(2)
Though both Fleming's parents had grown up illiterate, the Fleming children were sent to school. Upon his graduation from Bear Creek High School, Fleming was awarded a scholarship to Florence State College by Alabama Easter Seals so that he could receive speech therapy. Because of his love for animals, Fleming originally planned to be a biology major, but when he took an elective course in art and discovered his talent, he decided instead to get a BA in art. After graduation in 1962, Fleming took a job as a technical artist doing paste-up work for the aerospace program at the Huntsville Space Flight Center. In 1968, Fleming returned to school at the University of Alabama to train as an art teacher with the help of a scholarship for Master's students in ceramics.
Fleming graduated with his MA in 1969 but was unable to find a teaching job. He was eventually appointed Supervisor of Art in the Huntsville region where he was charged with introducing art programs to twenty-two rural Alabama schools. He resigned the position after two years and returned to the University of Alabama on another grant to study for his MFA. Midway through the program in 1972, he came in contact with the works of Peter Voulkos and David Gilhooly. Impressed with their nonfunctional and sculptural ceramic work, Fleming decided to experiment himself, despite opposition from some of his teachers. In spring of 1973, he graduated and tried again to find a teaching job but found nothing. Finally, Fleming put aside his teaching ambitions and moved to Birmingham where he began making functional and decorative pottery, continuing his sculptural work on the side. It was during this period that he began to use white porcelain with only a clear glaze.
In 1974, Fleming had his first one-man show at the Birmingham Musem of Art and he sold his first few pieces. Around the same time, some of his works were accepted for the Crafts of the Americas exhibition in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Encouraged, Fleming began to send out work to juried exhibitions around the country. Recognition of his work was slow. In 1976, Fleming was selected as one of the artists in the traveling juried exhibition 35 Artists in the Southeast. In 1979, he was offered a one-man exhibition at the Morgan Art Gallery in Kansas City and exhibits in Washington, D. C. and New York City soon followed. By the early 1980s, Fleming was exhibiting in one-man shows across the United States. He was also participating extensively in group exhibitions. Some of his more prestigious venues include the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American Art.
Fleming's works also have appeared in a variety of publications on contemporary crafts and American ceramics including The History of American Ceramics by Elaine Levin, Art Now: From Abstract Expressionism to Superrealism by Edward Lucie-Smith, and numerous journal, magazine, and newspaper articles.(3) His works also can be found in a variety of public, corporate, and private collections including the Five Points South Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, the Salt Lake City Museum of Fine Arts, the Smithsonian, the Landon Collection in Coral Gables, Florida, the Federal Express offices in Memphis, Hewlett-Packard headquarters in Palo Alto, California, the Frederick Weisman Collection in Los Angeles, and the American Ambassador's Residence in Bangkok, Thailand. Fleming has lectured extensively at workshops, local colleges, and craft organizations as well as larger universities such as Pennsylvania State College, the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, the University of Georgia, and the University of California at Davis. He currently lives and works in Birmingham.
Fleming prefers to work in porcelain, particularly Tennessee porcelain, but has recently also tried bronze casting in his work for the sculpture garden and Till Fountain at MMFA, as well as the Five Points South Museum in Birmingham and Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. His ceramic pieces are entirely hand-built because, during his early training at Florence State College, he had no access to a potter's wheel. Fleming rarely does conceptual sketches of his works before he begins, preferring to watch his compositions evolve as he works. During his time at Florence State College, Fleming used paints and colored glazes but switched to clear glaze over plain white porcelain when he began to produce pottery professionally (c. 1973). Eventually, he came to leave the surfaces of his works unglazed in order to make surface textures more palpable and immediate to the viewer.
Fleming's sculptures are notable for their extreme veracity of detail which makes them highly realistic. The disjunction between the careful detailing and colorless surfaces of his works, however, lends a bizarre, and many times surreal, atmosphere to his pieces. Most of Fleming's works center around anthropomorphized animals, human-animal hybrids, and other organic hybrids (e.g. trees with hands), though some are simply realistic animals, plants, or vegetables.(4) Fleming's animals dress and behave like people and are often posed in groups which suggest myths, folklore, or fables.(5) Many works reflect particular people or events in Fleming's life. Humor is a common undercurrent in many of his works which is sometimes ironic, sometimes whimsical, and sometimes directed at Southern culture, such as his Heart of Dixie series. Other works address moral, social, and political issues, like his anti-war protest Guernica series, but these are never openly didactic. As Janet Koplos has said "These are not tracts to lecture us, although they variously focus on moral, social and political issues...They become richer with repeated viewing because they are packed with suggestion and possibility rather than statement."(6) Fleming's ceramic sculptures fall within the figurative tradition rather than being concerned with problems of space or mass.(7) His works are rooted in a sophisticated awareness of the history of art and an interest in contemporary issues. Fleming also has emphasized the importance of his upbringing in the South as an influence on his work.(8)
(1)Bibliographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Edward F. Weeks, Frank Fleming: Personal Mythologies, Birmingham Museum of Art, 1982; Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, Frank Fleming, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, 1983; Janet Koplos, "Frank Fleming", American Ceramics 4/2, April 2, 1985; Frank Fleming, "Personal Mythologies", The Georgia Review, Vol. 39 (2), Summer, 1985; Julia Harwell, Society for the Fine Arts Review, Vol. 7 (3), University of Alabama College of Arts and Sciences, Fall, 1985; Ethel Moore, Three Approaches to the Figurative: Fleming, Gatewood, Koegel, exhibition organized by Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, North Carolina, Southern Arts Federation, 1986; Who's Who in American Art 1993-94, 20th edition, R. R. Bowker, New Providence, New Jersey, 1993, p. 371; Stephen Smith and J. R. Taylor, "Snakes and Salamanders and Frank Fleming", I Cover the War, April, 1993; artist's vitae and other information on file at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, 1996. See also Ceramics Southeast: The Figure, Ewing Gallery of Art and Architecture of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1986. For a recent study of Fleming's career see also Patricia Lane Cooper Lowrimore, Frank Fleming: A Change of Attitude, MA thesis, University of Alabama, Birmingham, 1992.
(2)Ausfeld, 1983; Harwell, 1985; Smith and Taylor, 1993
(3)See, for example, the articles listed in note 1 above.
(4)Koplos, 1985, p. 24
(5)Koplos, 1985, p. 24; Smith and Taylor, 1993, p. 6
(6)Koplos, 1985, p. 28
(7)Koplos, 1985, p. 24.
(8)Harwell, 1985, p. 4. "My roots are very important. They made me what I am. My inspiration, ideas, work ethic all came from being raised in this part of the country. I'm still drawing from it"
Image credit: Photograph courtesy of Jerry Siegel