Given the choice, I’ll take bad news before the good just so things end on a high note. That means I should love the rest of 2016 because the first month felt like a succession of losses.
The latest came in January’s closing week with a couple of mortal departures, both of whom had connections to Mobile.
The first was the death of Alabama artist Thornton Dial on Jan. 25. Born the son of Black Belt sharecroppers in 1928, Dial’s early life was harshly typical of an African-American in his time and place.
He left school in the third grade to pick cotton alongside his family. This led to 40-plus years of back-breaking jobs as a laborer in metalwork, construction and farming.
However, Dial also created untrained art his whole life, with a compulsion to work with found materials in a variety of forms. He poured more energy into the passion as he reached his 50s. In 1987, Atlanta art historian and collector William Arnett recognized Dial’s genius.
Arnett made it his mission to introduce Dial and a group of similar self-taught Alabama artists to the world at large. Many arts cognoscenti and traditionalists bristled at assertions artists of hardscrabble origins and unorthodox backgrounds were equal to their deified favorites.
Time and exposure changed those opinions. Eventually, Dial’s name would be mentioned in the same breath as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg. Dial’s work made it into the halls of America’s most exalted collections and showplaces.
The deep thought Dial brought to his work — large mixed-media paintings, various-sized sculptures and gigantic installations — gave insight into African-American experience in the 20th century Deep South. His voice and style were unique and genuine.
Last week news of his passing raced throughout the art world. In typical fashion, praise will build exponentially in coming years as many revamp their appreciation of him. “Oh, I knew his talent all along.”
The value of Dial’s art is skyrocketing as I type this. Right now Mobilians can see his work as part of the “History Refused to Die” show in place at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center (301 Conti St., Mobile) through the end of April. Get a good look, as it might be your last chance unless you venture to far larger cities.
Then, on Jan. 26, Mobile’s Yvonne Kalen passed away. Described by former Mobile Arts Council Director Bob Burnett as a “force majeure” of the Mobile cultural scene, Kalen had been a prime patron and player for nearly a half-century.
Born Ida Yvonne Lynch in Philadelphia in 1918, she grew up in Texas and would later earn her undergraduate degree from Dallas’ Southern Methodist University. A master’s degree from the University of Minnesota followed.
One of the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street, she also dabbled in politics. When her husband retired from the Navy, they retired to Mobile.
Yvonne Kalen enjoyed long friendships with notable Mobile patron and politico Ann Bedsole and former state poet laureate Sue Walker. Kalen herself was a published poet and author and helped writers by editing manuscripts. Together with Bedsole, they established a women’s reading group that met Wednesdays at Carpe Diem Coffee in Spring Hill.
She was the former president of the Art Patrons League, where she led fundraising efforts and helped choose public art. She served on the board of the Mobile Arts Council and on the Alabama State Council for the Arts.
Kalen was one of the organizers of the Odyssey Lifelong Learning program at the University of South Alabama. She was involved with Alabama Contemporary Dance and the Mobile Museum of Art, and helped engineer Mobile’s 2002 Tricentennial Celebration. She was actively involved at the Oakleigh Historic Complex and with the Mobile Historic Preservation Society.
She served on the Joe Jefferson Players board and did everything from creating ads and programs to selling tickets. She was actively engaged in their fundraising, and the front garden was created in her honor.
Kalen also was a personal patron for local artists Casey Downing, Lee Hoffman, Charles Smith and Tut Riddick. She received numerous awards for her community involvement, including a Greater Mobile Art Award from Mobile Arts Council in 2008.
What’s most important about both Kalen and Dial are their legacies and what they did with their time here. Both made as much or more of the latter portion of their lives as they did their youth.
Kalen’s legacy is in the ripples she made for others. She facilitated creative experience by providing opportunity, for learning, for expression, for its reception and for its repercussions. What became of her efforts will continue in her absence, touching lives and hopefully allowing us all sublime conversation of the human condition.
Dial left tangible work wrought by his hands and vision. He also opened doors for others like him, for Joe Minter, Ronnie Lockett and Lonnie Holley and some whose names are not yet known. Hopefully he supplied unstated admonition for strict academic adherents, in that proof-worthy expression and brilliance can come from anywhere.
If that’s the fruit of their departures, then I guess 2016 isn’t really about loss at this point. It’s about appreciation.