Alabama sculptor Frank Fleming (1940- ) is internationally known for his fanciful sculptures in ceramic and bronze, which combine realistic treatments of animals and plants with mystical and imagined figures, often in fantastical groupings and arrangements. Unlike many sculptors, Fleming does not work from sketches but instead sculpts directly from a mental image of the finished piece, often from what he describes as visions of connections between supernatural and living worlds. His works can be found in municipal spaces, museum grounds, and other public and private arenas. Fleming has won numerous awards, and his work has been featured in dozens of exhibitions and is housed in major private and public collections throughout the United States and in several foreign countries.
Franklin Delnoa Fleming was born to Leck and Eunice Fleming on June 17, 1940, in the community of Bear Creek in northeastern Marion County; he was one of four children raised on the small family farm. Like many families in rural Alabama, the Flemings lived in impoverished circumstances, and Fleming has noted that his family did not have indoor plumbing or electricity throughout his childhood. However, he also has credited that upbringing with his love of and interest in nature and the animal kingdom and his expression of that interest in his art. Throughout his early life, Fleming suffered from a severe speech impediment that left him essentially mute for much of his childhood. Public schools in Bear Creek offered little in the way of therapy for his condition, so his parents took him to Florence, Lauderdale County, for treatment. In 1958, Fleming entered Florence State University (now the University of North Alabama) to study biology and continue his speech therapy. His books and fees were paid with a small grant from the Easter Seals Society, a philanthropic organization that aids people with disabilities, and Fleming worked in the dining hall to pay for his room and board. Fleming had already developed an interest in creating art; after taking painting and drawing classes, he switched his major to art. Additionally, he befriended a maid at the college who worked in ceramics and studied with her during his off hours.
After graduating in 1962, Fleming took a job with military contractor Hayes Aircraft Corporation in Birmingham, where he worked as a technical illustrator. The following year, he moved to Huntsville, Madison County, after taking a position with Boeing Aerospace. During the next six years, Fleming worked in the drafting department producing engineering drawings related to the Saturn V rocket program. When a coworker left to pursue a career as an artist, Fleming was inspired to enter the MA program in art at the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. In 1969, he entered the master's in fine arts (MFA) program at the University of Iowa, but he returned home after only two days because of severe homesickness. Fleming worked in a flower shop near his Bear Creek home for a time, then moved to a more upscale shop in Huntsville and also taught art in the Madison County Schools.
In 1972, Fleming returned to UA to pursue an MFA, finishing in 1973. That same year, he sold his first works at a Birmingham Art Association art sale at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Fleming taught art briefly at Memphis State University in Memphis, Tennessee, and then returned to Alabama to open a studio in Pelham, Shelby County, and pursue his art full time. During this period, Fleming largely was making traditional ceramic pots in colorful glazes and finishes. In 1974, Fleming's work was featured in a solo exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and one of his pieces was purchased by Arnold Glimcher, director of New York's influential Pace Gallery. Despite his initial success, Fleming found it difficult to earn a living as an artist. In 1976, he sold virtually all of his possessions and traveled to San Francisco, where he encountered the works of artists in the California Clay School. These artists were revolutionizing the ceramic arts by departing from the traditional bowls, pots, and vases and creating sculptures of figures, animals, and other three-dimensional forms. He was inspired to move away from more traditional brightly colored forms and upon his return to Birmingham began creating ceramic pieces that depicted animals, plants, and fantastical beings in white porcelain. That same year, his work was selected as part of a traveling exhibit called "35 Artists in the Southeast."
His reputation continued to rise in the late 1970s, and throughout the 1980s, his work was featured in a number of solo exhibitions, including the Atlanta Arts Festival (1979), the Appalachian Center for Contemporary Art (1979) in Charleston, West Virginia, and Alabama's Montgomery Museum of Fine Art (1983), as well as in numerous shows over the years at the Morgan Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, the Alexander F. Milliken Gallery in New York; and the Fredrick Gallery in Washington, D.C. He also was featured in group exhibitions in Washington, D.C., at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and at the National Museum of American Art. In 1988, Fleming created his first outdoor sculpture, The Magic Hoop, for the Montgomery Museum of Art; the piece depicts an anthropomorphized pig seated on a turtle while playing with a hoop and pole. It is one of several pieces by Fleming located near the outdoor water feature, called the Till Fountain, at the museum. His next large outdoor commission is probably his best-known piece, The Storyteller, a multi-figure installation and fountain in Birmingham's Five Points community. The sculpture grouping features fantastical animals, with a central figure, representing the storyteller, of a man with a ram's head. It is an excellent example of Fleming's use of animals and magical themes. The installation has been the subject of controversy, with some viewers mistakenly believing that the horned central figure is a reference to the Devil. Critics note that Fleming's creatures do not have pupils in their eyes because the sculptor believes that this allows the viewer to create his or her own meaning in the figures' expressions.
In recognition of his work, Fleming was chosen as a Distinguished Artist in 1999 by the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
In 2000, Alabama Public Television produced and aired a documentary on Fleming's life and work, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: The Art of Frank Fleming. That same year, he was among 13 artists included in the traveling exhibition Alabama Art, which brought the work of Alabama
artists such as Fleming and Nall (born Nall Hollis) to galleries in France and New York. Always seeking a deeper connection
to nature and living things, Fleming is also an avid gardener and created an intensively productive vegetable garden on the
property surrounding his studio in Homewood, Jefferson County. In 2007, Fleming relocated to Huntsville but has since returned to Birmingham, where he is currently working on commissioned
pieces for Riverwild Garden, a children's sculpture garden in Delano Park in Decatur, Morgan County. In 2008, he was named an Alabama Master by the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
Clark, Georgine, ed. Alabama Masters: Artists and Their Work. Montgomery: Alabama State Council on the Arts, 2008.
Claire M. Wilson
Published December 6, 2010
Last updated October 9, 2012