Dale Kennington Artist Dale Kennington (1935-2017) made Alabama her home for more than 60 years and honed her artistic talents by studying its everyday life in all its complexity. Her realist paintings feature manufactured “happenings” that combine elements of dozens of commonplace experiences and challenge viewers to rethink their notions of what such events mean. Her work is highly sought after and is held in collections in the U.S. and abroad.
Dale Wilson Kennington was born in Savannah, Georgia, on January 24, 1935, to Edward Karow Wilson and Lucile Hughes Wilson. When she was six months old, her parents moved to Dothan, Houston County. After graduating from Dothan High School in 1953, Kennington entered Huntingdon College. In 1954, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where, in 1956, she earned a bachelor of arts degree with concentrations in art history and design. The same year, she married fellow student Don Kennington, and the couple later had three children. The Kenningtons moved to Auburn, where Don attended veterinary school at Auburn University. Highly recommended by one of her teachers, Kennington was hired by Auburn’s art department to teach freehand and figure drawing.
Kennington painted little during this period, occupied as she was with teaching and raising her children. In the early 1970s, however, spurred by the desire to have portraits of her own children, Kennington began to make art again. Because her education had focused largely on abstract art and graphic design, Kennington had to train herself to paint figures. It took her six months of drawing five hours a day to regain her artist’s eye.
Punch and Judy Show Kennington coerced friends to “lend” their children as models and painted them as others wandered in and out, sometimes playfully mocking the day’s model. She credited these challenging working conditions with helping to hone her skills. Her background in art history and design proved advantageous as well: the former provided her with a bank of celebrated images from the past upon which to draw, and the latter enabled her to create her own ways of making a painting work as a composition. For the first year or so, Kennington gave the portraits she made to the friends whose children served as models. Thus when she decided to begin painting professionally, she already had a waiting list of clients. This period was quite significant to her development as an artist as well. She acknowledged that portraiture taught her to create a satisfying, workable painting within the structure of a client’s choice of setting and dress.
In 1986, Kennington decided to abandon portraiture-for-hire and create her own original works, although she never lost her delight in the human figure. During the early stages of developing what would become her style, Kennington established distinctive working habits and a self-assured realistic style. She also settled upon the thematic focus of her work. Her paintings combine individual elements from scenes of everyday life into works that “look real” but derived ultimately from her imagination. Kennington used a camera as a “rapid-fire sketchbook,” snapping dozens of shots of particular scenes. She then chose and combined images from this bank that suited her fictional version of the happening.
Cocktail Party Kennington often relied on local subjects for her paintings: barber shops, bars, restaurants, gospel concerts, motel rooms, and nursing homes. Her interests in presenting a diversity of local experience included such controversial subjects as Klan meetings. But she also drew from the street life of New York, London, and Paris. She was particularly fond of large cities for their nearly limitless opportunities to see people interacting both indoors and out. Rather than study the spectacular, she concentrated on uneventful moments of human interaction, inviting observers of her paintings to ponder their significance and to complete their implicit narratives.
The painting Holiday, for example, shows five women of various ages and in varied dress in a simple, nondescript dining room after a meal. Two figures linger at the table, chatting as they sip cups of coffee. One clears the table, her chair pushed back. Another walks toward the kitchen carrying a stack of plates. The fifth stands at the sink, her back to the viewer, and seems to be loading a dishwasher. Light from an unseen window on the left creates a complex pattern of bars on the gold carpet. Because no specific celebration is indicated, the gathering represents what the artist called the “everyday rituals” that define human life. In this scene, the men are implied to have left, and the women remain at the table, talking as they clean up.
Are You Nobody, Too? (front) The death of Kennington’s husband in 2002 was followed by a transition in her work. Her initial pieces during this period, a series of 10 wood folding screens titled Contemporary Mythologies, featured a new format, a larger scale, and a more penetrating emotional edge. Borrowing from the design principles of Asian folding screens, Kennington painted both sides of each screen as complementary halves of a single idea. Initially titled Leavings, the series for the most part deals with themes of movement and departure: a crowd leaving a funeral, subway escalators leading downward, tire tracks in the snow covering a deserted cemetery. Notable too are the unpeopled spaces—an empty concert hall, an underground arcade, a junk-filled schoolroom. And the final leave-taking, death, recurs throughout the series.
Kennington often employed subtle surrealism in what are otherwise seemingly normal vignettes. In some examples a caged bird, instead of the usual meal tray, waits beside a hotel door; a retriever ambles through an otherwise empty art gallery; and young people stroll down an urban street, seemingly oblivious to the throng of caged birds they carry. Kennington also achieved her desired effect of disorienting the viewer through unexpected spatial arrangements within her pieces. This technique is especially evident in Contemporary Mythologies, in which the angle of the bent screen accentuates the contrast between the still figures above and the dynamic zigzag of the steps below.
Long Day, Long Night (front) Kennington’s latter works stand in stark contrast to her earlier pieces in their de-emphasis of the figure. Of her five most recent folding screens, only three feature a human image. In these works, she returned to her abstract roots, emphasizing shape and light and expanding upon the spatial complexities introduced in earlier series. Each screen includes a concealed compartment whose door is held closed by magnets and opened with a key, revealing a third image on a miniature screen that also is folded within the narrow space of the compartment.
Dale Kennington’s works have been featured in numerous gallery shows, as well as in 15 solo and 29 group museum exhibitions. Her paintings are held in 10 prestigious museum collections, including the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio; the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville; Tennessee, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts; the Mobile Museum of Art; and the personal collection of King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden. In 2011, Kennington was awarded the Governor’s Arts Award by the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Kennington died in Dothan on May 3, 2017, after a long illness.
Voices Rising: Alabama Women at the Millenium. Washington, D.C.: Alabama Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2000.