Article by James and Barbara Sellman
An American Original: 1939-2020
“In college, I wanted to know the truth, and I looked all over the world for it and found it in art.” – William Arnett
Bill Arnett died peacefully on 12 August 2020, in his Atlanta apartment, seated on his well-worn, overstuffed, brown recliner chair watching TV. We like to think he was enthralled in a contest of two closely matched sports teams that was a down-to-the-wire nail biter, one of his favorite pastimes that frequently mirrored the way he lived his own life.
William Sidney Arnett was born and reared in the Southwest Georgia city of Columbus. During the first two decades of his life, two men served as lifelong role models. Bill adored his father, Hilliard, closely modeling his characteristics of integrity, intelligence, rationality, and a racial empathy unusual for his time. Equally influential was Harry Rutledge, a University of Georgia classics professor, who introduced the art, literature (especially Cicero), and philosophy of ancient civilizations to the receptive and precocious college junior. In fact, Bill named his third son after Rutledge.
With scant formal credentials, no institutional or political contacts, and little money, Bill, with the support of his younger brother Robert, was able to travel the world in the 1960s and ’70s, assembling major collections of museum-quality art from China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In October 1974, a serendipitous encounter with Bill at a Cincinnati antiques show opened this world to us. We quickly realized we had stumbled upon an irresistible opportunity to undertake a global art/cultural education provided by a brilliant, passionate, and trustworthy mentor. Over the ensuing 46 years, our roles as patrons, advisors, and enthusiastic champions of Bill’s projects deepened. The magical year of the period was 1985/1986, one that set Bill on a course of discovery he followed until his death.
After giving serious thought to living in France, he discovered some of the best art in the world right under his nose only a few hours’ drive from his birthplace. The Birmingham-Bessemer-Boykin triangle, in Alabama, was the lifelong home of the brilliant artists Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Joe Minter, and the extraordinarily talented quilters of Gee’s Bend. The majesty of their art led Bill to favorably compare their genius to that of the great painters and sculptors of the Tuscan-Umbrian Renaissance. He found himself admiring forms not yet considered to be art by the establishment. With a rare appreciation of sculptural elements in his collecting, Bill possessed the combination of a recognition of quality and a fundamental openness toward the unknown.
With passionate intensity, Bill became a prominent scholar, collector, exhibitor and publisher of the contemporary art and culture of the American South, especially African Americans. The depth and excellence of his research, driven by tireless energy, eventually propelled him to international recognition as a highly-distinguished authority on contemporary art. Publishing 14 books containing more than 3,500 pages and 4,500 color prints, Bill became a frequent subject of newspaper articles, books, films and magazines, as varied as Time Magazine and the New Yorker.
Demonstrating remarkable foresight, Bill in 2010 established the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, researching, preserving and interpreting what Bill referred to as “the most important cultural phenomenon that ever took place in the United States.”
With more than 1,200 artworks by more than 160 artists (two-thirds of whom are women) and thousands of field photographs, the Foundation’s goals were numerous, including: to bring this vital and quintessentially American art form to a wider audience, to see its inclusion in the “real” American art dialogue, to facilitate a long-delayed assimilation into the contemporary art mainstream, to insure its recognition as a great American contribution to the history of art, and to provide ongoing support for local artists and their communities.
In this history-making endeavor, Bill was assisted, at times, by all four of his sons, Paul, Matt, Harry, and Tom, with the unflagging support of Judy, his high school sweetheart and wife of 47 years. Paul, Matt, and a staff of talented art historians and administrators made significant contributions of their own to the collection’s scholarship. Their work was fundamental to bringing fresh voices to effect change in areas as far-reaching as a course of art history, civil rights, the behavior of cultural institutions, and the language of art.
Bill eventually recognized that this work could alter the course of history. He was a true visionary. It has frequently been observed that he was 20 years ahead of his time in 1986, and still 20 years ahead of his time in 2020. He understood that the increasingly heated debate on civil rights was as much about art and music as social and economic legislation. He understood for these artists to achieve recognition, they must be heard as full members of society.
Significant effort went into using art as a powerful tool to project these messages to a broad audience. He also continuously challenged art institutions that did not practice what they preached about inclusiveness, and refuted the hollow intellectual arguments and theories promulgated by art historians and sociologists that (perhaps out of indifference or disgust for the common man) were alienating an increasingly large audience from contemporary art. What really excited Bill and an ever-expanding number of scholars and the general public was the stunning originality and power of this raw, direct, playful and poignant art that spoke directly to the viewer.
For Bill, it came down to personal relationships. His bliss was in Thornton Dial. Sharing intense drive and energy, they were soulmates linking a dynamic of living creatively and a remarkable resilience, allowing them to weather extreme adversity and even go on to grow and learn from what happened to them.
In viewing and studying Dial’s art on a daily basis for 30 years, Bill experienced the notion of the sublime, a feeling of being removed to a higher level, and a sense of grandeur and awe. We doubt Bill would have found greater thrills in a hundred lifetimes.
Succeeding generations will remember Bill Arnett as a genius inspired by an extraordinary zeal for the philosophy of art and culture. He was an unusually gifted and energetic writer, capable of expressing abstract and complicated concepts with clarity, and creating a coherent language to describe important and previously misunderstood segments of the American experience.
These artistic triumphs have played and will continue to play key roles in increasing awareness of the complex issues of human rights, equality, and are essential for the ongoing growth allowing reason and empathy to triumph. Given the quality and ready accessibility of his creative product, Bill Arnett’s work ranks among the most influential in American culture. It constitutes one of the most important bodies of primary material for future scholars and general audience of American history and art, especially that born in the American South.
JAMES & BARBARA SELLMAN are longtime collectors of the work of Thornton Dial and other Southern outsider artists, in addition to African Art. James, a practicing clinical psychiatrist, is President of the Folk Art Society of America, and Barbara is a member of the FASA Board of Directors.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: