By Jamil Zainaldin
“Georgia on my mind” — that would be an apt description for the art of the great Georgia artist Lamar Dodd, born September 22, 1909. According to New Georgia Encyclopedia author, Georgia Museum of Art director, and Dodd biographer William U. Eiland, a reviewer of a 1932 New York exhibition of Dodd’s watercolors and oil paintings described his work as having “not one scene of the Scottish moors with their purple heather. . . . Not one scene of the fountains of Rome! . . . Nothing of Paris or London or Athens or Pompeii. But Georgia, Georgia, Georgia.” The critic was hailing this new “regional” American spirit of Dodd’s with both delight and relief.
Like other great Georgia artists (Johnny Mercer, Ray Charles, Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor), Dodd took much of his inspiration from his home state of Georgia, but unlike those greats, his name is not always as well remembered. It deserves to be.
According to John Lawrence, professor of art and design at LaGrange College and director of the Lamar Dodd Arts Center there, Dodd helped “put Georgia on the map,” with his art gracing the walls of museums like the Whitney, the National Gallery, and the Metropolitan. In this state, the public can view his sketches and paintings at the Georgia Museum of Art, the Lamar Dodd Arts Center in LaGrange, and the West Georgia Medical Center, something I highly recommend.
For the untrained eye, such as mine, it might take time to get close to the masterpieces of Dodd. His subjects, rooted in the landscape of his home — Georgia and the South — and his American “scene” motif rarely separate people from the land they inhabit. In their at-times subdued and almost brooding way, his paintings seem always to point to that intangible divine spark in the most ordinary of surroundings.
Dodd was a fourth-generation Georgian who grew up in the west Georgia community of LaGrange. That his chosen life as an artist seemed predestined is made clear by his earliest memory, which was in essence also an artistic one — a “lone oak silhouetted against a barn.”
Demonstrating an unusual precocity, Dodd received encouragement from his elementary school teachers to develop his innate talent. At the age of 12, he received a special dispensation to take art classes at LaGrange Female College. Not only gifted, he was showing himself to be hardworking and dutiful (he agreed to “haul ashes,” cut the grass, and clean the blackboards as payment).
His parents foresaw a destiny in architecture. After a miserable start at Georgia Tech, one that led to a nervous breakdown, Dodd took some time off, taught art for a while, then reversed his life’s direction: he headed north to a “progressive” art school in New York City, the Art Students League. It was the best decision of his life.
There, he trained with masters in the American “scene” and “ashcan” movements, their art marked by strong regional overtones that depicted everyday scenes of life. A quick and eager learner, and in one of the world’s important cities, the young artist early gained notice for his unusually imagined and genuinely southern subjects:washerwomen, rural cemeteries and churches, cotton pickers, a tenant farmer’s cabin, a rainy midnight cityscape, a railroad cut through the countryside.
Life in Depression-era New York was hard for Dodd, as well as for his family back home in LaGrange. He and his new wife, also of LaGrange, decided in 1933, against the advice of his teachers, to return to the South, where he took a position in a Birmingham art store. He continued painting with heart, mind, and eye, honoring the humble and dignifying the ordinary in settings that he seemed to understand in his deepest being. His reputation continued to grow, inside and outside the South.
At the age of 28, he received a summons out of the blue from the head of the University of Georgia’s fine arts division, who urged him to come to Athens as the university’s artist-in-residence. They were looking for “a live, recognized artist doing actual creative work” who would not only serve students but act as a cultural influence on “the people of our state.” If this agreed with him, then the university would up the visual arts budget from $50 to $5,000.
Over an unusual career of practice and academic leadership that would span 40 years, Dodd trained generations of University of Georgia students while helping to build that institution’s highly regarded national program that today bears his name: the Lamar Dodd School of Art.
There, he occupied an enviable catbird’s seat: making use of foundation-supported travel and study grants, serving for a stint as an official artist for the NASA space program, leading the College Art Association, jurying important national competitions, and representing the United States abroad in cultural exchange programs. Everything he saw and experienced he fully absorbed and incorporated back into education and his store of creativity.
Over the course of his long life, his artistic style evolved, becoming more abstract. A remarkably productive, beautiful, and generous man, and as beloved as he was admired for his craft (Eiland’s elegant biography of Dodd, The Truth in Things, leaves no doubt about that), Dodd pursued a lifelong quest for the essence in things: a flock of seagulls, the sun, a steel mill, a carnival night, a sunflower field, the ocean’s breakers — and even tubas (President Lyndon B. Johnson, who started his professional life as a teacher, chose Dodd’s feverishly hectic painting of high school marching bands, Bands Day, to hang in the White House during his administration).
Retiring from UGA in 1975, Dodd never stopped painting. He passed away at the age of 87 in 1996. From the simple to the cosmic, a rounding vision of the connectedness, harmony, and presence of things infuses his work. As Eiland concludes, “More often than not, Dodd’s aim is true.”
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.