Frank Fleming learned to express himself the hard way, and some might say in another world, which shows up in his work today.
And thus the iconic animal images, as found in the famouse Five Points South fountain, the Storyteller, and the large sculpture at the Alys Stephens Center that feels like a dream mixing Wind in the Willows with Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He grew up, as he puts it, on a dirt farm, with lots of animals around. He had a speech impediment he still works to overcome, and didn’t talk to people till he was eight years old. But he had no problem communicating with animals.
Everywhere in his studio you find the spare parts for these animals with human features: goats, turtles, lizards, birds. There is even a preacher penguin.
The 1992 fountain controversy was a breakthrough in Fleming’s career because of the controversy it caused in Bible Belt Birmingham. Of those who complained the work took a pagan turn, Fleming responds, “God bless them.”
Whether in a mystical fantasy or the real world, Fleming still needs animals in his life. His back yard is a garden filled with feeders and plants to attract birds. He looks out the sliding glass door and remembers gratefully the visitors who he believes brought the first birds to his locale, saying he was so lonely without them.
His interdependence with animals, birds in particular, took many unusual forms besides art. Before his work became recognized he was so poor he used to shoot pigeons outside his window to eat them till he shot one with canker on its head one day, and it so disturbed him he couldn’t do it anymore. Reality and imagination intruding on each other again.
Fleming uses an ancient process he has fine tuned from years of practice. He first makes a clay model, then covers it with a rubber mold, which in turn gets a plaster casing to keep the shape. That reinforced mold is filled with wax and Fleming sends it off to the foundry.
The wax structure is then invested in another ceramic shell, which is heated in a kiln until the wax runs out and all free moisture is removed. The investment is then soon filled with molten bronze. This lost-wax casting method was known as early as 1200 BC by the Chinese, and many ritual vessels survive in tombs from the Shang Dynasty.
It is solitary work, and Fleming enjoys watching the cars go by on the street in front of his house where he has his studio. He also enjoys watching the Alabama games, and, though he does not like to drink much, he celebrates a new visitor with a specially-aged jar of moonshine.
Today he is finishing up a couple of models. Some of his wax creations have to be made in separate pieces and attached by soldering wax. Lizard tales and walking sticks have to be molded separately, for example. He reaches onto the shelf with scores of spare parts of every animal description--there are even a couple of dog heads on the shelf--for a turtle to fix to his latest work.
It can be tedious labor, and he says he sometimes tires of it. But when asked if he has thought about moving on to new artistic territory beyond the anthropomorphic animal fantasy, he dismisses the notion of any radical new direction. “I’m just not through working with it,” he says of his unspoken animal lore.
In Studio is a weekly photo essay about one of our city’s creative characters.. Send your comments to email@example.com