Ronald Lockett (1965–98) remains an enigma: Quiet and unassuming, he drew deeply from a profoundly rich interior life and poured what he found there gently into his art. In a short career, he produced a compelling, articulate body of work deserving of careful attention. "Fever Within," named after one of Lockett's most powerful pieces and now on view at the American Folk Art Museum, provides an opportunity to assess his oeuvre, with particularly strong representation of great tin-and-wire "paintings" like Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die (1996). Lockett's small world was a tight area around the Birmingham satellite of Bessemer, Alabama — a geographical limitation that proved both a strength and a weakness. Seemingly possessed of an instinctual feel for what makes strong contemporary art, Lockett used his isolation to great creative advantage, making singular work that reflected his particular environment. But he was never able to break into the art-world mainstream, and, moreover, when he contracted HIV as a young African-American man living in the South, his tragic, guilt-ridden impulse was to try to conceal the illness, and what might have been a major talent was taken far too early.
Ronald Lockett, Rebirth, 1987. Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio.