The namesake of the University of Georgia’s School of Art, William Lamar Dodd grew up in a white-columned mansion in LaGrange, Georgia, the son of Reverend Francis Jefferson and Etta Irene Cleveland Dodd. His artistic aptitude and interests developed early and, at the age of twelve, he was accepted as a special student at LaGrange Female Academy, receiving art instruction in exchange for mowing the lawn and cleaning blackboards. In 1926, Dodd entered the architecture program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a track he pursued for less than a year, eventually deeming it one of the darkest periods of his life. He returned to LaGrange, where he began to offer art lessons to local students.
Determined to pursue a formal art education, Dodd enrolled in New York’s Art Students League in 1928, studying under George Bridgeman and Boardman Robinson. He also took night classes at George Luks’ eponymous art academy, working alongside his friend and fellow student Eugene Thomason. Constantly drawn back to the South, Dodd returned home in 1930 to marry his high school sweetheart and to devote a year to painting Southern subjects with an Ashcan sensibility. During this sabbatical year, he was given a one-man exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta and received an important prize from the Southern States Art League’s annual competition, honors that brought his name to the forefront of Southern artists. In 1931, Dodd returned to New York, where his roster of teachers grew to include John Steuart Curry and Jean Charlot. Upon completion of his course of study in 1934, he relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, working in an art supply store and painting in his off hours.
In 1937, the art faculty at the University of Georgia invited Dodd to serve as a one-year artist-in-residence. The following year—at the age of twenty-seven—Dodd was named chair of that department, a position he held until his retirement in 1973. Dodd was a passionate teacher—his pupils included Margaret Law and Augusta Oelschig—and a lifelong learner. Committed to both his students’ artistic development and his own, Dodd continued to explore and experiment, participating in important national and regional exhibitions, and traveling throughout the South to find subject matter. His interests and aesthetics firmly fixed him in the American Scene movement, though his work grew increasingly modern and diverse over time. In the 1960s, Dodd was selected to participate in NASA’s burgeoning arts program, which sought to complement the new space program’s scientific discoveries with artistic interpretations of the universe. His works from this initiative have been praised as “imaginative and poetic . . . embodied in a style that is the freest and boldest of his career.” In the late 1970s, Dodd’s wife Mary was hospitalized for a heart condition. As she recovered, her physician invited Lamar to record his impressions of operating rooms and the human heart, once again merging science and art. Dodd dove into the subject, studying medical textbooks and eventually creating an intimate collection knows as the “Heart Series,” often executed in mixed media and laden with Byzantine, Renaissance, and Christian iconography.
Throughout his career, Dodd was a tireless arts advocate, serving on important national councils. These appointments provided him with opportunities to travel the country and the globe. Though he had spent a year in Western Europe as the recipient of a 1953 Rockefeller Foundation grant, his later work as an arts envoy with the United States Department of State took him to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. A skilled administrator, he oversaw the advancement of the University of Georgia’s art department into one of the country’s most comprehensive centers.
Following his retirement from the University Of Georgia, Dodd continued to paint, noting that, “I can’t imagine anybody retiring in the field of art. I think it gives you hope to face another day. There’s not retiring whatsoever.” His work from this period often reflects a return to Southern culture and subject matter, but also includes landscapes from his beloved summer home in Monhegan, Maine, as well as expressive commentary on contemporary issues of social and political note ranging from the Oklahoma bombing to the O. J. Simpson trial. Today, Lamar Dodd is remembered as the most influential Georgia artist of his generation and a pioneer of arts education throughout the nation. The Lamar Dodd School of Art was named in his honor in 1996, just months before his death. His art is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Georgia Museum of Art, and several other museums spanning the country.