For the record: University gallery honors past professor Al Sella

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For the record: University gallery honors past professor Al Sella

CW / Anna Shoultz

CW / Anna Shoultz

CW / Anna Shoultz

CW / Anna Shoultz

Anna Shoultz, Contributing Writer

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The University of Alabama Art Gallery is hosting an exhibition to honor the life and work of prominent artist and academic Alvin Sella. The exhibition will run until Sept. 27.

“Legacy” is a word that comes up in almost every discussion about Al Sella. The New York City native turned Tuscaloosa resident was not only an artist, professor, father and grandfather, but also far ahead of his time with his abstract style of artwork. 

“He was loved and hated,” former UA student Vicki Rial said. “There was very little middle ground with Al.”

The University of Alabama Art Gallery, located in the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center on Greensboro Avenue, is hosting an exhibition of his work through the month of September. 

“For The Record: The Art of Al Sella”, which began Aug. 2 and continues through Sept. 27, was intended as a way to remind students that the Sella name goes far beyond the campus-based Sella-Granata Gallery, which was renamed for Sella and colleague Angelo Granata in 2009. 

The result of a conversation between Birmingham-based independent curator Paul Barrett and Paul R. Jones Museum director Daniel White, this exhibition brings the work of the longtime UA professor back to the forefront and shows just how ahead of their time some of his pieces are.

William Dooley, UA professor and director of the Sarah Moody Gallery, classified Sella as a third-generation abstract expressionist and someone who was invested in his students. Dooley remembers Sella as “colorful,” “a dynamo” and “observant” in and out of the classroom.

“When he came to the University of Alabama many years ago, he brought that New York aesthetic with him,” White said. “So for me, he was very much a staunch abstractionist. He really kept that identity, and he really promoted that New York aesthetic in every facet of his life and in his teachings.”

It was important for those at the downtown gallery that this exhibition incorporated elements of credibility to show that Sella has pieces in the Birmingham Museum of Art and that collectors buy his work.

“We’re basically celebrating one of our own here,” White said.

While many current art students surely recognize the name from the gallery located on their corner of campus, it is unlikely that stories of Sella are common lore among the younger generations.

From outside of the downtown gallery, it’s easy to notice the worn, dark green bicycle in the window. Three sets of people, ranging from old neighbors of Sella’s to current, younger event staff and family members, brought up his tendency to ride his bike everywhere. He didn’t drive, but lived close to campus so that he could bike nearly everywhere he needed to go. This attitude was less common in Tuscaloosa, but for the New York City native, driving a car didn’t seem necessary.

Word on the street is that Sella had his license revoked for being a crazy driver, though his son, Nick Sella, mentioned that he had never learned how to drive a car at all. It’s a prime example of the mythology that gets exaggerated as time goes on: enough people knew that Al Sella was very energetic and expressive, so the story of Al Sella losing his license – that he never actually had – was born.

Al Sella was so well-known for his bike that he left it unlocked at all times because everyone knew to whom it belonged. He was even given a 90th birthday party in the Sarah Moody Gallery complete with a bicycle-decorated cake. Nick Sella recalled always riding bikes with him downtown to bookstores, as Al Sella was an avid reader and supporter of academia who made sure all of his children got good educations.

His granddaughter and current UA senior, Anna Sella, credits her grandfather’s abstract work in influencing her decision to focus on a geometric art style within graphic design. The graphic design major looks forward to seeing her own art on display in that same gallery upon her graduation in the spring.

While most of her fellow students may not know the true legacy of Alvin Sella and his deep impact on the campus and community alike, professors and faculty remain very fond of their former colleague and have no shortage of stories to tell. 

Rial was a graduate student when she met Al Sella, whom she promptly kicked off her grad school panel for being too critical. According to Rial, he kept coming back anyway, which seems to be very common for him; when he saw promise in a student, he would be extra critical because he knew that it was necessary for their success in the art industry.

While nobody seems to have seen it happen, stories from the early 1960s about Al Sella throwing work he didn’t like off the second-floor balcony of Woods Hall are common, and they’ve circulated through groups of those who remember his colorful nature. 

Even son Nick Sella mentioned these stories while talking about his father’s life, describing how he supposedly “would grab the painting and throw it out into the quad like a frisbee.”

Many have noted that’s just what happens when somebody is a luminary in the way Al Sella was – tales get taller.

“That’s what happens when you’re a legend,” Rial, current exhibitions coordinator of the Sarah Moody gallery, said.

INFO BOX:

  • What: For The Record: The Art of Al Sella
  • Where: The University of Alabama Gallery inside Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center
  • When: now – September 27