"If everybody understand one another, wouldn’t nobody make art. Art is something to open your eyes. Art is for understanding. " | Thornton Dial
Thornton Dial (10 September 1928 – 25 January 2016) was a pioneering African-American artist who came to prominence in the late 1980s. Dial’s body of work exhibits formal variety through expressive, densely composed assemblages of found materials, often executed on a monumental scale. His range of subjects embraces a broad sweep of history, from human rights to natural disasters and current events. His works have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Ten of Mr. Dial’s works were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.
As told by Thornton Dial to William Arnett
I was born in Sumter County, Alabama. A midwife delivered me to my mama in a little country house in the field, one of them kind you can lay down and look up through the ceiling and see the sunshine.
I was born on Luther Elliot’s plantation. My great-granddaddy Rich Dial lived there, and his family. Phil, Pete, Will, Bryant, Mattie, Sarah, and Martha Jane were his children. They were sharecropping, picking cotton. They kept on farming and didn’t ever come out of debt.
The Man advance people from one end of the year to the other end. Every year the Man always say, “You just about come out of debt this time but didn’t quite make it.”
Rich Dial’s daughter Martha Jane was my grandmother. She married Gene Bell. They had my mother, named her Mattie—Mattie Bell. I never owned no daddy. My mama didn’t give me one. My mama told me once that my daddy was James Hutchins. My name supposed to be Bell, or Hutchins, but the Dials raised me and give me their name.
We picked cotton when we got big enough to walk. We go in front of my grandmama and pick cotton, and she carry the sack. We put it in her sack. She take a switch to us if we didn’t pick. I was just a little bitty something but I had to earn my way.
I was raised up in a old house in the pasture. We moved to it, on land belonged to the white Dial family. I was about something like six or seven, and they pay me to run the mule around the hay baler. We was working for my cousin Buddy Jake Dial. He was bright skinned, almost white. His mother look like a Indian lady-long pretty black hair. He take the money I make and give it to my grandmama. I’d drive the milk cows up to the barn for Fanny Allison, Buddy Jake’s sister. Used to help milk.
Across the road was a house owned by Cousin Irma on land she owned with her brother Columbus and her sister they called Honey Bee. Irma married James Hutchins, the man that may be my daddy. They already had a house on that land, but James Hutchins built a new one, and added on a barn and the old pump house and the fences around the pasture.
I didn’t go to school worth nothing. Mighty little bit. When I come to Bessemer about ’41, I was thirteen. Sarah Dial, my grand-mama’s sister, was living in Bessemer, married to Dave Lockett. They sent for me. I tried to go to Sloss’s Mining Camp school but the children made fun of me because I was so big, thirteen in the second grade and stuff like that. I didn’t know nothing, hadn’t been to school much, was more a man than a schoolboy. That was embarrassing. I went enough to learn a little bit. They told me,”Learn to figure out your money and write your name: That’s as far as a Negro can go.”
I learned that. But it was just too embarrassing, all of them little children teasing me. I wasn’t just big; I looked “country”—country hair and clothes and all that.
I’d tell Auntie I’m going to school, but I’d sneak off and work, making money from the white folks. Not much, but I was enjoying doing something. Auntie never did know I wasn’t going to school. I’d join up with the children going to school and join them coming home from school. Lot of little fellows would lay out in the weeds drinking whiskey and shooting dice or flying kites all day long. I mostly worked.
I have did every kind of farming. All kind that been called. I come up hard, and I didn’t want to suffer. That will make you work. Other people let me use their land to grow things on just to keep it clean. I had little farms all over Pipe Shop [Dial's neighborhood in Bessemer]. I cleaned up the neighborhood. It’s consolation to my mind. I growed everything there, garden stuff—collard greens, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, squashes, watermelons, peanuts, tomatoes, rutabagas, beets, okra, turnips. Everything that growed I done tried. Didn’t have no plow, worked it up with a garden fork and a hoe. I’d take what I need, give the folks what they want off their own ground, sell the rest of it if I could. If I couldn’t, I give it away.
I ain’t never laid down on nobody. I always want to help myself and other peoples, too. If I could ever have enough for myself, I always give the rest away. I had my little children working together with me. That help to raise them up teach them how to have something and to share.
I have raised a heap of animals. I have raised hogs, chickens, cows, goats, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and some other things, too. One time I had about a hundred head of hogs, price fell on them and I lost some big money. Dogs killed thirteen head of my calves. Animals is O.K., but you got to be able to hold it. A big man can make big money in animals. I always want to help myself, but animals was not for poor persons to get up with, ’cause they can’t hold on to them long enough.
I was doing some drawing recently about the Negro and the history, about slavery, about the families, about how we come to be in the United States, and about the future for everybody. I was drawing about the coal mines and the ore mines, about mules and horses, and coming to town—what you seen on the road.
It is exactly the truth that the Negro has been mistreated in the United States, that he been used. But we got to look at at what we have had to use, what he have built, after what he been through. I come through it myself, and I know what life was like at that time, and I can respect myself and the Negro for what we have did.
We was captured and brought over here to the United States. That was the Negro family, captured to do work on the farms. We had to work, and we had also to pay attention. We had to learn surviving. We had to learn that everything you want to do, you got to struggle for it. There’s still a lot of dislike and grudge around the Negroes, from the white man. Some people like to see things live and see things grow, and a lot of people like to kill things.
The Negro family was hard to keep together. The Negro man never had enough, and the hard part of his life was that he had to go to the white man and ask for anything he need or want, even after he had done worked for it. The black woman sometimes would think the black man didn’t do enough for the family to survive, and she disrespected the black man for letting the white man put him in a hole. There was love in the family, but so many struggles caused big problems between the black man and the black woman. Today’s different from back in that time.
Wasn’t nobody free back then but the white man. The white woman wasn’t even free. The black woman had a little bit of freedom, ’cause she was in the kitchen cooking for the white man, and washing up the dishes, and going off with him, whatever he asked for. And he prefer the black woman sometimes, and that give the black woman a kind of freedom.
The Negro wasn’t given nothing when he got here, so he had to work for it. And sometimes when he get freedom he didn’t know what to do with it. The white man aint never wanted the black man to be nothing, so he trained him not to be nothing, so the black man sometimes didn’t know how to be something when he got that opportunity. If you haven’t had no freedom you might not know what to do with it, except overjoying with it. White man don’t know how to handle free, overjoying black people.
It’s about likes and dislikes. People in the United States do not hate one another. No. But they be scared of one another. The way life have been taught is to make black peoples and white peoples be against one another in fear. I don’t believe there is any natural hate in people. I believe there is natural love. We can relate to people’s spirit and we can relate to their mind. I understand those things, and I believe we need to make the mind more close to the spirit.
I got this drawing about a bulldog. It’s showing you something about life, how the Negro always be hunting for something if he need it, and how he got to hunt all day, and sometimes he don’t catch nothing. Like Little Buck [Thornton Dial Jr.] say on a bad day sometimes, “Can’t kill nothing and won’t nothing die.” Like the government working the man all clay and he didn’t get nothing in his life, and if he do finally catch something the government want half of it.
I lived that life, the back part of my life, coming on up like a bull in the pasture. Doing the work on the farm, chopping wood, toting brush. These are my pictures. I was part of the capture, lonely in those times. No freedom. But I was still flying like a bird. Inside me, picking up things, life always running good. I always had that mind, the dream of life, vision, that I could go up in the world. And thinking about the changing of life when you get up.
I done most every kind of work a man can do. Cement work on the highways, pouring iron at Jones Foundry, loaded bricks at Harbison Walker brickyard, did some pipe fitting, worked down at the waterworks, did carpentry and house painting for different white contractors, metalwork—all kind of it—iron and steel at at Pullman Standard for about thirty years. I’m a working man.
All my times was not good times. But the Lord always be paying attention. The Lord is like the heart in your body, always moving. So you keep on trying, you keep on learning. You can make life last and death pass.
Since I been making art, my mind got more things coming to it. The more you do, the more you see to do. The spirit works off the mind and get stronger. Like an angel following you around. Angel watching over you is just the life in your own body.
I have always been trying to do something in my life. The first thing I remember making I was a little old bitty thing. I hook up a matchbox to two hoppergrasses, tie threads around their neck. I wanted to have my own mules and wagon. Called it “the green horses.” You know, a hoppergrass kind of favor a horse. I fixed up hurt animals, too. Called myself a “doctor.”
I made little cars. Roads and trails in the sand. Roll them out with tin cans or a bottle. Build little houses. Make persons out of corn shucks. Build little hills, bridges. Me and Arthur [Dial's brother] done this underneath this old shade tree by Brown Chapel, this little church in Emelle [Dial's hometown in Sumter County]. Make little towns under the tree. I used to sit in a sandpile and draw pictures in the dirt, men working on the roads, mules on the road, houses by the road. I was drawing and making stuff about everything I would see. I did so much stuff back then.
I went to school a little bit, but mostly I just would sit there with the other boys, Archie Lee Pettigrew and a lot of them, and all of us drawed a lot; that’s why I didn’t learn too much. I was drawing pictures of Tarzan and cowboys and stuff like that I learned from the boys that went to the picture shows.
I always had the idea to draw. Put time at something like that you get better at it. I put in more time with drawing than I did with my lessons. Instead of being in my books I was into the drawing, and Professor King, the principal over the school, gave us so many ass-whippings. Back then, shoot, they whip you till you pee in your pants. So I quit school and went to work at the ice-house. It was more safe.
I done made so much stuff for the cemetery. A lot of that is still down there: flower stands, out of cement and iron; crosses, out of hardwood; cement blocks for grave markers. My cousin Velma sold some of it for me. She had a lot more orders, but I quit when I figured I couldn’t make a go of it.
I made a heap of fishing baits. Used to make them for bass-fishing by hand. Made them with screen wire, telephone cable line, aluminum, and plastic. I couldn’t never get the baits to work, but then y’all started buying them things for art collecting. Maybe it was art all the time but I didn’t know it.
I knitted I-don’t-know-how-many fishing nets. I even made a few basketball nets. I made a fence like a fishbone. I made it to beautify my yard, make people pay attention. I thought a fishbone would make a good fence design, so I went on and did it.
My art is talking about the power. It is talking about the coal mines and the ore mines and the steel mills. It is talking about the government, and the unions, and the people that controls the hills and the mountains. The power of the United States is the fuel that carries the United States on. It carries everything, the mills and factories and stores and houses. I try to show how the Negroes have worked in all these different places and have came to help make the power of the United States what it is today. When I was coming up they didn’t have this kind of power. They was using the Negroes at that time, but they didn’t want them to think. If Negroes tried to think, and would come up with a good idea, the white man would say, “Look at this idea I come up with.”
I had this idea once at Pullman Standard. They had this punching iron with a hydraulic cylinder. They didn’t have anything behind the cylinder to hold it in and keep it from blowing out. It was costing them money. They would lose cylinders and lose production. I had the idea how to correct that problem and save them a lot of money. I had Clara [Dial's wife] write it out, and I drawed pictures to show how it worked and give all of it to the people down in the office. About two or three weeks after, all that stuff started to get did in the factory. A white man I worked with, he said to me, “There go your patent.”
I used to have all kinds of ideas for them that would help them be improving the plant. Had a lot of them. I drawed them out, how to do it, to explain it to them. Sometimes I turned them in, sometimes I told the supervisor my ideas. They always seemed to use my ideas—maybe three weeks, a month later—but they never said nothing to me about it. Not even “Thank you, Dial.”
I have seen the Negro next to the mule, used like a farm animal at that time. I seen cruel things like that. A grown man should have not been handicapped that way. He should be able to fight for his freedom to say, “Yes, I will do because I want to do.” Black folks know what they got to do to live, and they will do it, they will work hard as they know how, as hard as the next man, by the sweat of their own brow. They want to have their own strategy for working, to use their own energy and spirit the way it come to them to do it, not do something because someone else make you do it. That’s freedom.
My art is the evidence of my freedom. When I start any piece of art I can pick up anything I want to pick up. When I get ready for that, I already got my idea for it. I start with whatever fits with my idea, things I will find anywhere. I gather up things from around. I see the piece in my mind before I start, but after you start making it you see more that need to go in it. It’s just like inventing something. It’s like patterns that you cut out to show you how to make something—a boxcar, or clothes. Everything got a pattern for it. The pattern for a piece of art is in your mind; it’s the idea for it. That’s the pattern.
I seen a lot of stuff peoples were making for the farm, and I watched blacksmiths. I have paid close attention to the blacksmith works. When I start making something, I gather up the pieces I want to work with. I only want materials that have been used by people, the works of the United States, that have did people some good but once they got the service out of them they throwed them away. So l pick it up and make something new out of it. That’s why we pick up these things. Negroes done learned how to pick up old things and make them brand-new. They had to learn them things to survive, and they done got wiser for doing, wiser by looking at the things and taking them into the mind. You call that “smart.”
I like to use the stuff that I know about, stuff that I know the feel of. There’s some kind of things I always liked to make stuff with. I’m talking about tin, steel, copper, and aluminum, and also old wood, carpet, rope, old clothes, sand, rocks, wire, screen, toys, tree limbs, and roots. You could say, “If Dial see it, he know what to do with it.”
I build a piece of art with those materials first, and then paint thething. Art is future life, and I try to match up colors that fit that life. Art supposed to show the way the world is: sometimes dark, sometimes light. A piece of art is like the movement of the clouds, or the sun in the sky, like the works of the United States go, constant moving, always changing. The movement of the world always make changes in things. When I make art I have to keep making changes till I get it right. People say, “Hey Dial, that piece look good, ain’t it finished?” I say, “Nope, it ain’t finished till you got the feeling that it’s finished.” I like to touch every picture all over the surface of it. It got to be a finished product. I like to work on that surface, rub it, scratch it, smear it. I beat on it sometimes, knock holes in it. I have even set fire to it. I want that finished piece to be exactly right when it leave my hands. The piece going to have Mr. Dial in it, under it, and over it, and everybody can know it.
When I went to making art on plywood, I drawed it out first with a pencil, and after that I put on the other materials, stuff I find or stuff I have, like the steel, carpet, and old tin, and then I paint it. But under all those things I did a big drawing to guide what I put on top of it. If I wasn’t drawing under there, I was cutting out with a jigsaw. I cut the figures out of plywood, then the leftover pieces become something elsein the next picture. Everything you pick up going to do you some good. Don’t nothing need to be throwed away. I could cut whatever out of a piece of plywood. I could imitate anything: a dog, a person, a tiger, a building, or a cloud. I paid attention to those things at that time. People got to pay attention to every little thing they do.
After while I just went to building my pieces right on to the board. I didn’t need to draw them out. Cutting out tin and carpet and stuff come natural like drawing. The mind do the imagining. I got where I could bend and twist the old materials as beautiful as I could draw it out with a pencil.
I was raised by women. It did a whole lot for me. Coming up in the world that way make me realize what struggle they have. Make me understand how to be a man.
Women was the ones always responsible for me. My great-grandmother raised me up. After she died when I was ten years old, I went to my mother’s sister, stayed there for two years, then come to Bessemer. Sarah Lockett took me in and raised me on up. My mama had moved to Bessemer and got married but wasn’t able to keep me.
Women are the creation of the world. They give love and care, and they also give strength and power. But you got to listen. I always paid attention to what the women was saying, ever since I were a little fellow. Women back then was picking cotton, doing hardtime fieldwork, cooking, making, and providing. All the children back then had to respect grown ladies. It had to be “Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am” or you better not say nothing.
People say I make all my art about tigers, but I got tigers in just some of it. Women be in just about everything I have made, in one way or another way. That tiger for me symbolized the Struggle, in the works of life, but women are the creation of the world, at the creation of all works. If it wasn’t for women it wouldn’t be none of us here, and without them we couldn’t make it through the struggle. Man do a lot of struggling—that’s true—but without women giving the power and strength of their struggle to man’s struggle, man going to lose his struggle.
My first art show was back in ’90 at a college in Atlanta. Show was called Ladies oj the United States. The folks seemed to respect my work to the highest, then the art writer at the Atlanta newspaper, she written that Mr. Dial can’t draw worth nothing and his art is ugly. My work at that time was all did on plywood with rope and tin and house paint and stuff. This artist, John Shelton, he tell me I ought to be using art paint [oil paint] and canvasses. He suggest I ought to draw pictures on paper to show peoples what I can do, and I started that at that time. I decided to draw my first paper pictures about women, ’cause the show the newspaper make fun of was all about women.
I have learned to make a beautiful picture by just using pencils and charcoal. The rubbing and the smearing is the struggle to make something beautiful with your own hands. I don’t use much color stuff now. You can make a lot of different colors only with black. I reckon every artist figured out that kind of stuff way back there.
I have learned a whole lot about drawing from my work at the Pullman Factory. Designs was punched out in the iron and steelworks; big, beautiful pieces of steel start out with a little design. They drawed out the designs for the templates on paper, then make them on wood, then bring them to be punched into iron to go on the train car. I got to seeing how things you draw out can be the design for everything. Everything in the world got a pattern. The mind got to see it, the hands got to make it.
It ought to be a whole lot in my art to help change things. If we going to change the world, we got to look at the little man. All them little folks out there—black peoples, poor white peoples—got big minds. We got to use them minds. If one person can get out there like I can and build things, that sets an example and it will let people improve the world.
One thing I learned: most middle-class white people see a black man struggle, they will help him with his struggle. You got to struggle your own self but if it be too much for you, somebody will help you.
All my pictures somehow be mostly about freedom. The black race of people have freedom now. That’s true. And we have the opportunity to look back at what we have did and be proud. Martin Luther King helped us to get that, with what he told us about the freedom of life. He said these things will happen, that we will join hands together. The world is getting more civilized now, more than I have seen ever in my life. A black man can be recognized now. That’s true. I know that I don’t have to ask nobody for a license to make art. My art talk about that freedom. People have fought for freedom all over the world. I try to show that struggle. It is a war to be fought. We’re trying to win it.
It seem like some people believe that just because I ain’t got no education, say I must be too ignorant for art. Seem like some people always going to value the Negro that way. I believe I have proved that my art is about ideas, and about life, and the experience of the world. I have tried to learn how to explain everything I have did. I tried to name everything that could be named about that experience, and if a person still see ignorance in me, he might just be looking into his own self. God made everything so clear that even a fool could not err. At least, even a fool ought to not. Education mean different things. I ain’t never been much good at talking about stuff. I always just done the stuff I had a mind to do. My art do my talking. Everything I think about and every idea my mind come up with, and all the stuff I have seen, every last thing that I believe, is right there in my art. It ain’t much different than writing a book. Some people supposed to can read art, like some people can read a book. Somebody that make art or somebody that can read art, they is somebody that been educated.
I plan for my art to help a person think. If he think about what art is saying, he going to be thinking for himself. Everything a artist make supposed to help a person handle his life better.
You start off with a vision in your mind, just like a blueprint for a house in your head. Like when I built my house. They ask me where I got a blueprint. I say, “In my head. I got no blueprint, just a mind.”
I been gone out there picking up lot of pieces. Everything I pickup be something that done did somebody some good in their lifetime. So I’m picking up on their spirit. It’s going to make you think about the work, the labor, what good they have did. When you make things beautiful out of another person’s ideas, it make the world more beautiful. I been studying a lot of stuff. Now I’m going to build it. The material I get, there was a design to it before I get it. Then you got to come back and redesign it.
Art is strange-looking stuff and most people don’t understand art. Most people don’t understand my art, the art of the Negroes, because most people don’t understand me, don’t understand the Negroes at all. If everybody understand one another, wouldn’t nobody make art. Art is something to open your eyes. Art is for understanding.
I always be looking to the future. I respect the past of life, but I don’t worry too much about it because it’s done passed. The struggles that we all have did, those struggles can teach us how to make improvement for the future. Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world. It can lead peoples through the darkness and help them from being afraid of the darkness. Art is a guide for every person who is looking for something. That’s how I can describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something.
BORN | Emelle, Alabama (1928-2016)
Daybreak: New Assemblages, Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta, GA
2011-13 | Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
New Orleans Museum of Art
Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
2012-13 | Thoughts on Paper.
Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC
Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont, Burlington
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts
Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
Thornton Dial. Virginia Union University and Art Gallery, Richmond, VA
Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
Disaster Areas. Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta
Thornton Dial in the 21st Century. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Thornton Dial: His Spoken Dreams. Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York
1993 | Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger.
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Milwaukee Art Museum
Thornton Dial: Works on Paper. Luise Ross Gallery, New York
Thornton Dial, Sr.: Works on Paper. Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York
Thornton Dial: Strategy of the World, Southern Queens Park Association/African-American Hall of Fame, Jamaica, New York
Thornton Dial. Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta
Thornton Dial: Ladies of the United States. Library Art Gallery, Kennesaw State College, Marietta, Georgia
Seismic Shifts: Ten Visionaries in Contemporary Art and Architecture. National Academy Museum & School, New York
Thornton Dial and Lizzi Bougatsos. James Fuentes, New York
The Soul of a City: Memphis Collects African American Art, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN
Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. The First Center for Visual Arts, Nashville
The Armory Show, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
In the Spirit of Martin. Smithsonian Institution, traveling
Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, Philadelphia Museum
BOOKS & CATALOGUES
Thornton Dial: Viewpoint of the Foundry Man. catalogue, Andrew Edlin Gallery, 2012
Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. catalogue, Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2012
Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper. edited by Bernard L. Herman, Ackland Art Museum and University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 2012
Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial. Catalogue, Prestel, 2012
Outsider Art Sourcebook. Raw Vision, 2009
Thornton Dial in the 21st Century. catalogue, Tinwood, 2005
American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum, Catalogue, 2001
Souls Grown Deep. Volumes 1 & 2, Arnett et al, 2000 & 2001
Passionate Visions of the American South, Self Taught Artists from1940 to the Present. New Orleans Museum of Art, 1993
American Self-Taught. Maresca & Ricco, 1993
Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger. Baraka & McEvilley,1993
20th Century American Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Art, Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1993
Museum of Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art & Artists, Abbeville Press, 1990
2011 | "Thornton Dial is Not An Outsider Artist" - Studio 360/Public Radio International
2007 | "Mr. Dial Has Something to Say" - Alabama Public Television
2005 | "Thornton Dial" - Alabama Public Television
Kuspit, Donald. Review, Art Forum, Summer
Wilkin, Karen. “Biography, History, Self-Evident Beauty.”
The Wall Street Journal, April 21
Doran, Anne. Review, Time Out New York, April 14-20
Review, The New Yorker, April 11
Lacayo, Richard. “Outside the Lines.” Time, March 14
Kino, Carol. “Letting His Life’s Work Do the Talking.” New York Times, February 20
Gómez, Edward M. “On the Border.” Art & Antiques Magazine, February
Smith, Roberta. “A Young Style for an Old Story.” New York Times, December 19
Scott, Sue. “Thornton Dial [exhibition review].” ARTnews 92, April
Lloyd, Ann Wilson. “Thornton Dial at Luise Ross.” Art in America, May
Kroll, Jack. “The Outsiders Are In: American Folk Artists Move into the World of Money and Fame.” Newsweek, December 2
High Museum, Atlanta, GA
Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, GA
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
The Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Intuit, Chicago, IL
Milwaukee Art Museum
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
New Orleans Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Whitney Museum of American Art
LETTING HIS LIFE'S WORK DO THE TALKING
by Carol Kino for NEW YORK TIMES
THORNTON DIAL has never been one for talking much about his artwork. Ask him what inspires his monumental assemblages, made from twisted metal, tree branches, cloth, plastic toys, animal bones and all manner of found materials, and he is likely to respond tersely, as he did while showing me around his studio here one bone-chilling day last month.
“I mostly pick up stuff,” he said. “I start on a picture when I get a whole lot of stuff together. And then I look at the piece and think about life.”
Now 82, Mr. Dial has had a lot of life to think about - especially over the last year, during which he endured hernia surgery, pneumonia, a stroke and heart problems. Only recently did he return to making art in this cold and cavernous space at the back of Dial Metal Patterns, a fabrication shop run by his children. As he huddled in a chair, looking frail and slightly wary, his three sons hovered about him protectively.
For one painting-like piece, made on canvas-covered plywood, Mr. Dial had used branches, metal, clothing, paint and a pair of work boots to create a lean figure fording through a tall jungle. “That’s Obama,” he said. “I show the struggle he got through without getting bit.”
Another, saturated with powdery white pigment, presented a baby doll nested in a field of cotton-covered twigs and twisted steel. A rope encircled the doll’s neck, suggesting a noose or an umbilical cord. “That’s the way they come,” Mr. Dial said, chuckling, when asked about the rope’s significance. “You probably see many things in my art if you’re looking at it right.”
Because Mr. Dial is self-taught and illiterate, he has generally been classified as a folk or outsider artist. But that pigeonhole has long rankled his admirers, because his work’s look, ambition, and obvious intellectual reach hew so closely to that of many other modern and contemporary masters, from Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg to Jean-Michel Basquiat. “If anybody else had created a major opus of this scope,” said Joanne Cubbs, an adjunct curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, “he or she would be recognized as a major force in the art world. Instead Dial struggles at the margins.”
But his marginalization may not last much longer. Mr. Dial’s first career retrospective, “ Hard Truths,” opens at the museum in Indianapolis on Friday. And on March 19 the Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea will open Mr. Dial’s first solo gallery show in New York in 11 years. “This feels like the moment when the cultural world is ready to understand Mr. Dial and perhaps to embrace him,” said Ms. Cubbs, who organized the museum survey.
That exhibition, which runs through Sept. 18 before traveling to New Orleans; Charlotte, N.C.; and Atlanta, includes examples from many different periods, starting with the pictures that made Mr. Dial’s name in the early ’90s, when he used the tiger to symbolize the struggles and triumphs of African-American life. He has continued to invoke the specter of slavery, in pieces like “High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man),” a large 2002 construction in which a grinning Mickey Mouse toy is chained to the hull of a ship.
The show also includes work he made in response to the 2001 World Trade Center attack and the gulf war: sculptures like the monumental “Crosses to Bear (Armageddon),” dated 2001-4, in which a nine-foot-high expanse of rusty iron crosses is festooned with rag and rubber detritus; and paintings that appear to be made from torn and bloodied American flags, like “Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together” (2003).
“The power and clarity of his work measures up to any artist of any color in the last decades,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, the director of the museum, noting the works’ superficial resemblance to those by Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer. “But unlike those figures this work is imbued with an experiential dimension. For Dial, politics is personal.”
Certainly Mr. Dial has one of the more amazing art historical biographies on record. Although he had little formal schooling, he developed an intimate acquaintance with postmodernist art-making materials early in life.
Born in 1928 in a cornfield in the tiny rural hamlet Emelle, Ala., and raised by his great-grandmother, Mr. Dial went to work as soon as he could walk, harvesting sweet potatoes and corn, and gathering twigs and “the stuff my great-grandmother needed to make fire,” he said. After her death Mr. Dial and his younger half brother went to live with another relative in Bessemer, a small industrial town, where he hauled ice, poured concrete, raised cattle, did carpentry and laid bricks, among other things, until he found employment as a metalworker at the local Pullman-Standard boxcar factory. He worked there on and off until it closed in 1981.
All the while — throughout his long marriage to Clara Mae Murrow, who died in 2005, and the birth of his five children (one daughter died at 28 from cerebral palsy) — Mr. Dial was quietly observing and honing his skills. “I was just watching people that make stuff,” he said. “I watch everything.”
He was also making things himself, from the functional, like fishing nets and lures, chimneys, bricks, funerary monuments, furniture and houses (“I made a whole lot of them and tore them down,” Mr. Dial said) to the less obviously useful, like animal sculptures made from tin and tree branches or plastic bread wrappers, or a slave ship built from metal and wood. As his sons recalled, during another interview in the shop office with nearly a dozen relatives and family friends in attendance, Mr. Dial would come home from work, watch the evening news, do some farming out back with his children and then set to work making things again.
Even with something ostensibly practical like a lure, “it was odd, the way he took his time and painted them and stuff like that,” his son Richard said. “Whatever he worked on had to be different from somebody else.” Mr. Dial was so prolific, he added, that his wife often made the boys tidy up by burying his old work in the yard. (Mr. Dial has said in the past that he sometimes hid his work himself because he feared the attention it might attract during the Jim Crow years.)
Life changed dramatically for Mr. Dial in the late ‘80s, when he was discovered by William Arnett, a wealthy white Atlanta collector who was obsessively scouring the South for unheralded African-American work. (Among his discoveries are the Gee’s Bend quilters, whose work toured to 12 museums in a widely lauded show.)
Mr. Arnett was smitten from the start. “Dial possessed a combination of pride, dignity and determination, along with a wry sense of humor,” he wrote in an e-mail. “His earliest artworks demonstrated an unlimited creative imagination. All he lacked was encouragement and opportunity.”
For Mr. Dial the meeting was transformative. “He didn’t have to bury stuff anymore,” his son said, “because Mr. Arnett would give him money for things, and Daddy was kind of fascinated. There was a point where he said, ‘Ya’ll been laughing at me, but look at what the man just paid me for doing this.’ ”
Or, as Mr. Dial put it, “That’s the time I did start thinking about art.”
Mr. Arnett gave him a monthly stipend in exchange for right of first refusal, which allowed Mr. Dial to make art full time. Mr. Arnett visited frequently, and introduced Mr. Dial to curators and other collectors, including Jane Fonda, who remains a major supporter. He also set the wheels in motion for Mr. Dial’s first museum exhibition, “Image of the Tiger.” Organized by the critic Thomas McEvilley, it opened at two New York institutions, the Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in November 1993. The show seemed poised “to break down the border between outside and inside,” Mr. McEvilley said. Critically it was successful: “He has a genuine talent that he brandishes fearlessly,” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times. But soon after the opening “60 Minutes” ran a segment that suggested Mr. Arnett was exploiting the folk artists whose work he had championed, particularly Mr. Dial. Suddenly “my show died on the vine,” Mr. McEvilley said. And so did several other major exhibitions of Mr. Dial’s art in the works.
Since then, although Mr. Dial has exhibited in galleries and been included in many group outsider art shows, as well as the 2000 Whitney Biennial, he has had only one other major museum solo exhibition, “Thornton Dial in the 21st Century,” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 2005. (Mr. Dial, who remains close to Mr. Arnett, memorialized the debacle with the 2003 self-portrait assemblage “Strange Fruit: Channel 42”: it involves an eyeless scarecrow-like creature wearing a bloody tie strung up from a television antenna.) Yet the event had one positive effect on Mr. Dial, Ms. Cubbs said: “It made him re-evaluate what the relationship would be between his art and its audience, and his work became more complex and powerful.”
How did he do that? Mr. Dial isn’t telling. “I remember all of my art,” he said, “but I can’t talk about all of it, because I did it 20 or 30 years ago. You ain’t going to think about all you done did in life either.”
But pressed to explain why he makes art in the first place, he finally found an answer: “I make it for people to love.”
February 17 2011
OUTSIDE THE LINES
by Richard Lacayo for TIME Magazine
American Artists don't have to be licensed - a good thing, that - but they do tend to be credentialed. The art world is bristling with degrees from Yale and Cal Arts and hundreds of other academies. In that world, Thornton Dial stands out. He has no formal training and very little schooling of any kind. To be blunt, he can't read or write. But sometime during his long years as a metalworker in Alabama, he turned to making what he at first simply called "things," because it would be a long time before he, or anybody else, realized that those things are better described as art. And not just that, but some of the most assured, delightful and powerful art around.
Dial's work has sometimes been described as outsider art, a term that attempts to cover the product of everyone from naive painters like Grandma Moses to institutionalized lost souls like Martín Ramírez and full-bore obsessives like Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who spent a lifetime secretly producing a private fantasia of little girls in peril. But if there's one lesson to take away from "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial," a triumphant new retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it's that Dial, 82, doesn't belong within even the broad confines of that category. The show — which is on view in Indianapolis through Sept. 18, then travels to New Orleans; Charlotte, N.C.; and Atlanta — is a sign that after more than two decades in which his work has settled gradually into the collections of a number of major museums, he may at last be achieving a kind of cultural escape velocity. What he does can be discussed as art, just art, no surplus notions of outsiderness required.
When I asked Dial recently what led him to make his work in the first place, he gave a sideways answer: "I put it out there for somebody to like." People do. People will.
Up, Up and Away
This is not to say Dial's backstory won't always set him apart from other prominent African-American artists like Martin Puryear, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson, who are university- and art-school-educated. He was born in 1928 in a cornfield in rural Sumter County, Alabama. His mother, an unwed teenager from a sharecropper family, gave him up to be raised by female relatives. Working in the fields by the age of 6, Dial got little in the way of a formal education. When he left school for good at the age of 12, he was still in the third grade.
It was at about that time, after the death of his great-grandmother, that Dial and his younger half brother went to live with another relative in Bessemer, a midsize industrial town near Birmingham. He worked there in a succession of jobs until he found the one he would hold for years, as a metalworker with the Pullman railway-car company. After starting a family of his own, he began to produce "things" of all kinds at home. Some were practical, like fishing gear, grave markers, decorative fences and furniture. Some were more explicitly art objects, like animal sculptures. All were made with scavenged materials: rope, metal, plastic, tin. "I started picking up stuff," he says. "Beer cans, plastic bottles. I was making stuff to sell." He made a lot of it — until it was piling up everywhere in the house he shared with his wife Clara Mae Murrow and their five children. "My wife told me, If you don't get this junk out of the house, I'm going to leave you," he says.
In 1981 the Pullman plant shut down, and Dial, in his early 50s, found himself out of a job. But as his son Richard says, "It was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. He kept getting up at 7, going into the backyard and making something." Another self-taught artist, Lonnie Holley, brought Dial to the attention of Will Arnett, a white Atlanta-based collector focused on the work of vernacular Southern black artists. Dial credits Arnett with making him think of himself as an artist, helping his work find its way into the collections of people like Jane Fonda and launching him into public view.
Sometimes it was too public. In November 1993, when Dial was the subject of two simultaneous one-man museum shows in New York City, Morley Safer did a segment on 60 Minutes that asked whether Arnett had questionable financial dealings with the artists he collected. Dial, who appeared on camera briefly, felt that Safer's questions for him were condescending and that the broadcast led museums and collectors to shy away from his work at the very moment it had begun to take off. If it did, the Indianapolis show — drawn largely from the collection of Arnett's Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which has right of first refusal on Dial's work - is a sign that momentum is back in his favor.
Though he makes work on paper — drawings and watercolors with a gleeful, springing line, like African Athlete — Dial's main medium is assemblage, mostly three-dimensional wall pieces made by gluing or welding found materials and painting over and under them. What that means is that he arrived on his own at a practice that, in terms of conventional art history, had its origins a century ago in the welded sculptures of Picasso and Georges Braque and the collages of Kurt Schwitters, then came back strongly after World War II, when Joseph Cornell, David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson and Cy Twombly all took it up. No one went at assemblage with more devilish abandon than Robert Rauschenberg, Dial's near contemporary, whose combines of the 1950s and '60s could make a persuasive ménage à trois out of a stuffed goat, a rubber tire and a tennis ball.
When Dial came to assemblage, he was unaware of any of this history. He had never set foot in a museum. What he had by way of guidance were the traditions of African-American folk art all around him, in which combining scrap-heap materials was standard practice long before Picasso ever picked up a blowtorch. In the show's catalog, Joanne Cubbs, the curator who organized "Hard Truths," reminds us that just like Dial, Rauschenberg, who grew up in the largely black town of Port Arthur, Texas, was influenced by the "yardshow" assemblages he saw as a boy. The memory banks of small-town African America, yardshows were pieced together from things discarded without losing their residue of personal history, the kind from which the larger varieties of history are built.
History is very much the point here. Dial spent most of his life in an Alabama that was brutally segregated, a battleground of the civil rights movement where the Klan was a force to be reckoned with and Governor George Wallace was the hero of diehards everywhere. Dial's work is a memory bank too, an attempt to come to grips with the struggles of black people over the years and the predicaments and ragged glories of American life generally.
With that as his goal, Dial wants his art to be legible without being obvious. So he operates by developing images with dense but graspable layers of reference. In some works, he lets tigers symbolize the strategies black men and women use to get by. But those coiled, slinky cats may turn out to be made from carpet remnants — a reminder that for all their wiles, these beasts get stepped on. In The Last Day of Martin Luther King, from 1992, the tiger appears again, as a stand-in for King, but now it's made from painted-over mop strings, so it simultaneously refers to the cleanup work to which so many African Americans were restricted and to King's great historical task of cleansing the stain of racism from American life.
When Dial is at his best, he even manages to inject new life into one of the most clichéd images of postwar art. Mickey Mouse, who usually gets dragged into service as a symbol of the trivial strain in American culture, does much more complicated double duty in High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man). A stuffed Mickey doll, the white portions of its face smeared in black, hangs in chains in the midst of a wire-and-rod construction meant to signify a slave ship with goat-hide sails. With one compact gesture, Dial invokes the atrocity of the Atlantic slave trade and the minstrel-show culture the descendants of those slaves adopted to entertain and outwit their oppressors. It would all be funny if the laughs didn't come so hard.
In a piece like that, Dial claims a place within the line of history painters stretching back to the 18th and 19th centuries. He doesn't try to call on their visual high rhetoric — who would anymore? — but at the same time, there's very little in his work you could call folkloric. There's no easy charm, no appeal to whatever is left of our collective fantasy about country innocence. But maybe because he operates free of the standard postures of contemporary art — irony being the most obvious — what he can do is reach, when he wants to and without apology or ironic distance, for euphoria. It's hard to imagine another contemporary artist attempting, much less getting away with, the sincere effulgence of The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle, Dial's lush take on the first stirrings of the world.
Rauschenberg once said, "Art doesn't come out of art." What he meant, and Dial would surely agree, is that it comes out of life. If anything, art is a word so contaminated these days by hype, misunderstanding and sales talk, it's tempting sometimes to think we should try doing without it. Until you remember that it's the one word spacious enough to contain what Dial does.
March 14 2011
BIG MUSEUM SHOW FOR AN EX-WELDER
by Stan Sesser for WALL STREET JOURNAL
His Alabama family couldn't afford to send him to school. He began doing art seriously in his 60s. Now, at age 82, Thornton Dial is finally getting a big museum survey show that will display 70 of his large-scale works.
Mr. Dial—who is illiterate, tended animals as a little boy and later welded railway cars—translated his social messages into paintings and sculptures that are only now being embraced by the art world. "When I first saw some of his pieces, it was breathtaking," says Bridgette McCullough, a Chicago art historian and an expert in African-American art.
Reflecting Mr. Dial's background, the exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which opened Thursday and runs through Sept. 18, is called "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial." (The exhibit will later travel to New Orleans, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta).
The paintings display a sort of hidden code designed to subtly communicate the artist's social views. In one painting in the exhibit, "High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man)," Mr. Dial used goat hides, clothing, carpet, barbed wire, and metal scraps found in backyards.
It looks like a big abstract collage, until exhibit curator Joanne Cubbs explains that the work is about a slave ship. The iron bars, chains and tangled fencing relate to entrapment. The goat hides are the sails of the ship. In the center of the painting is the figure of Mickey Mouse, "a tongue-in-cheek representation of the men enslaved in the holds like rodents," Ms. Cubbs said.
A key element of Southern black art, rooted in Mr. Dial's large constructions, is called the "yard show"—making symbolic sculptures from objects found in people's yards. For many years Mr. Dial would make these sculptures, then recycle or bury the scraps.
"The dilemma is that he is caught" between the worlds of folk art and modern art, says Ms. McCullough. "If it fell under modern art, the work would be amazing in terms of value." The Indianapolis museum's director, Max Anderson, became interested in Southern black art when he headed the Carlos Museum at Emory University, Atlanta.
Ms. Cubbs, who has known Mr. Dial for 20 years, said he was the hardest worker she he'd ever met. "In the last year, he had a minor stroke and some heart ailments, and he has rallied back," she said. "He just completed the largest piece he's yet made two weeks ago that we're putting into the show."
February 26 2011