Thornton Dial, Sr. was born in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama. He was one of twelve children and never knew his father. His family made their living sharecropping, and he grew up helping out on the farm. Dial went to school on and off for a few years, but often snuck off to work different odd jobs, including carpenter, house painter, cement mixer, and ironworker. From 1952 to 1980, he worked for the Pullman Standard Company, a railroad car factory in Bessemer, Alabama. Dial says he learned about drawing from his job at the Pullman factory, studying designs for the steel machines.1 After his retirement, he concentrated on his artwork, as well as raising turkeys and making wrought-iron lawn furniture with his sons.
In 1987, Dial met William Arnett, an art dealer and collector from Atlanta, Georgia, who traveled throughout the Southeast meeting and discovering artists like Thornton Dial. This type of art, known as “self-taught,” “folk,” “outsider,” or “vernacular” art was unknown to the larger art community and was not truly considered “fine” art until artists like Dial exhibited at museums like the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.
Dial said he liked to create his artwork with materials others had thrown away.2 In most of his sculptural pieces, Dial collected all of the components of the work, such as old carpet, rope, fence, or clothes, and constructed the work first. After the piece was built, Dial painted the entire sculpture to tie the composition together. His sculptural paintings were often very large in scale, resulting in imposing art that literally enters the viewer’s space. Dial’s work mostly deals with the themes of freedom and power.3 His use of a tiger motif in much of his artwork was meant to symbolize the general theme of struggle, as confirmed by the artist himself. Yet critics and art historians have widely regarded Dial’s tiger to specifically represent the African-American man’s struggle for freedom in America.
In 2011, the Indianapolis Museum of Art revealed a new traveling retrospective of Dial’s work: Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, which traveled throughout the Southeast. The popularity of this exhibition and the buzz surrounding Dial led Time magazine to publish an article noting the artist’s elevation into the art world: “What he does can be discussed as art, just art, no surplus notions of outsiderness required”4. In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired ten of his works, as part of a large acquisition of Southern Vernacular Art.
Dial continued to work well into his eighties, consistently creating large sculptural paintings despite his declining health. He passed away in his beloved home state of Alabama on January 25, 2016. Much of his late work is almost completely nonobjective— large, high-relief paintings in monochromatic colors of black, white, and brown. It was as though his work were quieting down; pulling back on his personal interpretations to allow the viewer to add more to the conversation.
Dial was an artist who created art his entire life, stemming from a deep-rooted need to make things. Thornton Dial, Sr. is now considered one of the creative geniuses of his time, and the most famous vernacular artist from the Southeast, whose work has shattered the art world’s notion of “folk” and “outsider” art. Although Dial never had formal artistic training and was from a rural town in the Deep South, his work touched on themes that resonate with audiences around the world: racial inequality, struggles in a modern world, and relationships between men and women.
1. As told by Thornton Dial. “Mr. Dial is a Man Looking for Something” in Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art. Vol. 2. Eds. William Arnett and Paul Arnett. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2001. 201-202.
2. Arnett, William. “A Network of Ideas” in Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art. Vol. 1. Eds. Paul Arnett and William Arnett. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2000, 187.
3. Lacayo, Richard. “Outside the Lines.” Time 14 Mar. 2011: 54-57.