Artist

Thornton Dial, Sr.

born Emelle, AL 1928-died McCalla, AL 2016
Also known as
  • Thornton Dial
  • Thornton "Buck" Dial
Born
Emelle, Alabama, United States
Died
McCalla, Alabama, United States
Active in
  • Bessemer, Alabama, United States
Nationalities
  • American
Biography

Thornton Dial was born into a sharecropping family in rural Alabama, on the eve of the Great Depression. He experienced the trauma and tumult of both Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement. Profoundly influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dial used art to confront issues of racial oppression in the United States, developing an allegorical style that was abstracted but narrative, conveying concerns both personal and universal. His large, bold works, with incisive titles and themes of race and class, captivated the art world through sophisticated content and an aesthetic that defied stereotypes of “folk.” Dial bridged the worlds of Black vernacular self-taught artists and the contemporary mainstream. He was a conduit between nineteenth-century-born artists like Bill Traylor; African American quilters who had, for too long, gone unrecognized as artists; and a younger generation of Black creatives seeking a way forward.

Dial lived to see his work acquired by some of the most revered museums in the United States and became relevant to the mainstream art world in unprecedented ways. As the art world increasingly embraced him, Dial used his voice to raise serious questions about its long-standing hierarchies and inequities. He became emblematic of a shifting southern landscape in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—as the deeply rooted vision of Black Americans revealed its tremendous power.
(We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, 2022)

Exhibitions

Media - 2010.52 - SAAM-2010.52_1 - 74044
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond
April 26, 2012September 2, 2012
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond presents a selection of paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs by forty-three black artists who explored the African American experience from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights era and the decades beyond, which saw tremendous social and political changes. In response, these artists created an image of America that recognizes individuals and community and acknowledges the role of art in celebrating the multivalent nature of American society.
Media - 1995.22.1 - SAAM-1995.22.1_1 - 65784
African American Art in the 20th Century
January 18, 2019January 18, 2019
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world. Highlights from this collection are traveling to several cities across the United States in the exhibition African American Art in the 20th Century.
Media - 2016.38.43R-V - SAAM-2016.38.43R-V_2 - 126225
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection
July 1, 2022March 26, 2023
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and Douglas O. Robson.

Related Books

Cover for the catalogue "We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection"
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and her son Douglas O. Robson, and will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum July 1, 2022 through March 26, 2023.