On Thornton Dial (19282016)

Splash Image - On Thornton Dial (1928-2016)
SAAM Staff
Blog Editor
February 4, 2016

The American artist Thornton Dial died on January 25, 2016, at the age of 87. Leslie Umberger, SAAM's curator of folk and self-taught art writes an appreciation about Mr. Dial and his work.

Thorton Dial

Thornton Dial. Photo by Vanessa Vadim.

In large-scale painted assemblages and mixed-media sculptures that were both mellifluous and arresting, Dial channeled his perspectives on black life in the American South. He was an artist of paradoxes. He used colors, compositions, and material combinations that appeared bold and contemporary although his experience was that of poverty and hardship in the segregated South. In spite of little formal education, his paintings speak allegorically about African American history and culture with an overriding theme of struggle and the will to overcome. Dial's extraordinary artistic sophistication challenged the boundaries of the mainstream art world and any number of assumptions about art made by an untrained, uneducated African American from rural Alabama. His impact on the art world has already been enormous, and it is only just beginning to be fully gauged.

Dial's mother was a sharecropper and the daughter of sharecroppers and he was raised primarily by his grandmother in Emelle, Alabama. "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," Dial recounted in interviews from 1995 and 1996 (on file at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation). He goes on to say:

"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 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."

It had always been Dial's nature to make things, and coming from a family of little means, using available materials to make things such as toys and fishing lures was the only option. But when his creations grew increasingly large and creative, he hid them, fearing that he was breaking some unspecified law by expressing his personal views.

In 1992, the Smithsonian American Art Museum was among the first museums to welcome a major work by Dial into our collection thanks to a gift from William Arnett, who championed the artist from the time they met around 1987 after being introduced by the artist Lonnie Holley. Holley and Arnett convinced Dial his expressions were not only valid, but meaningful and important.

In African Jungle Picture: If the Ladies Had Knew the Snakes Wouldn't Bite Them They Wouldn't Have Hurt the Snakes; If the Snakes Had Knew the Ladies Wouldn't Hurt Them They Wouldn't Have Bit the Ladies, Dial ruminates on the complexities of trust, using a subtle, fable-like depiction to speak about the larger issue of race relations in the United States. Dial's narrative poses a hard question: How can our culture ever move beyond a centuries-old cycle of mistrust?

SAAM is home to the largest collection of works by African American artists anywhere. In 2012, Dial was among those selected for the exhibition African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond. And, his work appears in this month's online exhibition of African American Art in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. The painting Top of the Line (Steel) (1992), given to the museum by Ron and June Shelp in 1993, is a frenetic interpretation of the 1992 Los Angeles riots—the response to the acquittal of four white policemen who severely beat the unarmed motorist, Rodney King. The colors black, white, and red tell a tale of racial conflict and bloodshed.

In the fall of 2016, one of Dial's major works, The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle (2003), will be on view in a first floor gallery dedicated to the themes of struggle and persistence. In this vibrant and commanding painted assemblage, Dial speaks of the ephemeral nature of all beings. The colors seem warm and optimistic, yet the tangled composition and the work's title suggest the unending complexities of navigating and surviving this world we share.

It is hard to measure the significance of an artist like Thornton Dial. I was fortunate enough to be among those who met him in the mid-1990s. I was introduced by Bill Arnett, who was already hard at work making sure that the world would know about him, and making sure that Dial would see himself as a part of something vital. Dial made a great impression on me and had an inestimable impact on my own path. But I can't say I knew him. Matt Arnett, Bill's son, has explained:

"Mr. Dial was a private man. He had learned that the best way to survive was to keep his ideas and intentions to himself. It's hard to explain how uncomfortable he was, at first, with all the attention. He spent the first half of his life having very little interaction with white people. He'd rarely eaten at integrated restaurants and never outside of the small town he lived in. He'd rarely had conversations with white people who weren't his boss, and this was in tough, factory settings in the Jim Crow South."

Dial kept making art regardless of who supported him and who didn't; year after year he faced the challenges like he had his entire life. Today Dial's work is held by some of the most notable institutions in the country: the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the High Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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