Thornton Dial Is Not an Outsider Artist

Feature

Friday, March 04, 2011

Alabama artist Thornton Dial was making metal sculpture and yard art for decades before he was discovered by a prominent collector at age sixty. Today he's 82 and the Indianapolis Museum of Art is exhibiting a survey of his art called, "Hard Truths." Despite national acclaim, Dial still flies under the radar in his home state. We sent Gigi Douban to Bessemer, Alabama, to find out why.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slideshow: Thornton Dial's art

Thornton Dial, Flag
Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photographed by Stephen Pitkin.

Don't Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together, 2003

71 x 114 x 8 in.

Self-taught artist Thornton Dial uses unexpected materials for his creations; here he combines mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, and spray-painted canvas, mounted on wood.

Thornton Dial, Martin Luther King
Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photographed by Stephen Pitkin.

The Last Day of Martin Luther King, 1992

80 x 113 1/2 x 4 1/2 in.

Dial’s grouping of materials draws in viewers, but can also be difficult to access: his own son says the pieces have to grow on him.

Thornton Dial, Windows
Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photographed by Stephen Pitkin.

Looking Out the Windows, detail, 2002

100 x 50 x 13 in.

Dial has created art for decades, but earned his living as a factory worker. His work wasn’t noticed by the art world until he was 60, when a collector from Atlanta discovered him.

Thornton Dial, Victory in Iraq
Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photographed by Stephen Pitkin.

Victory in Iraq, 2004

83 1/2 x 135 x 16 1/2 in.

This piece incorporates a mannequin head, barbed wire, and wood. The colors are patriotic, but the work also seems somber, and a bit tragic.

Thornton Dial, Lost Cows
Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photographed by Stephen Pitkin.

Lost Cows, 2000 – 2001

76 1/2 x 91 x 52 in.

Lost Cows is constructed from actual cow skeletons.

Thornton Dial, High and Wide
Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photographed by Stephen Pitkin.

High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man), 2002

76 x 134 x 13 in.

Thornton Dial, Stars of Everything
Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photographed by Stephen Pitkin.

Stars of Everything, 2004

98 x 101 1/2 x 20 1/2 in.

    Music Playlist
  1. La Casa Bruja
    Artist: Ruben Garcia, Harold Budd, Daniel Lentz
    Album: Music For 3 Pianos
    Label: All Saints
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Iris
    Artist: Ruben Garcia, Harold Budd, Daniel Lentz
    Album: Music For 3 Pianos
    Label: All Saints
    Purchase: Amazon

Contributors:

Gigi Douban

Comments [3]

Andrew Dietz from Atlanta, GA

Check out the book, The Last Folk Hero. It chronicles Dial's rise from the Pullman Box Car factory to the major museums. His relationship with Jane Fonda, the Quilters of Gee's Bend and more. http://www.amazon.com/Last-Folk-Hero-Story-Profit/dp/0977196801 Then check out the latest in folk art movements by going to YouTube and searching on Agrifolk Art.

Mar. 11 2011 11:54 AM
Catherine Chase from Port Orchard Washington

I am so happy that I heard this story.! The work is powerful, emotional, visually fascinating and insightful. I am fortunate to be introduced to this artist by your story. Classification,,,Art !

Mar. 06 2011 11:10 PM
Phillip Ratliff from Birmingham, Alabama

Mr. Nelson's statement, which amounted to little more than "art would be more important here if only it were more important" (surely not the most interesting statement this excellent writer and art enthusiast could have made on the matter of local art) and the search for Dial fans at Bob Sykes BBQ rather than in one of the the area's museums, galleries, or university art departments underscores the weakness with the story's implication that Dial flies under the radar in his hometown to any greater degree than artists do anywhere. To counter, consider that Dial was the subject of an award-winning 2006 documentary Mr. Dial Has Something to Say, produced in Birmingham by Alabama Public Television. That locally produced documentary brought nationwide attention to the work of Dial and the efforts of his Atlanta-based collector Bill Arnett (whose identity seemed purposefully sidestepped in this story). And the industrial roots of the works of Mr. Dial and several other African-American self-taught artists from Alabama, including Joe Minter, Charlie Lucas, and Lonnie Holley, will be explored in The Music Lives On: Folk Song Traditions Told by Alabama Artists, opening April 15, 2011 at Vulcan Park and Museum and traveling statewide to three other venues throughout 2011 and 2012.

I am also pleased to note that the notion that artists like Dial should not be shackled with such labels as "outsider artist" or "folk artist" has long been advanced in the area, as it has been elsewhere. Curator Stephen Moos, formerly of the Birmingham Museum of Art, made this point to me in a conversation several years ago concerning a Lonnie Holley exhibit he organized. And Matt Arnett, son of Bill, is insistent on this point. In short, I think those of us in Alabama who follow art are quite enthralled with Dial's work as art, plain and simple, have been for some time, and have taken great pains to spread the word about this uniquely gifted man.

Phillip Ratliff
Director of Education
Vulcan Park and Museum

Mar. 06 2011 09:25 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.