ARTISTS: Thornton Dial

The Ladies Had Knew That (1280x640)

Thornton Dial “African Jungle Picture: The Ladies Had Knew That”

I got to meet artist Thornton Dial once. In Richmond, Virginia the cooperative gallery I was a member of was hosting an exhibit of his works from the collection of Virginia Union University. I had stopped by the gallery the day before the opening and he was just leaving, having come to review the installation. He was a small,  slight man with an intensely focused demeanor. When we shook hands his grip was strong and rough, hands made hard by a lifetime of work.


Thornton Dial “African Athlete”

Dial is a self taught artist from Alabama, born in 1928. He spent the majority of his life in obscurity, just another laborer from the rural South. Dial says of his upbringing, “I come up hard, and I didn’t want to suffer. That will make you work…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 Pullman Standard for about thirty years. I’m a working man.”


“If we going to change the world, we got to look at the little man.” Thornton Dial 

Dial was in his 50s when he got laid off from his job and started welding patio furniture and his own sculptural ideas. His creations caught the attention of art collectors, which started slow rise in recognition. With the support of a patron named Bill Arnett, Dial started to create epic mixed media reliefs and mural sized assemblages, massive installations of salvaged industrial materials gracefully transformed into layered, textured environments. It’s hard to capture their complexity in photographs.


Thornton Dial “Don’t Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together”

(mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound, enamel, spray paint, on canvas on wood)

This is where the inherent biases and hypocrisies of the establishment art world become apparent. Despite the accomplishment of his works, the cultural elites were more comfortable pigeonholing him into categories like folk or outsider art, denying him his rightful place as a major figure in the artistic development of the United States. In their minds there’s no place among the officially credentialed for a poetic visionary who can’t even read or write.

There are some signs this is changing, and the arbitrary distinctions imposed by the establishment are breaking down. Redemption for the jaded, insular art world is going to have to come from outside their rigid dogmas and corrupt hierarchies.

Thornton Dial says it best: “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.”

 Struggling Tiger in Hard Times

Thornton Dial “Struggling Tiger in Hard Times”


Thornton Dial “Memory of the Ladies That Gave Us the Good Life”

17 thoughts on “ARTISTS: Thornton Dial

  1. Terrific article. The quotes from Mr. Dial are really good. I’m not sure how I feel about “self-taught.” I think we are all mostly self-taught, but I get what you are saying with the term: someone schooled in art. Every time I see “self-taught” it feels like a put-down, though that is not your intent here. There is a singer in a Brooklyn band I like frequently described as “self-taught.” To me she is flat-out terrific and I often wonder what I was to take away from knowing she did not go get a degree in vocal performance.

  2. Thanks! I use “self taught” because no one would know what an autodidact is. Self taught does refer to someone who doesn’t go through the officially sanctioned training, My wife is a self taught artist too and she is brilliant. I think the negative connotations of “self-taught” are part of the elitist sway over culture, and their need for institutional validation as a signifier of quality. Lots of them have to rely on that credentialed mindset because they aren’t really very good at what they do…I’d love to help remove any stigma “self-taught” might imply, because that’s where the innovations come from.

  3. Well-said and I agree. I’ve been following the evolution of the word “amateur” to denote a non-professional, which is sort of a parallel discussion. Many of my favorite photographers and artists are amateur or self-taught. I appreciate your insights about art.

  4. To me self taught means without influence from academia and the stagnation of the art world with their Jeff Koon-ism, and a reliance upon your culture, the culture around you, and not bogged down by agenda, politics or mindless pop culture – the self taught artist should never see that title as one of degradation but one of pride, where one stood on their own feet and created art worthy of examination. and you know i love Mr. Dial – one of my favorite artists ever!

  5. well thank you all for cleaning out the crap in my cells this morning i’m feeling so light and free now (and without any lousy side effects to make me pay ) i got here via an artist named TOREY THORNTON who mentions THORNTON DIAL in an interview i really had to mull over each of his answers in order to answer my question: how does his answer have anything to do with the question it was like solving a delicious puzzle in which i can definitely vouch for the process if not necessarily for my answers ART TIME IS CHURCH TIME FOR ME where else can you find people who say what they mean and mean what they say plus the genius the talent the tools and the courage to do so bless-ed be the
    art makers both the ones who make the art and the ones who appreciate it

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