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”