On the Road to Thornton Dial

By Pam Paulson
Thornton Dial: Lost Cows, 2001

Earlier this spring I took a trip with my daughter Isabelle and our friend Matt Arnett to visit Thornton Dial’s exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta and see his studio in Alabama. Dial’s incredible works were showcased in the exhibition Hard Truths/ The Art of Thornton Dial.The exhibition, which originated at the Indianapolis Museum of Art surveys twenty years of Dial’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings.  The work emphasizes the strength and compassion that Dial brings to each idea.  The survey brings up the difficult question of why Dial’s work has not been given the respect and notoriety it is due until now.  Race, education, and class have all played a factor in the denial of Dial’s admission into the contemporary art canon. The exhibition is a resplendent manifestation of a powerful discourse on the human condition from a vantage point rarely celebrated.

Thornton Dial: Ladies Will Stand by Their Tiger, 1991 and Isabelle at the High Museum with Dial drawing.

 A few miles beyond Birmingham in Bessemer, not far from the highway, a row of warehouses line a sleepy street.  Deep within the sprawling space of one of these warehouses, a corner has been turned into a large windowless room where Thornton Dial creates his work.

Looking into Dial’s studio, 2013.

The warehouse, built by Dial’s sons, is the home of their steel patio furniture business, Dial Metal  Patterns.  What was once a thriving industry has now slowed, devastated by the steep and prolonged rise of steel prices.  Dial and his sons have worked in the metal industry most of their lives.  Machines for bending, cutting, and painting , once used in the production of patio furniture now slumber.  Dial’s sons Richard and Donnie explained to me during my visit that not only had they built one of the metal bending machines after seeing one in another metal shop, but they had also constructed the entire warehouse itself, having had noexperience with constructing large buildings.  Creativity and ingenuity run in the Dial family.

Thornton Dial: Construction of the Victory, 1997 (Detail)

Thornton Dial was born in 1923 in Emelle, Alabama, a tiny town that has all but disappeared. As a very young child he had many responsibilities caring for farm animals and working the fields.  He watched as his uncle built sheds, barns, and small buildings. These structures, many built nearby by relatives and neighbors were designed carefully, composed from a wide range of materials colors, textures, and architectural styles intended to increase their visibility and to stylistically distinguish their makers.  Assemblages made from recycled materials and found objects dotted the landscape.  Communities created dialogues with yard art now recognized as part of the southern African American vernacular artistic tradition.  Dial absorbed this complex vocabulary and incorporated it into his own work.

Through making things Dial expresses his understanding of the world around him.  Dial’s painting and sculptures are narratives that discuss the complexities of his own life, nature,politics, race and history, constructed of found materials both natural and handmade.  Many of his assemblages have included bones, wire, dirt, flowers, clothing, utilizing reused and recycled materials, wood, wire, plastic, and metal scraps.  Surviving struggle and hardship Dial remains optimistic and the beauty of the natural world winds its way through his compositions.

Joe Minter’s yard, 2013.

The discipline of yard art is evident as you travel throughout Alabama.  Like Dial, Birmingham resident and Dial’s friend Joe Minter grew into the practice of making things to express his ideas.  Isabelle, Matt, and I paid an impromptu visit to Minter’s yard to view the extensive environment he has created over the years.  Minter’s house sits atop a hill abutting the local black cemetery, which serves as a thought-provoking backdrop to his visual, highly political commentary.  The enormous yard is home to a maze of interconnecting installations that touch on topics such as slavery, voter’s rights, the Gees Bend Ferry, the World Trade Center bombing, and religion.  The dullness of the rainy spring day was diminished by our eagerness to see what was around the next corner as we walked through the yard over wooden pathways and bridges surrounded by a forest of rusting metal decorated with thousands of words and bright plastic ephemera. Minter is constantly amending the ever-changing environment.  He recently added a piece in response to the Sandy Hook shooting.

Joe Minter’s Sandy Hook tribute, 2013


Dial’s early studio.

As we made our way to Dial’s studio we drove by his former home, a neat brick one-storybuilding that he built. The sidewalk to the house is lined with cement filled soda cans, actingas bricks, attesting to the fact that Dial’s innovative use of recycled materials is not only a trait of his artwork, but also a characteristic of his everyday life.  Behind the house is a small garage where Dial created his work for many years, unbeknownst to anyone but his family. Dial has always made things, but didn’t think of himself as an artist. Until a few years ago, Dial worked alone creating and moving large paintings and sculptures in the garage behind his house.  After he had a stroke in 2009, his sons created the new studio for him within the warehouse, and they began helping him move the heavy assemblages.  Inside Dial’s new studio, piles of scrap metal, wood, plastic flowers, paint cans, and old clothes populate almost every conceivable space.  Paintings in progress either hang neatly on the walls, or sit atop sawhorses, so he can attach materials such as charred wooden boards and cloth. From the surrounding sea of materials, glorious works of art arise.

Homemade soda can bricks line the driveway at Dial’s former home.