Thornton Dial Jr.


is an Alabama artist who has broken free of his family’s famous name to develop an art that is both fiercely independent yet respectful of his aesthetic lineage. Thefirstborn child of artist Thornton Dial Sr. (1928–), “Little Buck,” as he is known to friends, attended school through the eleventh grade, after which he dropped out,moved to nearby Birmingham, and began eight years of work in the construction business. Upon returning to his hometown of Bessemer, he found a job with hisfather’s employer, the Pullman Standard Company. He stayed with the company until it closed, in the late 1980s, and then became a partner with his brothers in thefamily’s steel patio-furniture business.Like his father, Dial Jr. creates freestanding sculpture and three-dimensional paintings in mixed media. His style has been further influenced by furniture making (manyof his sculptures slyly double as tables, benches, or chairs); by the holiday lawn displays that are especially abundant in Bessemer neighborhoods; by the heavy industryof the Birmingham region; and by his background. As with other artists in the family, he often uses animals and religious themes, with a satiric twist, as a vehicle for social commentary.Dial’s ironic sensibility is among the most caustic in all of American folk art. His painting,
Tornadoes Don’t Discriminate with Nobody
(a red, white, and bluetwister tearing up homes both grand and puny) comments not only on nature’s impassiveness toward human pretense, but also on the stratification in American societythat seems vulnerable only to occasional acts of God. In a similar vein, his
King of Africa in America
paintings depict a lion (Dial’s symbol for black men) inside a paltry thicket of corrugated tin trees—a shrunken kingdom/jungle. The frogs basking on lily pads in
The President and His Staff Trying to Decide What to Do About Children on Drugs
are depicted in gay, almost psychedelic colors, lending this withering indictment of disconnected politicians a dry wit worthy of classic black folktales or newspaper editorial cartoons.Dial’s series of crucifixes (some of which are life-size) are generally fabricated of steel, with blood red painted wounds. He re-imagines Jesus as an entirely freshMessiah: a poker-faced muscleman who, in pieces such as
I’ll Be Back,
stares down at his tormentors like a Hollywood tough guy—perhaps the only Christ likely tocommand respect among Dial’s peers on the factory floor.
See also
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Chairs; Thornton Dial Sr., Painting, American Folk; Religious Folk Art; Sculpture, Folk.
Arnett, William, and Paul Arnett.
Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South,
vol. 2. Atlanta, Ga., 2001.Rosenak, Chuck, and Jan Rosenak.
Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists.
New York, 1990