Thornton Dial Sr.


is a renowned self-taught, African American artist who works in many media. He was born to an unwed teenage mother in rural Sumter County, Alabama, and henever knew his father. Dial and his younger half brother, Arthur, were raised first by their mother and older female relatives, and then, when Thornton was twelve, the brothers were sent to live with their great aunt in industrialized Bessemer, Alabama, a satellite of Birmingham. Thorntondropped out of school after the third grade to help support the family, and worked as a carpenter, road mender, brickmaker, housepainter, and as a commercialfisherman. In 1950, he married Clara May Murrow, and they had five children, several of whom are artists. For thirty years, he worked at the Pullman Standard boxcar factory as a “welder’s helper”—as African Americans could work as welders in this factory—and finally as an instructor. In the early 1980s, Dial quit his job, and, withtwo of his sons, he started a business making metal patio furniture by hand in the small shed behind his home. In 1988, he stopped making furniture to pursue his art fulltime.Despite “making things” all his life—and hiding them from all but his immediate family and friends—Dial first witnessed his creations labeled as “art” in 1987, the year he began allowing them to be exhibited. He works with found objects, produces assemblage sculpture, makes easel paintings, and works with pastels and watercolors.His themes range from uplifting, universal concerns to incisive social commentary. Two related but distinct visual styles have emerged in his mature work: intimate,lyrical, and often whimsical depictions of humans and animals; and edgier, occasionally disconcerting images of suffering, injustice, and oppression. Dial’s large-format pieces often blend the two. Many early works are allegories and parables, with characters and situations conjured from African American folklore, cartoons, andcomics, as well as popular culture, local histories, personal experiences, and current events. Besides humans, the metaphorical players in Dial’s works include tigers, birds, roosters, dogs, snakes, squirrels, fish, and other animals, as well as flowers, trees, water, and other elements of the natural world. The tiger, Dial’s best-knownsubject, has been described as an autobiographical symbol as well as a generalized icon of the historical struggles for social justice endured by African Americans.The majority of works from 1994 are paintingsculpture hybrids that feature few symbols or themes that can be categorized—line, color, mass, and texture areinstead laid on as undecided, paradox-filled struggles, with recognizable images jostling among abstractions and found materials. The later works employ happenstance,contingency, unpredictable transformations, and a recycling of forms as a palimpsest for the seeking of larger truths.
See also
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art)
Arnett, William, and Paul Arnett.
Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South,
vol. 2. Atlanta, Ga., 2001.Baraka, Amiri, Thomas McEvilley, et al.
Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger.
New York, 1993.Longhauser, Elsa, Harald Szeemann, et al.
Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology.
New York, 1998