Reflections on the Life and Art of Thornton Dial

Reflections on the Life and Art of Thornton Dial

Article by  Bernard Herman 

Thornton Dial rose from his battered office chair and greeted us as we entered Dial Metal Patterns housed at the end of a strip of warehouses in the Pipe Shop neighborhood of Bessemer, Ala. Welding equipment, cutting torches, steel trestles and a number of commissions in varying states of completion furnished the concrete-floored, tin-sided building. The roll-up door at the loading dock was raised, and light filtered into the industrial space where Dial stood with his sons Donnie and Richard.

Our group was small. Ten students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accompanied by Dial’s longtime friend and patron Bill Arnett, his son Matt and the artist Lonnie Holley. We had traveled from Chapel Hill to Atlanta to view the Souls Grown Deep Collection where we studied the long arc of Dial’s sculptures, mixed media paintings and drawings. Bill Arnett produced a large portfolio of Dial’s earliest works on paper and challenged us to imagine and curate a museum exhibition. The students searched through the work; they floated themes; they debated audiences. In essence, they engaged the work as objects and the artist as something of a distant abstraction. Our visit to Dial would change all that.

Reflections on Thornton Dial’s life and art following his passage at the age of 87 in January 2016 emphasize his biography: growing up poor in rural Alabama, moving to Bessemer and finding work in the Pullman plant, raising a family in Pipe Shop and starting to create “art” in his 50s. Those memorials speak to the power of Dial’s creative oeuvre from his early works that featured tigers, avatars for the artist in particular as well as the experience of black masculinity in general. The encomiums tracked his art from its public emergence in the later 1980s through his solo exhibitions at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and in the last year of his life the acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of several of his major creations for their permanent collection. Tributes to Dial, however, often fell back on the language of folk, outsider, self-taught to locate him in the larger sweep of American art. There is an important history to be discovered in that language applied to Dial and his art.

When Dial emerged on the art scene there was no space for him in the rarified atmosphere of the Contemporary. The earliest collectors and curators of his work were individuals and institutions dedicated to folk art and/or African-American art. Thus, the reviewer of Dial’s first exhibition at what is now Kennesaw State University dismissively labeled him as a folk art master of the ad hoc. The Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum) and the Studio Museum in Harlem co-hosted Dial’s first New York City exhibition in the early 1990s.

Early advocates for Dial’s art affiliated themselves with a collective vision of the art that embodied an understood but largely unarticulated notion of a vernacular aesthetic. That vague but passionately held ideology enfolded an art that emanated from places beyond the academy and the museum and laid the groundwork for the evolving reception of Dial’s art. Celebrated at the outset by advocates for the vernacular, Dial’s art leaped from the platform of the “folk” to claim its rightful place in the “mainstream” art world. Thus, the political valorization of folk art, coupled with Bill Arnett’s vigorous and untiring championing of Dial, provided a springboard for Dial’s reception at the heart of American contemporary art. Dial lived to witness his triumph.

When we visited Dial on that sunny April afternoon in 2009, our group was already deeply immersed in conversations around art world politics and Dial’s place in histories of American art. We arrived at Dial Metal Patterns, however, with a different agenda. The class had reviewed well over a hundred drawings produced from 1990-1991 and had organized a selection around a thematic exhibition strategy. What the students lacked was a sense of process – an understanding of how Dial made those works on paper.

Bill Arnett and I walked up to Dial and asked if he would be willing to undertake a demonstration of his process for the students. Dial shook his head, “I don’t know about that.” We explained that we were all working on an exhibition of his early drawings that would originate at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina and then travel to three other venues. We explained that the students knew the drawings as made things, but they did not have a grasp on how they were made – and that was something only Dial could provide. And, he agreed.

Donnie and Richard listening to the conversation went into action. They assembled a drawing board out of a sheet of steel laid across a welding frame. Donnie went into the small room behind the office where his father typically drew and returned with paper, charcoal, oil stick and watercolor brushes. He then produced three Styrofoam cups each containing a different watercolor medium: coffee, coffee with artificial creamer and Coca Cola. Dial stepped up to the sheet of paper; the students, Bill, Matt, Donnie, Richard, Lonnie and I gathered around. Dial looked at the blank sheet, paused, and then turned to Bill. “Just draw anything, right. I just don’t know what to start drawing,” he said. “Forget they’re here, forget I’m here, forget Lonnie’s here,” Bill responded.

What happened next stunned us all. Dial, who had never drawn for an audience, rested the tip of his charcoal stick on the paper and then in graceful balletic moves gestured the form of a woman into being. One of our class happily captured it all on video. I’ve timed the film sequence, and the time lapse from emptiness to presence took exactly ten seconds. Dial continued to work on the drawing, now totally focused on the form flowing from his mind through his hand and onto the page. Eight minutes later, he stopped and set the drawing aside. It seemed, then, as if we had all been holding our breath during the demonstration.

The students were deeply moved by what Dial had shared. Even Bill Arnett was surprised. Dial kept the drawing, completing it after our departure. Today that work is in the permanent collection of the Ackland Art Museum.

That moment with Dial, his friends, his family and our class was extraordinary and magical and, reflecting on it in the wake of his passing, transformative. The many appreciations of his life concentrate appropriately on Dial’s creative power and the miracle of his art. Dial, however, also possessed the skills of a gifted teacher. Speaking with Richard Dial prior to his father’s memorial service, I mentioned his father’s power as a teacher. “That’s right,” I remember Richard saying, “Daddy’s always had something to say.” He paused, then added, “And, he always made sure you heard it, too.”

BERNARD HERMAN is the George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Chair of the Department of American Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the editor of Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, and many other books. His forthcoming book, Fever Within: the Art of Ronald Lockett, will be published in June. The concurrent exhibition will be on view at the American Folk Art Museum, June 21-September 18, 2016, then travel to the High Museum of Art and the Ackland Art Museum.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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