Remembering Thornton Dial

Phillip RatliffThe artist’s narrative is one we can all learn from.

By Phillip Ratliff

Thornton Dial, the self-taught visual artist who rose from humble roots in Emelle, Alabama, to international stardom, passed away last month at the age of 87. He left behind a body of visual art that is, unmistakably, the stuff of genius—visually robust and maximalist, at times obscure and enigmatic, and almost always downright heartbreaking. The colors are vibrant, the lines swirling and layered, and there’s a loose, improvised quality that invites comparisons to Jackson Pollock. The comparison only skims the surface. Buried within the abstraction are profound narratives about migration, struggle, economic isolation, and I think most pointedly, Dial’s own pain.

Dial novices should pay attention to his titles; they are entry points into his world, where narrative occasions an often painful emotion that finds its expression in gesture and through any materials Dial could lay his hands on at the time. Working a can of house paint—the type you buy at Sherwin Williams—and some old rags into a piece that could be described as equal parts assemblage and painting was surely therapeutic for Dial, but not self-indulgent. As a fantastic documentary on his life suggests, Mr. Dial most assuredly had something to say.

Dial was born to a family of sharecroppers, on a former plantation owned by a white man named Luther Elliot. Sharecropping was an oppressive system —Dial’s family never did manage to come out of debt—that undoubtedly shaped his understanding of the way the world worked.

Sharecropping drove Dial from the fields of the Black Belt to the promise of an hourly wage in Birmingham at around age 13. Dial’s migration embodied thousands of other journey stories. The Birmingham story, in turn, was a Southern take on the Great Migration, the seismic movement of some six million rural blacks into the industrial Northeast and Midwest. The influx of African-Americans into Birmingham defined the city and Dial. By 1920, Birmingham had the highest concentration of African Americans of any city over 100,000. Add to that the rigid system of segregation and we can see why, by 1963, Birmingham was brimming with enthusiasm for change.

Dial arrived in Birmingham some 20 years before the tipping point that was the Birmingham campaign—in 1941. Educational opportunities for poor, working class African-Americans were limited. For Dial, they were next to nothing. He was placed in the second grade class of the Sloss company school, a teenager towering over a class of 7-year-olds. Dropping out was inevitable, but even if he had stuck it out, what would’ve been the point? “They told me, ‘Learn to figure out your money and write your name: That’s as far as a Negro can go,’” Dial recalled in an oral history.

So he went to work. His longest stint was with Pullman, from which he retired after 30 years of employment. But Dial’s résumé also included cement work on highways, pouring iron, loading bricks at Harbison Walker brickyard, carpentry and house painting, and metalwork. By the end of his working life, Dial could confidently declare: “I done most every kind of work a man can do.”

It’s Dial the worker we meet in his works, but it’s also Dial the thinker, the observer, the prophet. There’s so much there to admire: his love for and understanding of his materials, his supercharged expressionist vibe, his works’ gorgeous tactility. I mean, who can look at a Thornton Dial painting and not immediately want to touch it?

As most everything else in his oeuvre attests, Dial had a fondness for items that others had deemed fit for the trash heap. It’s hard not to see a metaphor in this. His culture had been discarded. He had been discarded. For Dial, repurposing garbage into beautiful works of art was an act of personal redemption.

This thought was actually one Thornton Dial collector Matt Arnett and I arrived at together recently. After I heard that Dial had passed away, I knew I’d be calling Matt. Matt and his father, Bill Arnett, are, it’s no secret, colorful collectors of works of a particular rich category of artist: self-taught, Alabamian, black, obscure, poor.

As we reflect back on Dial’s works, Arnett says, we will gain a better understanding of a time and place that far too few people documented. Often what Dial was commenting about was struggle and mistreatment, but his work was almost never angry, Arnett says. He maintained a journalist’s integrity when telling a story. And the story Dial told is one of the greatest, one of the saddest—a story Dial was uniquely, divinely endowed to tell.

“Dial lived a life that most of us in the world, in this country, can’t even fathom —the struggle and the experiences he had,” Arnett says. “Yet, they’re far more common than we might think. I don’t think this country has produced a million Thornton Dials, but he shared an experience with millions of people.”

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