Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

Renowned West Alabama Artist Dies at 87

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

Renowned West Alabama Artist Dies at 87

Article excerpt

Artist Thornton Dial, who assembled odds and ends into artworks that lifted him from picking cotton as a child in west Alabama to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, has died at 87.

Dial's family said he died Monday at home in McCalla, according to Maria May of African-American art-preservation group Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Born in 1928 to sharecroppers in Sumter County, Dial created art from found materials, often discarded products of work. Self- taught, with virtually no formal education, Dial took on topics like war, death, racism, justice, redemption, hope and the plight of the working class through abstract imagery, in works with titles such as "History Refused to Die," and "Don't Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together."

His style is hard to classify. Though self-taught applies, Dial was more abstract expressionist than folk artist, said Elliot Knight, visual arts program manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

"He was one of the greatest Alabama artists in general, without stopping at the outsider or folk artist labels," Knight said.

In his biography at the Souls Grown Deep website, taken from interviews, Dial tracks his creative side back to childhood: "I made little cars. Roads and trails in the sand. Roll them out with tin cans or a bottle. Build little houses. Make persons out of corn shucks. Build little hills, bridges....I went to school a little bit, but mostly I just would sit there with the other boys, Archie Lee Pettigrew and a lot of them, and all of us drawed a lot; that's why I didn't learn too much. I was drawing pictures of Tarzan and cowboys and stuff like that I learned from the boys that went to the picture shows....

"Education mean different things. I ain't never been much good at talking about stuff. I always just done the stuff I had a mind to do. My art do my talking."

For decades, he worked manual labor in carpentry, house- painting, pipe-fitting, iron-pouring and more. Most of three decades was spent with the Pullman Standard boxcar factory that was in Bessemer. Dial came to the attention of the art world in 1987 through Atlanta collector Bill Arnett, who was introduced to him by Birmingham artist Lonnie Holley. The first time Arnett visited, Dial pulled works out of a poultry house.

"I knew I was witnessing something great coming out of that turkey coop," said in a statement from Arnett, who started Souls Grown Deep in Atlanta. "I didn't know at the time that it wasn't simply the sculpture that was special. The man who had created it was a great man, and he would go on to become recognized as one of America's greatest artists. I can't think of any important artist who has started with less or accomplished more."

Dial stayed connected to his west Alabama roots, appearing in exhibits at Northport's Kentuck Art Association, a center built around folk and traditional art. …

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