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  • Thornton DialSeptember 10, 1928–January 25, 2016
  • Bernard L. Herman (bio)

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Thornton Dial at his studio, Bessemer, Alabama, ca. 1995.

All images courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Birds flock, flutter and fly, strut, preen, and roost through the art of Thornton Dial, citizens in a remarkable graphic menagerie that speak, sometimes forcefully, sometimes joyfully, to what he termed “hard truths.” Tigers, signifying the artist as well as a much larger world of African American masculinity, romp, stalk, and carouse in his early works and on through the 1990s. Fish metaphorically course and dapple through themes of lust, love, and femininity in his “fishing for [End Page 113] love” works on paper. Bare-breasted women, southern sirens all, entice viewers with fish painted red, blue, green, and gold. And, as he noted in conversation, fish also spoke to personal histories of “making do” in times of want. He recollected the weirs and fish traps he fashioned and how he huckstered his catch to his Bessemer neighbors. Sometimes there were too many fish; sometimes there were not enough. Still, birds fascinated Mr. Dial in truly magical ways. When he passed, I like to think the birds mourned.

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Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly, 69.5 x 95.5 x 3", 2008, Collection of the High Museum of Art, photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

“Thornton Dial,” Paul Arnett wrote, announcing the death, was a “painter and sculptor whose improbable life’s journey led him from a sharecropper’s shack in Alabama’s Black Belt to recognition by many of the world’s leading museums.” “Dial’s art, by turns ferocious, witty, tender, and incisive,” Arnett continued, “developed during many decades of complete obscurity, during which he created ‘things’ clandestinely—unaware (as he explained later) of the Western concept of ‘art’ as a special category of human activity—due to apprehensions about how his [End Page 114]

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Freedom Cloth, 80 x 68 x 57", 2005, photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

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Walking with the Pickup Bird, 53 x 63 x 34", 2002, Collection of the Ackland Museum of Art, photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

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Life Go On, 30 x 22", 1990, photo by Gamma One Conversions.

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Posing Movie Stars Holding the Freedom Bird, 30 x 22", 1991, photo by Gamma One Conversions.

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socially critical and racially conscious work would be received; he broke apart and recycled much of his work as he went along. Only in 1987, at the age of 56, did he come to the attention of the art world and embark on an artistic career that lasted nearly thirty more years and brought him international renown.”

Reflecting on the course of his art and its reception in 2008–2009, Mr. Dial produced a series of mixed-media compositions entitled The Birds That Never Learned to Fly. Each of the pieces consisted of a large abstract painting across the face of which Mr. Dial affixed a length of wire or thin metal piping. He wound white rags, caked with dried black paint around coat hangers and hung their stiffened forms from the wire. The hardened knots were discarded homemade artist brushes made roughly fifteen years earlier for a run of abstract paintings on recycled wall-to-wall office carpet. At the time of their making, there was no interest in Mr. Dial’s engagement with abstraction and so he rolled the paintings up and placed them in a storage closet along with his ad hoc brushes. Years later, Mr. Dial came across the old work and, inspired by the brushes he had made, he undertook The Birds That Never Learned to Fly. Each brush, a bird, hangs motionless from its perch, a seemingly dead thing denied the liberation and joy of flight—except that it appears against the backdrop of a second iteration of abstract canvases. Birds, Mr. Dial explained, always...


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