Thornton Dial

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Thornton Dial

Thornton Dial (born September 10, 1928 in Emelle, Sumter County; died January 25, 2016 in McCalla) was an internationally-known artist. Though he was self-taught and used found objects in his work, his art transcends the stereotypical limitations of "primitive" or "folk art".

Dial was the son of Mattie Bell and grew up on a farm owned by a cousin, Buddy Jake Dial, who made sculptures from items he found. When he was twelve he moved to Bessemer and went to work for the Pullman-Standard Company building railroad cars.

He married the former Clara Mae Murrow in 1951 and had five children. While living in Bessemer, Dial was further influenced by art made by his neighbors. When the Pullman factory closed in 1981 he turned his attention to making art.

Much of Dial's work consists of large-scale multimedia assemblages with found objects tightly bound together under layers of thick paint. He used recurring symbols and strong colors to address issues of importance such as war, racism and poverty.

Through fellow artist Lonnie Holley, Dial's work came to the attention of Atlanta collector Bill Arnett in 1987. Arnett began championing it to larger audiences as part of his interest in documenting, promoting and supporting African-American vernacular art from the South. In later years, critics have rejected the notion that Dial's work should be understood within the narrow context of "outsider" art and have compared his monumental vision and fluidity of expression to masters like Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Willem de Kooning.

Dial's work was the subject of a major exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1993, and was also part of the Whitney Museum's Biennial in 2000. Another major solo exhibition, entitled "Thornton Dial in the 21st Century", was held at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Texas in 2005-2006. Eight of his works are in the permanent collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, including "Nobody Know What Go On Behind the Jungle" (1989).

Dial was commissioned for two large pieces of public sculpture, "The Bridge", installed in 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia and "Road to the Mountaintop", completed in 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. Also in 2014, Dial was presented with the Key to the City of Bessemer by Mayor Kenneth Gulley who proclaimed May 31 as "Thornton Dial Day", during the annual Bob Sykes BBQ and Blues Festival.

Dial died at home in McCalla in January 2016. He was survived by his four children, Mattie, Thornton Jr, Richard and Dan


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