Exhibition Artwork Spotlight – Social Geographies
by Adrian Etheridge
Thornton Dial (1928-Present) did not officially become an artist until later in his life, in the late 1980’s, but from an early age he learned to be adept with his hands. Born one of 12 children in a small town in Alabama, Dial spent most of his life working in Bessemer, AL for the Pullman Company manufacturing railroad cars. Even as a young boy, Dial believed in hard work and often skipped school – which he never enjoyed – to work various odd jobs. In his biography written for the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Dial recounts that he “had to learn surviving. We had to learn that everything you want to do, you got to struggle for it.” From growing many different kinds of vegetables to raising hundreds of animals, doing cement work on highways to pouring iron at Jones Foundry, doing carpentry and painting houses, Dial grew up on hard labor which helped him in his 30 years with the Pullman Company.
While Dial worked endlessly, he found many ways to enjoy it. As a young boy, he began making small crafts such as carts for grasshoppers making them “grasshopper mules,” or cards out of bottles and cans. The artist, who enjoyed sketching out new ideas more than studying, used this creativity and problem-solving in his later career where he came up with many ideas to help Pullman run smoother. Unfortunately, he did not get credit for most of them because they were taken by higher-ups.
Growing up African American in a Southern state, Dial endured much persecution. However, he did not take it personally; “I don’t believe there is any natural hate in people. I believe there is natural love. We can relate to people’s spirit and we can relate to their mind. I understand those things, and I believe we need to make the mind more close to the spirit.” Dial used his art often as an evidence of freedom, to express that as an artist he had the ability to use whatever materials he wanted and spread whatever message he believed in.
Dial began making art much earlier, but did not officially start creating a body of work for personal enjoyment until after Pullman closed in 1981. In 1987, with the help of Bill Arnett, a local art collector who brought Dial’s work to public attention, the artist’s career took off. The found-object artist explores truth of American history and culture through pieces created out of whatever material he finds.
Dial describes his artistic process saying that he only uses material previously used by people, drawing inspiration from a little-known African American “yard show” style. He says that he wants to use materials that have done their service and been thrown out so that he can pick them up and create something new with them. First he builds up a piece – a sculpture of found objects – on a wooden board and paints it, then makes changes until he deems the work perfect. As he says, “The piece going to have Mr. Dial in it, under it, and over it, and everybody can know it.” His work often talks about power, covering topics such as electricity and steel mills, the government or people controlling land. In all of his work he documents the human struggle by covering racism, classism and contemporary global concerns.
In his piece After the Burn, Dial uses fabric, metal, wood, clothing and enamel to create an evocative and mysterious work possibly alluding to his Pullman days. The parallel pieces of wood at the bottom line up as railroad planks would, and the many lonely (without their owners) shoes beside the tracks show how much work went into the toil of creating the railroad, which was the basis of America’s rise into rampant capitalism.
The title, “After the Burn” helps us dissect the piece further. For one, the entire work looks as if it were the remnants of a fire, what was left after everything else was destroyed. The “trees,” as the blue strips of metal appear to be, seem like they are still smoldering with their red-painted tops. Is Dial possibly showing the effects the creation of the railroad had on the environment, the destruction the trains left in their paths? Dial’s brilliant use of layered objects juxtaposes the natural world with the man-made world, showing trees both in their original state and their processed uses (as railroad planks.) This powerfully juxtaposed imagery is a great example of his critiques of both the labor industry and deteriorating global conditions.
Artwork above: Thornton Dial, After the Burn, 2012, Fabric, metal, wood, clothing, and enamel on canvas and wood, 72 x 72 inches. Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta.