I was born in Emelle, Alabama, Sumter County, near Mississippi. I don't remember much about Emelle, no more than that I was born there and raised by my grandmother while I was there. I loved my grandmother. She whipped me when she had to but that helped me a whole lot. I'm still here. A heap of kids today could use some of that kind of training.
In Emelle all I can remember is that after the fields got harvested, me and my brother Buck, Thornton Dial, we used to go behind them in the field and pick up whatever was left-sweet potatoes, corn, peanuts or whatever-and carry them home to eat. We'd take the corn and have it ground up for meal.
My grandmother passed when I was about seven and I went to live out from Emelle with my mama's sister, Lillian Bell, the mama of Little Bud Lockett, Ronnie Lockett's daddy.
I moved up to Bessemer when I was still a young kid. Auntie put me and Buck on a train to come live with her mother. I got a little bit of school, about third grade I guess. It was the Sloss Camp school over by the ore mine. I shot a lot of hookeys and finally quit to go work in the sawmill. The owner was Old Man Parsons. It wasn't nothing but hard work. I worked at the Water Works awhile, left there and went to work for the county spraying tar in holes in the road. Then I went over to the Pullman.
I stayed about two years at the Pullman cutting scrap iron. My next job was at the "Pipe Shop"—U.S. Pipe—and I stayed there for thirty-seven years. I'm retired now. I've had a good life most of my days. I'm satisfied with this old life. I got a good wife, Ruby Dean. I've had her about forty four years. We had two children, Belinda and "Pap" [Arthur Dial Jr.]. I ain't got no grumbles.
I had thirty-seven years at the Pipe Shop. Some good years, some bad years, a little of everything. I was a good worker. They figured that out. I loved the work and most people appreciated me. When they needed somebody to go out to another job representing the Pipe Shop, they would send me. I'd go out to make corrections and repairs on the pipes when something went wrong somewhere.
I started out in the foundry—we called it "the fountain"—making cast iron pipes and "knocking bottoms," knocking the clay out of the pipes. Then I went into the delevoir, I rolled pipes from where they poured them to the transfer car, where they got transferred to the other side of the tracks to the drill press. My next job sent me to the cement lining. I ran the machine there, lining pipes. After that I went to the machine shop lining pipes over there by hand, and doing fittings, painting the pipes, sandblasting, grinding. About all they did in the machine shop, I did. I did good work everywhere I stopped at. I never got any complaints about my work. My boss man wanted me to stay on with him until he retired, but he had about five more years, and I told him I'm going to have to put him down and move on. I was sixty-two when I left.
I lived the life I wanted. There wasn't nothing else I wanted to do, nowhere else I was interested in going. I have some good memories. Some of the people was good. Going to work was good for me. I usually felt good about it. Even when I went to work sick, when I started working I would feel better. You come to work sick and they tell you to go home, but I always say that staying at work will make me feel better. I liked working so close to home. I could walk the nine blocks if I wanted to, and get home quick at the end of the work day, and never no traffic to deal with. There was a lot of good in working at the Pipe Shop. The best feeling you get from work like that is payday.
Some of the things in that kind of work is not so good. I wouldn't say that the white people I worked with, and worked for, were so good. Most of them were, you know, not so friendly. You couldn't suit them. Not just white folks. I had a black boss, a supervisor, who was bad as any of them and worse than some. You could not satisfy him no matter what you did. He loved to hurt people and never did learn how to use his authority. They finally took him off and sent him to the delevoir. That's like being sent to hell, hot iron running like water, a blowout sending hot iron flying everywhere. Everybody be a-running when that happens.
I developed a breathing problem. All of them, the guys that work up there, got that problem. Some of them are dead from it. We can't be sure exactly what is the exact cause, but every day you got into the shop you going to breathe chemicals coming from the sandblasting, and cement dust coming out of the chute, asbestos from the sand that go into the cement. And the paint had asbestos in it, too. A friend of mine had some bad problems. The labels told you that stuff was a hazard to your health—he read it to us—and when he went to the boss the boss told him to leave it alone, it wasn't going to hurt you. Then why did the label say it's a hazard to your health? That means it's going to hurt you.
I like to be of help to people. I will help anybody or any animal that is sick or hungry. I will help anybody that really need something. I don't help those that say they do and really don't. I can tell. I used to be in bad shape myself, so I appreciate people that give a hand to others.
I did a lot of stuff to relax me from work. I do a right smart amount of gardening, tomatoes and greens and some sweet potatoes and okra. After I retired I started getting serious about raising chickens. I got plenty of chickens. I hatch them and watch them grow.
I try to keep my mind occupied. Art is a good way to keep your head working. I lie up in bed at night mapping out what I'm going to do and how I'm going to do it. I take ideas from my own head. I got one or two ideas from the news but most of it comes from what I see and the opinions I got inside me. My art is a record of what went by.
In the shed out back, my ideas get turned into something. That junkhouse shed is my home away from home. I got my spinners and tackle box for fishing, all my tools for gardening, all my chicken feed, medicine for the chickens, and my boards, paint and materials for art making. I got a lot of stuff out there. My shed is my pride and joy.
I make art when I got the mind and body for it. My back give out on me. I got to have an operation on it and that will get me back in art. I can still garden cause all you got to do is plant and it takes care of itself. You just watch it grow. Art takes a stronger body and more complicated effort.
I seen and done a heap of art in my life but I didn't know that's what you supposed to call it. Most of what you see and do will stay in your head. Buck used to have this old Rockola in his house. He was operating this little cafe there and I just would sit back and look at that old thing.
I been in a few joints in my life. You know, clubs. I loved to dance and maybe have a beer now and then, and they got all kind of designs and stuff in there, lights and Rockolas and pictures on the wall and they always stay in your head.
My family is very religious and I have sat through church a whole lot. You got to get a lot of ideas from what you hear and see in there. When I was a little thing I did a lot of drawing, mostly cowboys and stuff. Roy Rogers was my favorite. I made wagons and scooters and all kinds of toys. Most folks made their own toys back then. I made pictures of Jesus Christ and I remember the one that I was most proud of was Eve and Adam. After I got to working at the Pipe Shop, I started making other stuff, little peoples, animals, and crucifixions and stuff like that out of scrap pipe and steel and leftover supplies around the shop.
My neighborhood is called "Pipe Shop" because most of the people here work at U.S. Pipe. It's a good neighborhood. Good peoples. I ain't never had trouble with nobody. I been in this neighborhood most of my life.
I had a lot of encouragement around here for making art. Just about everybody in the family have made stuff. Buck, me, Ronnie, Buck's children. I get my ideas for myself, though. Everybody think being around Buck give me ideas. Buck always seem to have so much going on, but my ideas don't seem to tally with his. What I got from Buck was the idea of doing pictures on boards. He give me two big sheets of plywood once and told me to get at it. I put together one about the farmer retiring his mule and the other one was about a one-arm farmer and his cow.
There's a lot of art around this neighborhood. There used to be a man down the street, Isaac Gordon, that everybody called "Egg Man," and that scoundrel made some interesting stuff. One of them houses over on 15th Street got his mailbox wired up with some kind of automobile light and a bottle. He got his hedges trimmed out like a sofa. He used to do the hedges for the folks around here, too. Did something like a whole living room of furniture for one lady out of her hedge. He got sick and died last year so they don't keep it up too good now.
The folks across the street down there have painted everything purple, the trim on their house, the flower bed decorations, the garden statues, fences, bird bath and the bottom of the trees. Don't know why they did it, but I like it.
On holidays everybody works on their yard. (Everybody but me.) It's a beautiful neighborhood at Christmas time, kind of remind you of a fairground. Same at Easter, and Halloween, and Thanksgiving. People around here like to decorate for the holidays.
The neighborhood done changed a whole lot, though. Used to be lamps in all the yards, all kinds of decorations everywhere, all year around. Just cut the grass, that's about all they do now, except for the special times. Folks died, next folks that takes it over don't keep it up, don't care no more about old ways of life.
Everything is different now from what it was way back there. A lot of houses got pushed down. Lot of times after the old folks die the children don't keep it up or pay the taxes, so the city take it and tear it down, put a "sale" sign on the lot. Most children in this area go away from here. They leave and don't come back. You'll find them in Detroit, Chicago, or New York, or Mansfield, Ohio, or Milwaukee, or anywhere else. Anywhere else but Bessemer. Country folks from south Alabama come to Bessemer, peoples in Bessemer go up higher. That's the way it go.
I used to love factory work. It was my life. I looked forward every day to going to work. There wasn't a sorry bone in my body. But after 'while that old body don't work so good. Man got about thirty years of that stuff in him and then he be hurting all the time. Then he be ready for some serious fishing.
Fishing is my hobby. I just love to fish. I can sit on a river all day. Long as the fish give me a little shake now and then, I'll stay there with them. Only trouble I have now is my back give me trouble when I try to dig bait.
About the biggest excitement I've had was one day up at Lake Logan Martin dam with my son-in-law, I caught two five-gallon buckets of stripes [striped bass], about a pound, two pounds, up to three. The right size for eating. I sell the bigger ones. Too coarse to eat. My biggest fish was a twenty-something-pound catfish down at Lock Seven on the Black Warrior River on the outskirts of Eutaw. The most important catch of my life was a big fat bigmouth bass out of my brother Buck's lake, July 14, 1991. Eleven pounds. I knowed I had a big rascal on the line. I went running up the hill to show him off. I been telling Buck I would get that thing. I had seen him controlling the banks for several weeks. Everybody that do any fishing love it as far as I know. I recommend fishing to everybody that ain't got a hobby. Take up fishing.
You see my art, you kind of know what's on my mind. The Coal Miner represents somebody I knew that worked at the coal mine down at Johns. It represents the working man. The working man got to protect his head. Some folks think it look like me, but it ain't me. Except that all working men look the same to some people.
Governor Wallace was trying to block the blacks from going to the college over there. He say, "Ain't no blacks going to go there." Wallace say, "You go grow your garden. We grow our garden. We both going to have beautiful gardens." That was his way of doing that "separate but equal" thing with the schools. But when the federal troops got there he stepped aside. He knowed he had to move. Whites got mad at him but he understood the law and got out of the doorway.
People got to have something to eat. Welfare is for those that can't work. The government know that some peoples can't take care of theirselves. The problem is that some of them that could work take advantage of the welfare. All colors go, there's all kinds need it. I made the inside of the welfare office a light color to symbolize comfort. Outside is dark. There ain't much out there for some peoples.
The man is just walking his dog and got his children with him. That's all. A lot of dogs got white spots on their ear, or on the end of their tail. Some dogs get mixed up with other dogs that are a different color or a different breed. Some people probably need to keep their dogs penned up in the house.
Man is standing in front of his mule, showing him off. A tractor done come down to take the old mule's place. The old mule got to go off to the farmyard and live with the chickens.
Man walking in the wood make the wrong step—pulled his ding-a-ling out to take a leak and a snake got him. He tried to hide behind a bush but he didn't check to see what else was back there. A man got to be careful where he pull it out at.
Eve and Adam, they were born out there in the Garden. They weren't supposed to bite off that apple but they did it. They sinned before God. The snake made them ashamed of their nakedness. Everybody sins. We are all born in sin.
All they show us is a white Jesus, so I made him white. The Bible says his hair was like lamb's wool, so I doubt he was white. Them thieves were Jews. Jews ain't white so I made them brown. The Romans that did the hanging of him were brown people, too. They were all brown back there, probably.
This account of Arthur Dial's life was taken from interviews with the artist conducted by William Arnett in 1997.