1955 -

Richard Dial

Bessemer, Alabama
Seating and Unseating Tradition
Robert Hobbs

In 1984 Richard Dial established Dial Metal Patterns with the as express purpose of creating “quality wrought-iron furniture.” Relying on his expertise acquired as a machinist at Pullman Standard Company and the support of his father and brother—Thornton Dial and Thornton Dial Jr.—Richard Dial was able to profit from the failure of some large-scale industries in the Birmingham District by hiring their skilled labor to help him with his burgeoning cottage industry. His product line—”Shade Tree Comfort”—led to the use of “comfort” in a series of sculptures, dating from late 1987 to early 1989. In these masterful chair-sculptures, Richard Dial joined furniture with art, united industrial techniques with custom design and hand-finishing, and focused more often on uncomfortable situations than on comfortable ones.

When he began this series, Dial worked within an African American tradition that prizes chairs as implements of power. Such chairs may relate back to African ancestral seats on which leaders are metaphorically supported by images of their progenitors.

More specifically, Richard Dial was presented early on with the parodic inversion of this tradition in the form of his father’s ambitious Turkey Tower (mid-1980s), which employs a series of chair parts from Dial Metal Patterns as the skeletal framework supporting an image of a turkey. This sculpture provided the younger Dial with an impetus to recycle his industrially produced chair pieces into art.


Richard Dial’s sculptures give new life to the dead metaphors of chair legs and arms at the same time that they transform these seats into personifications of tradition. Beginning with his first art chair, an untitled piece, Dial plays with an incarnation of tradition in the form of a chair that might offer comfort and might just as often present a situation totally untenable and discomforting. In this piece, he transforms curlicues, part of the traditional decorative motif of his lawn furniture, into an abstracted handlebar mustache and muttonchops. The reference gives the piece a turn-of-the-century flavor and could allude to robber barons in the Birmingham District who hired vast numbers of black workers because they were cheap labor who would allow the companies to compete with more established industries in the North. When Richard Dial memorializes this figure in terms of his own manufactured furniture, he also makes a double joke about the fact that while white capitalists have been literally dependent on black labor, his business has also profited from an availability of surplus black labor.


While Richard Dial looked critically at white paternalism in his first sculpture, he appears to be presenting a far more generous view of it in The Comfort of the First Born. In this work an aged father supports himself with a cane and the back of a chair constituting his son. As the second son in a tightly knit family in which his father and elder brother enjoyed a particularly close relationship, Richard may have been projecting aspects of his own world. But the formality of the father’s and son’s sailorlike outfits, together with the prevalence of stripes that seem to describe and imprison them, suggests the possibility that the sculpture takes issue with generations of ensconced bureaucratic paternalism.


In The Comfort and Service My Daddy Brings to Our Household, Richard Dial personalizes a countering African American position in which the father, depicted as first a conflation of household throne and shotgun house, and second as a servant ready to support the burdens of his family, assumes the dual roles of master and servant performed by Thornton Dial through the years.


Moses has traditionally been revered by African Americans as the Hoodoo man who led his people from slavery. In The Comfort of Moses and the Ten Commandments chairs, this star-crossed patriarch, who would wage war with God before succumbing, offers little consolation. Holding separated tablets painted red. perhaps as an allusion to his previous parting of the Red Sea, Moses assumes a hierarchical stance. Instead of being comforted by this chair, as the title implies, individuals who might elect to sit in it and assume Moses’ point of view find their movements obstructed by these tablets. Behind Moses are the mountain and burning bush described in the Bible; they have been abstracted as a splintered old board and a tiny flame composed of brass wires that are repeated on the tablets. In this work, the force of a god who speaks through flames and through a Hoodoo prophet is caricatured and undermined, and Moses becomes an ambiguous symbol of frustrated defiance, of no-longer-relevant acquiescence, and of understandable human confusion as to his and his people’s role. This cartoon-like patriarch can also be considered a trickster who hides his power, makes fun of his assigned role as God's emissary, and leaves viewers wondering if his chameleon-like qualities and quixotic nature might in fact be the basis for his incredible success. One might say that Richard Dial’s The Comfort of Moses represents the postmodern discomfort of living without simple and clear rules telling one what to believe and how to act. Prevented from entering the promised land of emancipation, neither Moses nor his laws can be considered accurate guides to the present and the future.


In addition to questioning tradition in The Comfort of Moses, Richard Dial indicts it in Which Prayer Ended Slavery?. Creating a composition in two registers perched on top of a metal chair seat, Dial presents in the lower section a Caucasian figure whipping a black, another African American being hanged, and a third in chains. Above this assembly of torture, degradation, and murder are kneeling figures in black and white. Although the title seems to be asking viewers to distinguish between prayers, it is impossible to judge whether desperate pleas or calm ritualistic actions are more effective, and whether in fact they have been helpful since the effects of slavery persist. One might consider this work from the position of an agnostic who wonders if Christianity has served as a safety valve keeping African Americans enslaved.

In the brief time he transformed furniture into sculpture, Richard Dial created approximately twenty works. In these pieces, he found his position as head of Dial Metal Patterns an excellent vantage point for troping tradition as a series of anthropomorphized chairs representing past and present seats of power and disempowerment. Although in the titles for a number of his chairs, the word “comfort” appears, Richard Dial is not content to soothe anxieties and to affirm the status quo. Instead, he uses the presence/absence of chairs that are full of tradition and invitations for contemplative repose as ways to question the role of traditional power. Richard Dial’s work poses difficult questions without succumbing to the temptation to provide easy answers.

After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Alabama produced an impressive number of African American self-taught artists whose work particularly focused on the Civil Rights Movement and on aspects of history that led to it. This happened, in part, because the action was right on their doorsteps: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma March, the murder of four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was a spontaneous response to an emerging opportunity, and it occurred all over the South.
Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.
Toledo Museum of Art
April 4, 2020 to July 5, 2020

The Toledo Museum of Art will feature 10 newly acquired works in the free exhibition, Trip to the Mountaintop: Recent Acquisitions from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from April 4 to July 5, 2020, in the New Media Gallery. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to documenting, preserving and promoting the work of African American artists from the South and their cultural traditions.

Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
June 29 - November 3, 1996
"Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South," a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South.

Richard Dial: "The Comfort of Moses and the Ten Commandments"

Theophus Smith


The Comfort of Moses and the Ten Commandments, by Richard Dial, is a brilliant "variation on a theme" of the conjure chair. Its chair-like pretext is naively inspired.
 The work is wonderful as an example of the use of a commonplace in order to mediate the extraordinary. Yet this naive use of the ordinary bears all the irony and sophistication of the most difficult art. Notice first of all a severity in the material reality of the work, evident in the hard fact of an ordinary metal lawn chair, that belies the "comfort" in the title. For someone actually to sit in this particular chair, with (a) one's back resting on the wrought-metal face and beard, representing the formidable and foremost Hebrew prophet, and with (b) one's body enclosed by the large tablets—the "tables of the law," representing the Ten Commandments written by God on stone tablets and brought down Mount Sinai by Moses—is a forbidding prospect at first glance. So, far from appearing comfortable, the chair is repellent in several ways. And yet there it is: the law of the prophet is a seat in which one could find rest if one dared to do so. St. Augustine's classical expression of praise to God comes to mind: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." What would it take to rest in that chair, in that Law, in that God? The forbiddingness of the prospect continues as the context shifts from the artist's figural (sculpted) chair, to the scriptures of the figured sacred text (the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus and sculpted on the chair), up to the Godhead itself (unrepresented but prefigured in the sculpted transparency of Moses' face). At the same time, the inherent attraction of the prospect remains—tantalizing, entrancing, compelling: What if one could find the "comfort" invoked by the artist's title? Could some soul perhaps be so transformed by the prospect-by experiencing that chair (by sitting in the chair!)—and indeed discover, all impediments to the contrary notwithstanding, the "comfort" that it signifies?

Notice therefore the simultaneously forbidding-and-attracting quality that attends this Richard Dial chair. That quality constitutes the essential and doubled nature of nearly all religious phenomena. Rudolf Otto, in his Idea of the Holy, describes it as mysterium tremendum and fascinans. Religious entities, according to this view, bear an ironic and paradoxical quality: they are both tremendum—awesome, repellent, terrifying, and also fascinans—fascinating, mesmerizing, and attracting. What Dial has granted us in his Mosaic chair is an art object that conveys for our immediate experience that essential, doubled feature of the most compelling sacred phenomena. In this regard The Comfort of Moses is an inspired work in the tradition of the "conjure chair." As a work of charmed significations it enables and, indeed, induces the observer to experience spiritual power and possibility. In this case such power is signified by Moses' prophetic character and by his mediation of a divine law; the possibility proffered is that one might find comfort in that character and that law. Indeed, when we compare this transformative Mosaic chair with other conjure chairs in the African American folk-magical tradition—for example, with Charley Latham's sculpted-wood conjure chair, or with Thornton Dial Jr.'s Snapping Turtle Chair, we find the same combined qualities of the eerily forbidding and the magnetically mesmerizing. Notice, too, that Richard Dial's metallic conjure chair bears a subliminal relationship to another metallic chair of powerful and transformative effect: the electric chair. Dial's power-chair, however, conveys more transformative significance than the merely lethal force of a death-dealing machine. Beyond sheer threat or terror, The Comfort of Moses is electric with the double potency of the sacred itself: it is both forbidding and inviting, both caution and comfort.