1953 -

Thornton Dial, Jr.

Bessemer, Alabama
    Little Buck
    Didi Barrett

    Within the evocative body of rich and compelling work by Thornton Dial Jr. is a piece called Balls Together: The Friendship of Men, part sculpture, and part Christmas lawn art, this is something of a self-portrait of the younger Dial, whose nickname is "Little Buck." The heads of three male deer—or bucks—grace the chair, two on the back posts and one on the arm. Each head is independent; each might stand alone. But in this work the three heads play off and support each other, resulting in a presentation more powerful than any single image.

    As the eldest son and namesake of the acclaimed artist Thornton Dial Sr., known as “Buck,” and the father of Thornton Dial III, a talented artist himself, Dial Jr. is clearly part of the triumvirate depicted in Balls Together: The Friendship of Men, which can be seen as his tribute to father-son relationships. It can also be viewed as a classic Dial Jr. take on male bonding.

    A devoted family man, Dial Jr. lives with his wife and younger children on the family compound owned by his mother and father, and works part-time with his two brothers at Dial Metal Patterns, the family furniture business. Caretaker to the family property, he is caught between his love of farming and his commitment to the business.

    Not surprisingly, the art of Thornton Dial Jr. reflects these various internal struggles. While his work can generally be categorized as assemblages, furniture, and sculpture—the latter genre composed largely of crucifixes—his themes remain fairly consistent: nature, the working man, and the African American experience.

    Much less prolific an artist than his father (Dial Sr. now makes art full-time), he will sometimes work on subjects similar to those of his father. Made some six months after his father’s work of the same title, Dial Jr.’s Slave Ship is a more spare but equally explicit depiction of the horrors of the slave trade. But the two men work entirely independent of each other at different times and in different places, and observers say the father is more often influenced by the son than the other way around.

    While Dial Jr.’s sense of the ironic has strong ties to his father’s humor, he has developed his own sharp-edged use of stereotypes as satire His icon for the black man—the lion, king of the jungle in Africa—becomes the gorilla in America. His simple, blood-red King of Africa in America reflects this transition most vividly, showing the African lion with a simian face.

    In The Gorilla Lends a Helping Hand to the United States and the Telephone Company, a subject he has dealt with at least six times, the giant hand of the gorilla—a clear depiction of brute strength—holds up the black woman who not only serves as the communications link to the rest of the country, but who also has all the answers in the Yellow Pages on her lap. As a further twist, the woman’s hair is made from a mop head, suggesting the shift from domestic to office work for this generation of black women.

    Indeed, Dial Jr.’s perspective reflects the cynicism, irreverence, and popular sensibility of a younger generation. In Trees to Climb, where the trees are smaller than the gorilla, he sees less opportunity for the working man and woman. Too often African Americans are "chained down” by addictions, particularly to the bottle, as he practically spells out in King of the Jungle, which consists of a chair and table with the head of a lion. Ironically, this work was the result of a commission by Absolut Vodka, who, through the Museum of American Folk Art, had asked a number of artists to design potential ads for that distiller. It is not likely that this was the message they had in mind.

    Thornton Dial Jr. has no blind respect for government, depicting the chief executive as a lazy, lolling frog, and his staff as many inert, brown stones in The President and His Staff Trying to Decide What to Do about Children on Drugs. In his autobiographical Home Sweet Home, which was made the week he left his high-risk job at the Pullman factory (apparently because he was making more money as an artist), he also paints himself as a frog, albeit a happy, grinning, strutting frog, gleefully back in the vividly hued swamp with his duck, turtle, and insect friends. The implication of this pair of paintings is that we are all equals—frogs under the skin!

    Dial Jr. again uses nature to make a social statement in Tornadoes Don’t Discriminate with Nobody. Into a plywood panel he carves houses and trees. They are caught up in a swirl of red, white, and blue. Causing this indiscriminate turmoil, and altering the order of what is likely meant to represent American society, is Nature, a cut out funnel of corrugated metal.

    Stylistically, his work tends to have something of a pop quality, employing such features as the giant sunglasses and applique-like stars in his tribute to Ray Charles, A Man Can Be a Star. A recurring image is his jumbo American flag, seen in such pieces as Trees to Climb and The Gorilla Lends a Helping Hand.

    Dial Jr.’s crucifixes, as well, are more pop than pious. He is not a churchgoer, and there is nothing in his family’s Baptist religion that would encourage the making of religious images. More likely, his Jesuses are working men. In one, his Jesus is a steelworker who bleeds steel from his wounds and is made of chain. In yet another I’ll Be Back, Jesus takes on the persona of an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type tough guy.

    In Mary and Joseph Bringing a New Meaning to Life, Dial summons up the yard art/creche tradition that has been such an influence on his work. He creates a half-life-size tableau of the pregnant Mary astride the back of a donkey being led by Joseph on foot. The infrastructure of the sculpture is steel, a symbol of strength. Yet the figures are all carefully wrapped in rope, an unintentional resemblance to the Kongo tradition of concealing spiritual objects through wrapping or bundling. However, as a final touch, Dial brings his figures squarely into the present by spray-painting the entire piece in red, white, and blue.

    In his furniture, Dial Jr. harks back to the family business. While some pieces employ the metal the Dials use in their garden furniture, other works, like the Snapping Turtle Chair, have a wooden frame. In this case, the image, the snapping turtle, is a common one in African American folklore, and his use of textures—burlap, wood, shag carpet—suggests an Old World, low-tech sensibility.

    For Thornton Dial Jr., his name is both burden and blessing. As an artist and as a man, he has been nurtured in a warm family environment that has encouraged and stimulated his creativity. He has found his own voice, which can be serious or satirical but is almost always strong and clear. Some people will always judge him against his father. In the long run, only history can tell what that judgment will be.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

    History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of the African American Art of Alabama

    History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of the African American Art of Alabama

    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.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    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.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

    Trip to the Mountaintop: Recent Acquisitions from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

    Trip to the Mountaintop: Recent Acquisitions from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

    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.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    de Young Museum
    June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

    "Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    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.

    A Man Can Be a Star and The Gorilla Lends a Helping Hand to the United States and the Telephone Company

    Theophus Smith

    Two works in the mode of conjuring tricks, or trick significations, are provided by Thornton Dial Jr.: A Man Can Be a Star and The Gorilla Lends a Helping Hand to the United States and the Telephone Company. The vindication or vengeance motive that accompanies conjure tricks in the African American folk tradition may be discerned in each of these works. In the first, the blind jazz and rhythm-and-blues musician Ray Charles, among the most celebrated of American artists, is represented in very dark colors, seated in a bright red chair at a bright red piano against a stark white background, visually powerful and dominating, and wearing an actual pair of sunglasses (the work measures four by four-and-a-half feet). The seated figure is attended by several large and smaller red and brown stars. The signification of Ray Charles as a great figure among the greatest "stars" is unmistakable and graphic. The ubiquitous sunglasses that identify this special blind man at a piano (recall, too, his younger kinsman, Stevie Wonder) appear to be shielding him from the brilliance of the surrounding stars and his own reputation. But most conspicuous are the dark-brown and black colors of the figure's hair, skin, and clothes. A Man Can Be a Star vindicates black humanity by its forceful depiction of this one black man as prominent among a field of stars (compare the field of stars on the United States flag). The signifying trick in the wordplay and imagery of this man-as-star also signifies his people's transcendence of their more typical, more lackluster existence. A Man Can Be a Star signifies that a whole people, too, may transcend their conditions and thus vindicate their humanity; signifies, too, "a people be stars."

    The Gorilla Lends a Helping Hand to the United States and the Telephone Company resonates cleverly with the preceding work (and also post-dates it by a year). Perceiving the transformative "trick" of the work depends on the viewer's acknowledging the stereotypical misrepresentation of black people as subhuman primates—as gorillas. For example, Gorillas in the Mist is the title of a 1990s film; that phrase was subsequently applied as a racial slur to designate African Americans by a white police officer during the Rodney King incident of police brutality in Los Angeles in March 1991. The work itself features an African American female telephone operator (Yellow Pages book in her arms) sitting in the outstretched hand of a giant gorilla (the only part of its body that is visible). The background is made up of the red, white, and blue stripes of the American flag, adorned by two massive stars in the two upper corners of the work and a third star in the left bottom corner. The final features include a telephone company building wired to a home by means of two cruciform telephone poles, and wired also to the gorilla's hand and to the operator's hand-held telecommunications device. A number of tricky significations are concentrated in this composition. The seated female figure should remind any culturally literate viewer of the film King Kong, in which the monstrous primate pursues the white actress, Fay Wray, and holds her struggling in his fisted hand. By contrast, this gorilla is entirely benign, gently supporting a black female figure in its open hand. The cruciform telephone poles suggest the suffering and travail often hidden behind working-class productivity in U.S. society. (Compare the Sernett and Cobb theme in their book The Hidden Injuries of Class.) That theme converges effectively with the central figure of the gorilla and the black woman as together offering a "helping hand to the United States and the telephone company." The coded significations suggest the following import: black people generally and black women in particular are a principal of the productivity and effectiveness of this nation's utilities and greatness, and their travail is transformative (redemptive?) in ways that are often covert and unacknowledged.