Starting sometime in 2000, a few years after the Arnett family began their work with the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, resulting in major touring exhibitions, Dial became involved with the women and their profound history of artmaking. Not only did he visit Gee’s Bend, but he attended the exhibition’s opening in Houston. Through this exposure, Dial forged a cycle of work that can only be seen as a kind of tribute to, or meditation on, these women and their fecund creativity.
Having used fabric—including heavy synthetic materials, drapery material, carpeting, upholstery—it was easy for Dial to turn his hand to a series of meditations on the electrifying, freewheeling, downright glorious quilting art of the great women of the Gee’s Bend movement. Dial entirely understood all the understrata of drudgery, emotional conflict, even perversity, that underlie the apparent beauty of the quilts of Gee’s Bend. His quite large cycle of wall-relief constructions spinning off from his experience with these women and their art conveys a world of empathy and tribute. Without for a moment imitating the quilt designs, Dial parallels their essence, transforming certain of their insistent emotional undertones into his own language. Dial composed many of the Gee’s Bend–inspired images in grid-based formats, evoking the essential principles of quilting’s construction while never parroting its literal method of patterning. Dial’s cloth reliefs were clearly made in a spirit of serial experimentation, trying this palette, then another even crazier one, and then an opposite one from that. Dial’s Gee’s Bend works range from the poignantly ethereal to the Baroque-gaudy, and from the gently humorous to the frankly angry. The bitterly demanded perseverance of the women of Gee’s Bend—not just their courage and genius—fully informs Dial’s perception of their collective experience and history. This cycle in his work is as much a prolonged meditation on generations of post-slavery life in southern black communities as it is a reflection on the art of the quilt. And it may not be too much to add that Dial’s lifelong respect for women, and solidarity with their particular cause, finds passionate expression through this particular body of work. —Jane Livingston