When I Lay My Burdens Down

  • Click on image to enlarge

    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Pencil and graphite on paper
30 x 22 inches
Collection of
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco museum purchase American Art Trust Fund and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

When I Lay My Burdens Down addresses the end of life, when it is believed that one sheds the physical body and earthly cares, and the soul is set free. Despite the figure’s abstracted anatomy, Thornton Dial convincingly conveys the presence of a human being bent over by a great burden, reaching backwards to drop a work tool.

Dial’s title for this work is drawn from a song popularized in 1956 by the singer Odetta, who was sometimes called the “voice of the Civil Rights movement.” Although the lyrics—“Glory, glory, hallelujah, / When I lay my burden down”—directly address death, they also held resonant Civil Rights associations for African Americans who had labored under the burdens of Jim Crow segregation.  —Timothy Anglin Burgard