photo of thornton dial (above) | by jerry siegel, from his 2012 monograph Facing South, Portraits of Southern Artists, published by Univ. of Alabama Press.
“Anything you pick up, somebody know about. You picking up the spirit of somebody. My art got my spirit. I picked up a whole lot in my day.”
—Thornton Dial.
Thornton Dial’s words echo the thoughts of an art conservator who studies an object over weeks of meticulous conservation. When looking at the uninterrupted brushwork in a painting, the craftsmanship of a piece of furniture, a figure sculpted from a piece of marble, or the delicate etching of a copper plate used to create a print, you are sensing the spirit of the piece's creator, or the place and time in which it was made. The art of Thornton Dial exudes his spirit, and the energetic feeling of his work is infectious.
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, a member of the Williamstown + Atlanta Art Conservation Centers, holds one of the largest and arguably most significant public collection of Thornton Dial’s assemblages in the United States. After an acquisition of thirteen additional Dial artworks from Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a Bank of America grant allowed for the implementation of a research initiative that has examined Dial’s oeuvre and contributions to the artworld. As part of this initiative, the Center performed a survey of seventeen of Dial’s most complex assemblages and one sculpture that were created between 1980 and 2011. This edition of Art Conservator focuses on the results of this survey and discusses the materials and techniques that Dial used to create the wonderfully textured and brilliantly painted artworks that convey his spirit to the world around him.
As a student of art history who gravitates towards modern and contemporary works of art, I was admittedly unfamiliar with Thornton Dial's work. My colleague and Department Head of Objects Conservation, Hélène Gillette-Woodard, introduced me to Dial and the impressive research collaborative between the Williamstown and Atlanta Art Conservation Centers and the High Museum of Art.
Thornton Dial (b. 1928 - d. 2016) was a prolific African American artist active in the Black Belt of Alabama. He prevailed against years of poverty, racism, and social injustice by expressing his creative spirit and his perspective about the world around him. After watching interviews and reading about the triumphs and obstacles in his life, I was captivated by his strength and optimism. Even more, his technique and resulting aesthetic commentary on everyday life are as complex as they are beautiful.
In some ways, the world hasn’t changed, although, in the last ten years, artists like Thornton Dial have been reframed as "self-taught" contemporary artists, rather than “outsider artists”, as they have been commonly categorized. Still, I'm not sure why “self-taught” needs to be a distinguishing label within the scope of contemporary art. Creativity and the artistic spirit are not taught. They are innate characteristics of the artist and whether formally taught or not, exist in all creative people.
Through the continuing efforts of institutions like the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and museums such as the High Museum of Art, the Hood Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who are all currently working towards building a more inclusive canon of art history, we as a society will learn more about artists like Thornton Dial, Horace Pippin, and Nellie Mae Rowe.
As the last leaves fall and winter sets upon us, I hope that our articles featuring the dynamic and brilliantly colored assemblages of Thornton Dial bring you inspiration and curiosity about the world around you and that you're able to detect a glimmer of Dial's enduring spirit.
Maggie Barkovic, Editor of Art Conservator
Art Conservator is a publication of the Williamstown + Atlanta Art Conservation Center
All rights reserved. Text and photographs copyright © Williamstown + Atlanta Art Conservation Center, unless otherwise noted. Art Conservator is a triannual publication. Material may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the Williamstown + Atlanta Art Conservation Center. The Center is a nonprofit, multi-service conservation center serving the needs of member museums, nonprofit institutions and laboratories, and the general public.