FEARFUL SYMMETRY | The Conservation of Thornton Dial’s Tiger Cat
One of the notable recent acquisitions of the Hood Museum of Art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation is the evocative metal sculpture, Tiger Cat (fig.1), by Thornton Dial. It was first assessed by WACC in April 2021 and treated on-site at the Hood Museum of Art this past July. While this piece is not part of the survey carried out for the High Museum of Art, this sculpture presents a case study from which we can ascertain more about Dial’s choice of materials and techniques as well as how they age. This information is imperative to developing treatment and preservation methodology for a range of his art works.
Thornton Dial and the Iconography of the Tiger
Painted primarily in black and white with striking patterns of stripes, dots, and dashes, this piece represents the first extant use of the tiger as an important symbol in Dial’s artwork. From Tiger Cat’s date of creation in 1987, the tiger motif appears again and again in over 80 subsequent artworks, and would feature heavily in his work until the late 1990s. As an exotic animal used as a motif in many folk art traditions, the tiger is a noble animal with dignity and self-respect emblematic of both strength and otherness. It embodies connotations of a suave and singular self-possession and serves as a symbol of protection for the weak. In non-western symbolism, its meaning is connected to feminine power that takes on both the form of protection and aggression [1]; for Dial, the Tiger has been considered his avatar and a symbol of black masculinity. The repetition of this symbol throughout his ouevre garnered a response by Dial to Will Arnett in an interview: “People say I make all my art about tigers, but I got tigers in just some of it. Women be in just about everything I have made, in one way or another way. That tiger for me symbolized the Struggle, in the works of life, but women are the creation of the world, at the creation of all works. If it wasn’t for women it wouldn’t be none of us here, and without them we couldn’t make it through the struggle. Man do a lot of struggling—that’s true—but without women giving the power and strength of their struggle to man’s struggle, man going to lose his struggle.” [2]
FIGURE 1. Thornton Dial, Tiger Cat, 1987, Metal and paint, The Hood Museum of Art (Image credit: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio)
The tiger motif is central to Dial's artistic dialogue and his experience as an African American man struggling against both racism and poverty.
“That tiger for me symbolized the Struggle, in the works of life”
—thornton dial [2]
In Dial’s works, the tiger wears many faces. Early in his career, the tiger is often shown as the central figure, admired by others, or forced to perform, as in such works as Proud Cats Made to Climb (1992), Smooth-Going Cats and the Hard-Headed Goat (1990), Struggling Tiger Know His Way Out (1991), and Monkeys and People Love the Tiger Cat (1988) (fig.2, slideshow). In Life and Love (1991) (fig.2, slideshow), the tiger is elusive, only flowing around the edges of scenes, moving between the other figures and obscured. Later the animal becomes more incorporated into the overall scene, one of many actors. Dial’s tiger acts to bear witness--- it works both alone and cooperatively with other creatures as a participant in striving against the difficulties of life, and the never-ending push for liberation.
Tiger Cat carries the first nuance of the dynamic meanings the image would take on throughout Dial’s oeuvre. Standing on the back of the beast are five large fowl cut from sheet metal, with a rearing goat balanced on the tiger's tail. Within the angular framework of the tiger’s body, a series of small human figures hang by wires, suggesting an unsettling display of meat in a slaughterhouse or the scene of a lynching.
The size and choice of the metal material impart an immediate physicality to the tiger; however, despite its imposing size, it is weighed down by the large masses of birds carried on the back of the beast and the human-like figures suspended within its stomach. The juxtaposition and gravity produced by the animals and figures create a powerful visual tension suggesting counterpoints of past and present, and the balance of memories and internal experiences set against larger external social forces.
Another reading of this sculpture interprets Tiger Cat as symbolizing the life of African Americans before and after captivity: the heavy barnyard animals and fowl may represent the weight of racial repression, while the human figures within act as a symbolic reminder of the tiger’s true nature as a free creature with its own power and agency [3]. Dial comments: "The tiger cat used to be wild in the jungle, and catching his own food. Then they tame him and give him their food to eat. Then he get fat and slow, and he don't scare nobody no more." [4]
Dial’s tiger is not only an avatar for the personal experiences of his life, but a symbol of the black experience, and, extended further, to all marginalized people who strive for justice.
Tiger has gone and hid, now he's needed most, stripes flaring quick behind chain link, bones crossed, knotted ropes that yank necks with each bleak beg of sky. He knows he's been sent for, where is he? See, what Tiger's got, it's rare in this steel-bought city — twine can't choke, see? Knife can't bleed, see? Can't slick him into some shack, make him kneel while they curse him, while they dice stripe, cut meat, peddle our women to those who got poison to trade, wallets, mouths to whistle. Gut's whirling, neck's itching, knee's tensing, all 'cause Tiger might have gone and got big-headed, stretched in a grass-patch, tail a-switching, snapping up sick pigeons, sunning, forgetting, hot to fetch boomerangs that soar but come back, always they come back, you know, come back to the same place.
Reproduced from Prairie Schooner Vol. 79, No. 4 (Winter 2005) by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2005 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Tiger Cat (fig.1, fig.3) incorporates many of the found and repurposed materials common in Dial’s oeuvre. The central structure of the sculpture that forms the tiger’s body is composed of square iron bar stock, which has been fastened together with a combination of welded joints and fasteners. The welded materials testify to Thornton Dial’s experience working with iron and steel at various industrial jobs, including over thirty years at Pullman Standard [6]. Splash Zone A788 compound, a two-part marine-grade epoxy made for repairing underwater pipes and a favorite material of Dial’s, is applied at joints, covering fasteners. The tiger’s head has been constructed by wrapping many layers of packing tape and clear plastic sheeting around the shaped metal armature. The animals perched on the tiger’s back were cut from a single piece of iron sheet and mounted with single angle brackets with bolts. The animals have glass marbles for eyes embedded in mounds of sculpted Splash Zone A788. The hanging figures are assembled from multiple materials. The heads are formed from found metal parts, with the neck, trunk, and limbs made from rubber impregnated braided cotton hose. A combination of electrical and packing tape and a small amount of plastic sheeting hold the pieces of hose together to form the figure; they are suspended from the body of Tiger Cat with twists of iron wire attached with blobs of Splashzone. Several metal, plastic, and tape elements have been painted, most likely with alkyd enamel paints. The overall base color is black, with pink and white stripes applied on top. One central chicken is the exception, which has a white base coat with black patterns painted overtop.
In contrast to Thornton Dial’s assemblages, which incorporate found objects attached to a backing board, Tiger Cat is a free-standing sculpture. It was meant to be an outdoor sculpture piece, and after its fabrication in 1987, the sculpture was displayed in Dial’s backyard in Alabama (fig.3) . Unsurprisingly, the current condition of the complex object has been impacted by environmental fluctuations, water, and soiling.
Despite its many years exposed outdoors in a hot and humid climate, the welds that comprised the main structure of the sculpture were surprisingly intact. This could be due to both Dials’ skill as a welder and being partially covered by Splash Zone compound. However, there was significant active iron corrosion occurring on the inside of the legs and the undersides of the welds along the neck and under the tail joint. The bubbled, 'wet' appearance of the corrosion suggests there is chloride contamination, which could occur from handling or salts from the soil. Since many of Dial’s materials were sourced from found and repurposed objects, it is possible that some of this could have existed on the metal prior to fabrication.
The brackets that hold the chicken and goat cutouts have been reinforced with Splash Zone A788 epoxy; while the epoxy compound has cracked, the joints did not move and appear secure. It is possible that the Splash Zone will continue to crack as it degrades; however, since the joints are also welded and/or attached with bolts, the overall structural integrity may not be significantly affected unless the metal itself is compromised.
The head of the cat was the most degraded element of the sculpture, and was perilously fragile. The bundled plastic sheeting and the clear packing tape comprising the head were significantly embrittled: the head was cracked in many places and unfolding like the layers of an onion, actively shedding paint (fig. 4, slideshow). The underlying color of the plastic and tape beneath the paint was very yellowed, indicating deterioration from both inherent chemical degradation and UV-induced photo-oxidation. Even under close examination, it was difficult to determine if the plastic sheeting was new or had already experienced some weathering when it was incorporated into the sculpture; it is certainly possible that some deterioration could have occurred within these materials before being used.
FIGURE 3. Tiger Cat on display in Thornton Dial's yard in 1988. Photograph by William Arnett Accessed from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
Due to its construction, the transportation of this sculpture has been a challenge and required complex bracing within its crate to keep elements from moving. The barnyard figures are essentially large fins of metal that are balanced on a single attachment point. The heads of the chickens and goat have considerable weight due to their marble eyes and thick layers of applied Splash Zone A788 epoxy. The combination of uneven distribution of weight and large surface area causes these large metal sheets to wobble and torque with the slightest touch.
The vibrations and movement from transportation resulted in damage to the head of the white chicken. Its back and forth movement within the crate caused metal fatigue to build until it snapped at the attachment point. There was also evidence of metal fatigue and tearing on the neck of the adjacent black chicken.
Flaking paint on the metal components is a significant issue, in particular on one side of the white chicken (fig. 5). It is possible that the extensive flaking of this specific region is due to the presence of zinc white as a pigment, which is known to form paint films that exhibit poor adhesion due to the formation of zinc (carboxylate) soap [7]. The formation of zinc carboxylates is exacerbated when exposed to high levels of relative humidity; the humid climate in Alabama and exposure to rain may have accelerated the development of this chemical species in addition to swelling the alkyd paint film.
FIGURE 5. Areas of lifting and flaking paint located on one side of the white chicken in Tiger Cat
Areas of lifting paint were highly curled and tenuously attached (fig.5); this resulted in paint loss due to both movement and vibrations of the metal parts during transit. In addition to inherent chemical degradation, Alkyd paints are sensitive to environmental fluctuations and can swell in response to moisture. Several of the hanging human-like figures had also detached, their suspension wires broken. One figure had split in half due to the embrittlement and failure of the packing tape that held the top and bottom halves of the figure together.
Surfaces that did not show flaking paint or did not otherwise appear fragile were brushed with a soft brush to remove a heavy coating of loose dust and dirt. The most heavily soiled areas of the intact painted surface were lightly cleaned with a cotton swab, dampened but not wetted, with deionized water.
Treating Corrosion
The areas on the underside of the main rails were heavily encrusted with bubbled, loose, and flaking iron corrosion. While corrosion is an aesthetic feature of many artworks by Dial, the advanced corrosion present on Tiger Cat was predominantly present on non-visible areas and posed a risk for structural weakness if not attenuated. These areas were brushed with a stiff brush numerous times to remove this flaky layer; then, the surface was painted several times with a commercial rust convertor. This treatment chemically stabilized and compacted the surface, leaving it resistant to further expansion and weakening. Areas of iron corrosion on visible areas adjacent to intact areas of paint were treated with several applications of 2% (w/v) Tannic Acid until darkened, indicating the rust was chemically converted and stabilized.
FIGURE 6. Our Department Head of Objects Conservation, Helene Gilette-Woodard, works to stabilize Tiger Cat
The brittle and shattered sheets of plastic and the painted packing tape that comprises the cat’s head were stabilized using different concentrations of Aquazol® 500 in ethanol, which was wicked in between the layers and into fine cracks (fig.7). To bridge large areas of loss and to support vulnerable areas, pieces of Stabiltex®, dyed in a warm olive color that harmonized with the oxidized color of the packing tape and plastic, were impregnated with Aquazol®, and fed in between the layers from the interior to the exterior. The Stabiltex® was applied wet in some cases or reactivated, as needed.
Aquazol® was also used to readhere lifting paint on the white chicken figure; this was wicked behind the flakes, allowed to dry, then heat was applied with a Willard® heated spatula through silicone release Mylar®. Numerous rounds of consolidation were necessary to set down all the visibly lifting flakes. While every effort was made to consolidate all areas of raised paint, there remained large areas of blind cleavage where consolidant could only be minimally introduced. Blind cleavage indicates that the paint is lifting from the substrate, but there are no cracks to introduce adhesive; furthermore, the substrate does not allow for adhesive to be introduced from below the paint film. These regions may be subject to further flaking in the future and need to be monitored.
FIGURE 7. After consolidating the lifting plastic on the Tiger's head
The broken chicken’s head (fig.8) was especially challenging to repair, as the metal was inherently thin and the break was on-edge with no overlap. In addition, the repair had to be very strong due to the relatively heavy weight of the head and its tendency to easily wobble back and forth; if the adhesion was weak, the weight of vibrations would cause the repair to fail.
The strategy we came to in the end was to secure the break by inserting two wires into the rough channel that was formed by the folded over metal on the upper and lower edges. Prior to adhering the wires, a barrier layer of Aquazol® 500 was applied to the break. The wires were then firmly adhered into place with a cold weld formula, steel reinforced, epoxy putty and Araldite® 2011. The epoxy was left to cure. Supported by the wires, the head was adhered into place with additional applications of epoxy putty over an Aquazol® barrier layer (fig.7). Thin edges of the break were then further strengthened by applying layers of undyed Stabiltex® adhered with Aquazol. The undyed strips would be integrated in the retouching phase of treatment.
FIGURE 8. Above: The broken chicken head and flaking side of the chicken's body prior to conservation Below: The chicken after consolidation and reattachment of the head
To repair the detached and broken hanging figures, new hanging wires were made from a wire of similar gauge and appearance to those that had snapped. The new wires were adhered behind the existing wires of the detached figures with Paraloid™ B-72 and the figures hooked back into place. The hanging figure that had been broken in half was repaired with several stacked layers of Stabiltex® adhered with Aquazol® 500, which were slipped behind the original packing tape and adhered in place. The two halves were put back together as they had been, then the Aquazol®-impregnated Stabiltex® was reactivated with ethanol to form an adhesive bond. The result of this treatment is a repair that is seamless and indistinguishable from the original intent.
Losses and fills on the metal components were judiciously inpainted with Golden® acrylics, with the goal to minimize the appearance of damage, not to return the sculpture to a pristine condition. The dyed Stabiltex® inserts on the tiger’s head were not inpainted further: the color was a good match for the background color of the plastics.
Despite extensive consolidation and structural reinforcement of this sculpture, it remains fragile due to the inherent qualities of the materials that have been used, its years spent outdoors in the elements, and the inherent features of its construction. It is likely that further flaking of the white paint on the chicken figure may continue to occur due to the possible presence of zinc white or incompatible undercoating. Cleavage between the paint and the plastic sheeting on the head of the cat will likely also develop further as the polymers age. Due to the manner of its construction, this work will always be vulnerable to vibration, and require significant bracing to be safely handled or transported. The final results of treatment are that this sculpture has been significantly strengthened so that it is able to be safely stored and exhibited. While this sculpture had been sited outdoors for many years of its life, it is recommended that it only be exhibited indoors to minimize risk of physical damage due to its construction, and ongoing issues with corrosion and its painted surfaces.
Photography Credit
Unless noted by the caption, photography by Christine Puza, Helene Gilette-Woodard, and Matthew Hamilton. Title illustration by Maggie Barkovic.
[1] Tressider, Jack. The Watkins Dictionary of Symbols. London: Watkins, 2008.
[2] Souls Grown Deep Foundation. “Thornton Dial: Taken from interviews with Thornton Dial by William Arnett in 1995 and 1996.”,, . Accessed 14 Sept 2021.
[3] Baraka, Amiri, Thomas McEvilly, et al., Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger. New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1993.
[4] Herman, Bernard, Emily Kass, et al., Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper. University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
[5] Welborn, Braden. “Thornton Dial’s Blood and Meat: Survival for the World.” Reproduced from Prairie Schooner Vol. 79, No. 4 (Winter 2005) by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2005 by the University of Nebraska Press.
[6] Souls Grown Deep Foundation. “Thornton Dial: Taken from interviews with Thornton Dial by William Arnett in 1995 and 1996.”,, Accessed 14 Sept 2021.
[7] Zinc carboxylate- modern oil book
[8] Cubbs, Joanne, William Arnet, et al. Thornton Dial in the 21st Century. Atlanta: Timwood Books, 2005.
[9] Cubbs, Joanne, David Driskell, et al. Hard Truths / The Art of Thornton Dial. Delmonico Books, 2011.

[10] Gillette-Woodard, Hélène, Gillette, Kristen, Gunhee Kim, Sally and Puza, Christine; Thornton dial: an examination of 17 assemblages and 1 sculpture at the High Museum of Art. Bank of America Conservation Grant, April 2021.