Late Alabama artist Thornton Dial honored with first full-scale retrospective in his home state

The artist Thornton Dial poses, smiling, outside of his studio.

Thornton Dial Sr. stands near his McCalla, Alabama, studio in 2007.

Jerry Siegel

By Rachel Parker, WBHM Reflect Alabama Fellow

As a child, Richard Dial can remember hearing his mother on the phone at two or three in the morning with their neighbor, asking him to try and get his father, Thornton Dial, to come inside from the backyard workshop after her own failed attempts. He was still busy creating art.

“Art was a part of his life,” Richard Dial said. “I think he really found his niche in life, his purpose in life,” Richard says.

Some of Thornton Dial’s pieces eventually made it into the nation’s top museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But recognition of the Alabama-born artist by the larger art world did not come through a traditional path. Dial, who died in 2016, had little formal education and no art training. 

Now, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Abroms-Engle Institute for the Visual Arts presents the first retrospective of Dial’s work in his home state. The exhibit, Thornton Dial: I, Too, Am Alabama, is open through Saturday.

Thornton Dial's Man with His Bream is a circular metal sculpture with a blue painted fish displayed in the center.
Thornton Dial’s 1987 work, Man with His Bream is on display at the Abroms-Engle Institute for the Visual Arts. Photo by Jerry Siegel, © Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of the many jobs Dial worked throughout his life was as a metalworker at the Pullman Standard Plant in Bessemer, AL. From his different jobs, he sharpened his artistic skills and used materials he worked with daily, such as rope, wires, metal and fishing lures, to make art.

“I think that is a classic, prime example of some of his best works,” said Brandon Dial, Thornton Dial’s grandson. “When you’re taking things that people consider to be scraps and you’re turning it into something that is truly a treasure.”

In his popular piece called, “How Things Work: The Parade of Life,” two female figures made up of swirling colors – red, orange, black, yellow and white – spread across the canvas. Look closer and there’s a “parade” of children’s toys – cars and legos – lined up and attached to the painting. The objects appear to move through and around the women’s bodies.

Thornton Dial's "How Things Work: The Parade of Life" has swirling yellow and black paint interspersed with a "parade" of children's toys.
Thornton Dial’s “How Things Work: The Parade of Life” is on view at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Abroms-Engle Institute for the Visual Arts. Photo by Jerry Siegel, © Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“That’s the power of Mr. Dial’s work is that there is a lot of depth to it. There’s a lot of meaning behind it. Sometimes you can add your own meaning. Sometimes you know what his meaning is. It’s not just what the face value is like, what you see initially,” AEIVA Assistant Curator Tina Ruggieri said.

A rose and women were recurring symbols for Dial. They represent his relationship to the women in his life, since he was raised by his grandmother and aunts.

Dial’s artwork also reflects real world, complicated topics including politics, race, class and the environment.

“He would go to work, come home and eat. And he would always, always, every day, he would stop and watch the news. So he knew what was going on in the world,” Richard Dial said.

A timeline made up of plaques in the exhibit connects Dial’s life to contemporary historical events. For instance, the birth of his first child in 1953 is followed by the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955.

Dial wanted his art to be a force for change. He said to make that happen we should focus on the “little man,” which he described as people in the minority and lower class who are often forgotten, and their ideas.

“I see a lot of optimism in a lot of Thornton Dial’s work, even when he’s dealing with very difficult subject matter,.” said Paul Barrett, curator of the UAB exhibit.

While Dial gained widespread acclaim, Barrett says a show like this in Alabama is overdue. 

“The fact that Thornton Dial’s work was not just recognized but celebrated in museums in New Orleans and Atlanta for many years before he was celebrated in his hometown, I think was a historic injustice that we were very happy to address,” Barrett said.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham holds WBHM’s broadcast license, but our news and businesses department operate independently.

Editor’s note: Story updated to attribute quote to AEIVA Assistant Curator Tina Ruggieri


4 factors besides cold weather that explain expensive winter power bills

Like many in the Gulf South, Will Burt’s power bill spiked in January due to extreme weather. But how much of the increase can be attributed to the cold?

How an Alabama court ruling that frozen embryos are children could affect IVF

The Alabama Supreme Court recently ruled that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law, raising concerns about how the decision could affect in vitro fertilization, commonly known as IVF.

Alabama seeks to carry out second execution using controversial nitrogen gas method

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall's office asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to set an execution date for Alan Eugene Miller. The state said Miller’s execution would be carried out using nitrogen.

UAB puts pause on IVF in wake of ruling saying frozen embryos are children

The University of Alabama at Birmingham health system said in a statement that it must evaluate whether its patients or doctors could face criminal charges or punitive damages for undergoing IVF treatments.

‘Sick!’ New kids book by Alabama author explores how animals fight germs

A new children's book by Alabama author Heather Montgomery explores how animals fight off pathogens.

Alabama Supreme Court rules frozen embryos are ‘children’ under state law

The decision, issued in a pair of wrongful death cases brought by couples who had frozen embryos destroyed in an accident at a fertility clinic, brought a rush of warnings from advocates who said it would have sweeping implications for fertility treatments.

More Arts and Culture Coverage