Director Gail Andrews On The Loss Of Thornton Dial

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Gail Andrews, R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, sits in front of "Nobody Know What Go On Behind the Jungle" by Alabama artist Thornton Dial at the museum (Tamika Moore/
Gail Andrews R Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art sits in front of Nobody Know What Go On Behind the Jungle by Alabama artist Thornton Dial at the museum Tamika Mooretmoorealcom

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On Monday one of America’s great artists died, Alabama native Thornton Dial. Dial’s work ranged from small sculptures to large and ambitious mixed-media paintings and enormous installations. They also varied in tone and emotion as they reflected his life and worldview as an African-American man, born in 1928 and raised in Emelle and Bessemer, Alabama.

Many nationally circulated articles this week have reported his early history, and how he saw the “things” he created for himself become recognized as powerful and important works of art. In a short time, his work went from being displayed literally in his own backyard to gracing the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum and, yes, the Birmingham Museum of Art, which acquired its first work by Dial in 1991.

But the question that has frequently arisen is, why didn’t more people in Alabama, specifically the Birmingham area, recognize and appreciate his talent? We can say the same about many other artists from our state, but this artist had a particularly stellar exhibition and gallery record.

There is no easy answer, but here are some observations: Dial’s art came to light in the 1980s, a time when national and international interest in what has variously been called self-taught, outsider, vernacular or folk art was at its peak. Generally understood as art produced by individuals not formally trained in art schools, the work was often made using discarded and recycled materials. By incorporating materials from their actual lives and world, their art spoke to the public with an honesty and directness that was refreshing and bold. That said, not everyone embraced this work. In the case of Mr. Dial, the work looked raw, unfinished and primitive to some. The same was said of Lonnie Holley’s assemblages and his “one acre of art,” eventually taken over by the airport for expansion.

More to the point, many of these artists came from Alabama and are African-American, out of the mainstream, and making art with sometimes very confrontational social messages about race, class and opportunity. Alabama’s conservative culture may have contributed to our reluctance to embrace such a movement while the rest of the world began to think of our state as fertile ground for vernacular artistic expression.

Indeed, Alabama is the epicenter of this self-taught art, yielding not only Dial and Holley, but also Joe Minter, Charlie Lucas, Ronald Lockett, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Mose Tolliver, Juanita Rogers and Chris Clark, to name a few. These artists have brought forth visually strong and thought-provoking work, blurring the line between artists of formal training and those outside of the academic tradition. Today their messages are as important as ever, as we examine issues within an often volatile social and political climate.

I am proud to say that museums in Alabama have exhibited and collected the work of self-taught artists for decades. At the Birmingham Museum of Art, we have organized and hosted a number of exhibitions and consistently include work by Alabama artists in our contemporary galleries.

We invite you to come and see work by Mr. Dial, as well as other influential artists from our state to discover for yourself why the accolades are so well deserved.