Thornton Dial was born in 1928, the heir to a family of impoverished black sharecroppers in Alabama. He didn’t attend a proper school until he was 13 years old, and even then, he was embarrassed to be placed at the second-grade level. Large for his age and conditioned to hard physical labor, Dial began skipping school to work and make money. In his adult life, he worked in a factory making railroad cars until it closed in 1981, at which point he began making art as a hobby.
This early experience in manual labor formed a basis for Dial’s self-education in materials and techniques, which he deployed in semi-figurative, semi-abstract work that would later evolve into large, often-monumental assemblages, which can be considered of a piece with the Southern bricolage tradition. “My art is the evidence of my freedom,” Dial said in an interview in the mid-1990s. “When I start any piece of art I can pick up anything I want to pick up. I start with whatever fits with my idea, things I will find anywhere.”
Dial was a keen diagnostician of the systematic ills he saw in American society. Themes of racism, sexism, and poverty surface regularly in his work through materials that evoke harsh living conditions, and titles that reference political events, historic places, and Christian scripture. He is remembered for his formal ingenuity and the emotional power of his vivid, sometimes-towering forms, which sucked everyday objects from his life into their orbit, and turned them into something extraordinary.