As a schoolboy, rather than pay attention in class, Thornton Dial spent hours making small drawings of Tarzan in the jungle or cowboys on the range, or fashioning small cars and wagons from found matchboxes, twine, and sticks. But the art he made, especially at first, was always on the side, a pleasure he discovered in moments stolen from the reality of his days, growing up on a cornfield in Emelle, Alabama. Rather than consider himself a tortured creator—an Outsider Artist toiling alone in relative anonymity—Dial has always been a working man, devoting most of his 80-some years to picking cotton, pouring iron, loading bricks, painting houses, and raising animals, always and invariably using his hands and body to create things in the world.
His life has been one of quiet observation and imagined escape, and in his modest sketches or sprawling assemblages he knits his dreams and aspirations with poignant perceptions of the world around him, expressing its sufferings, joys, and hypocrisies in equal measure. Back Home (2012)—a dynamic medley of shattered bits of wood, torn swaths of denim, sharp nails, and rusty metal gate hinges—coalesces into a shanty on the brink of collapse, silhouetted by swirling red storm clouds, and throbs with life despite its unassuming materials. It suggests at once a haven and a hell, a sense of home that is tortured and roiled by what lies beyond it, be that fame, the demands of commerce, or the continued repression of the African American in our country, a theme to which Dial has repeatedly returned, through allegory and symbol.
Despite his stunning success (he has had retrospectives across the country and his works fetch great sums at auction), Dial continues to make art that acknowledges and is shaped by his experience between things, his life spent just on the other side—of resources, of acceptance, of sophistication. It is that distance that gives his perceptions their power. His assemblages are expressionistic in the broadest sense of the word, modeled by gesture and intuition, vibrant and roughly hewn. But they are, as well, embedded with considered significance and suffused with a sense of history, both personal and universal. They straddle the figurative and abstract, coming together in moments to represent, and then whirling and seething frantically into an intelligibility: a raw, absorbing conglomeration of texture, form, and color.