Thornton Dial: September 10, 1928–January 25, 2016

Thornton Dial at his studio, Bessemer, Alabama, ca. 1995. Courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

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Thornton Dial: September 10, 1928–January 25, 2016

by Bernard L. Herman
Southern Cultures, Vol. 22, No. 2: Summer 2016

"Birds flock, flutter and fly, strut, preen, and roost through the art of Thornton Dial."

Birds flock, flutter and fly, strut, preen, and roost through the art of Thornton Dial, citizens in a remarkable graphic menagerie that speak, sometimes forcefully, sometimes joyfully, to what he termed “hard truths.” Tigers, signifying the artist as well as a much larger world of African American masculinity, romp, stalk, and carouse in his early works and on through the 1990s. Fish metaphorically course and dapple through themes of lust, love, and femininity in his “fishing for love” works on paper. Bare-breasted women, southern sirens all, entice viewers with fish painted red, blue, green, and gold. And, as he noted in conversation, fish also spoke to personal histories of “making do” in times of want. He recollected the weirs and fish traps he fashioned and how he huckstered his catch to his Bessemer neighbors. Sometimes there were too many fish; sometimes there were not enough. Still, birds fascinated Mr. Dial in truly magical ways. When he passed, I like to think the birds mourned.