Remembering Thornton Dial: A Southern artist who lives on

A look at The High’s new exhibition honoring the late Thornton Dial, Sr.

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Creating art means leaving your mark on the world, ideally, and that is exactly what Thornton Dial did. Despite a lack of formal training, his artwork speaks wonders and leaves the viewer wishing they had once seen the world through his eyes, experiencing the parts of history they may have missed. In late January, Dial passed at 87, but his masterpieces live on. His work has been featured at museums such as The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and most recently, The High Museum of Art. Curator Katherine Jentleson hopes to bring life to Dial’s work during an exhibition run titled, Green Pastures: In Memory of Thornton Dial, Sr. Opening just last Saturday, the exhibition is already off to a memorable start.

Dial’s artwork includes many salvaged materials like cloth, tin, wood, rope, and other common found objects. His life included decades of struggle as a working black man in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, Dial’s work explores much of this hardship, also dipping into America’s racial oppression’s of the past, often relying on heavy animal symbolism. His 1990 work, “Smooth-Going Cats and the Hard-Headed Goat,” includes dominant colors of red, white, and blue to signify the struggles for equality and justice at the national level. The two cats circle a goat, comparing the stubbornness of those who interfere with progress with the trapped, obstinate goat. In “Proud Cats Made to Climb,” a tiger is used to create a narrative about the ongoing dispute to hold onto dignity in a time of oppression. “Heading for the Higher Paying Jobs” depicts the migration of African-Americans from rural to more urban communities, and  from slavery into industrial jobs. Dial illustrates this idea by creating a succession of three fields. The painting shows a  yellow cotton patch that dissolves into blackness portraying mines, which turns into the red furnaces of steel mills.  
“Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world … It is a guide for every person who is looking for something. That’s how I can describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something.”                                                                                                                       — Thornton Dial, Sr.
Hanging on a large white wall by itself is one of Dial’s most famous works. From afar, one might see birds hanging out on a telephone line. However, up close, the reality is much darker. “Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How To Fly” is one in a series of paintings that showcase hanging blackbirds. The bird-like figures are made from Dial’s used paint rags, iconic in the way they represent Jim Crow and the hard truths of what life was like for African-Americans  years ago. Despite its somewhat recent production date (2008), it is meant to remind viewers of the South’s grim history of lynching and the fear that once laid upon blacks in the South. The title references the Biblical promised land beyond this life of hardship and pain.
Today, we are still fighting for equality across America. Dial’s artwork not only sheds light on events of the past, but brings attention to problems that need to be faced in today’s world. This exhibition shares ideas for people of all backgrounds to take a part in.
Green Pastures: In Memory of Thornton Dial, Sr. runs through May 1 at The High Museum.