Thornton Dial


Public Media Awards Winner

Fall 2022

Monograph is honored to bring you a very special episode paying tribute to one of Alabama’s most prolific vernacular artists, the late Thornton Dial. Join Jackie Clay as she spends time with Thornton Dial’s family and fellow artist Lonnie Holley.

I, Too, Am Thornton Dial

Artist Thornton Dial (September 28, 1928 – January 25, 2016) was born in Emelle, Alabama, located in Sumter County on the edge of the Black Belt and the Mississippi border.

Dial was born on the cusp of the Great Depression and grew up in the thick of the Jim Crow segregated South before living through the Civil Rights Movement.

Though internationally recognized as one of Alabama’s most prolific vernacular artists, the ones closest to him don’t often use the word artist to describe him.

“He was more of a family man than he was an artist,” said Thornton Dial’s son, Richard Dial. “So that’s about as high a scale as I could put him on. Just looking back, I wouldn’t want to be raised up (by) nobody except for him and my mom.”

Vernacular art, according to Beauvais Lyons, Chancellor’s Professor of Art at University of Tennessee, is “a genre of visual art made by artists who are usually self-taught. They tend to work outside of art academies and commercial galleries, which have traditionally been the purview of white, affluent artists and collectors.” Also referred to as “folk art” or “outsider art” in the U.S., the genre is dominated by African American, Appalachian and working-class artists.

Give Me My Flowers While I Yet Live

Working odd jobs since the time he could walk, Thornton Dial’s need to be “making stuff,” creating had been constant all his life. However, Dial didn’t begin creating his art until after his retirement from decades as a metalworker at Bessemer Pullman boxcar factory.

He used large canvases, paint and found objects to craft abstract and representational pieces that commented on civil rights, racism, culture and life.

His work was universally hailed as brilliant, but he labored largely in obscurity for most of his art career.

If the Tiger Knew He'd Be the Star of the Circus, He Wouldn't Have Hid So Long in the Jungle, 1989 | Thornton Dial

If the Tiger Knew He’d Be the Star of the Circus, He Wouldn’t Have Hid So Long in the Jungle, 1989

The award-winning film Mr. Dial Has Something to Say explores Dial’s work along with the challenges and biases of a larger art world that wasn’t ready for his innate genius.

William “Bill” Arnett (1939 – 2020) was an influential art collector based in Atlanta, Georgia. Arnett was particularly interested in artworks made by Southern self-taught Black artists, he is known for bringing many of these creatives to international art prominence. 

Arnett introduced Dial to the art world shortly after they met in 1987. Since then, Dial’s work has been shown and acquired extensively across the globe.

Through archival footage of the late artist, interviews with his children, and a talk with fellow artist and friend, Lonnie Holly, we’re able to honor his memory and learn about his life, vision and legacy from those who knew him best.

Despite worldwide success, Dial never got to see his artwork exhibited at scale in his home state; but in September 2022, University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Abroms-Engels Institute for Visual Arts brought Dial’s vision home with the exhibit I, too, Am Alabama. This exhibit was the first and largest comprehensive examination in Alabama to-date of Dial’s work.

How can you enjoy Thornton Dial's works?

  • Purchase a collection of Mr. Dial’s work called I, Too, Am Alabama here.
  • Tour the Gadsden Arts Center & Museum‘s Southern Vernacular Art collection.
  • Tour the LSU Museum of Art exhibition of I, Too, Am Thornton Dial.
  • View a 3D scan of Dial’s artwork World Peace.
  • Visit his work within the permanent collections of:

American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Pérez Art Museum, Miami, FL; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington D.C.; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, among many more!

Related Videos

Alabama Public Television Documentaries : Mr. Dial Has Something to Say

Alabama Public Television Documentaries

October 15, 2007

Mr. Dial Has Something to Say

Thornton Dial was a self-taught artist that didn't begin his work until after his retirement. His work was universally hailed as brilliant, but he labored largely in obscurity for most of his art career.

Give Me My Flowers (While I Yet Live) by Quilters at Gee's Bend

Photo of the Thornton Dial: I, Too, Am Alabama catalog

This catalog includes full color images of all works in the AEIVA exhibition and additional works from the companion exhibition I, Too, Am Thornton Dial at Samford University.

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