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Illiterate artist expresses 'Hard Truths'
by Caroline Young
December 05, 2012 11:50 AM | 1796 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thornton Dial
Thornton Dial
slideshow
Thornton Dial was born in Emelle, Ala., in 1928, and never learned how to read or write.

Today, his collection of artwork, titled “Hard Truths” is on display at the High Museum of Art in Midtown.

“Like many people in the South in his generation, especially black people, he had to stay out of school to work on the farm,” said Susan Crawley, the museum’s curator of folk art.

Although illiterate, Dial’s works are deep and thought provoking, spanning the spectrum of topics from racism to war, both locally and globally.

He was not available for an interview.

“He was always concerned about the history of his race and American history in general,” Crawley said. “He’s just an intelligent and thoughtful guy. He wasn’t reclusive either. He was tuned into what was going on.”

Most of the work in the exhibit is from the last 10 or 12 years, Crawley said, and the public’s response has been extremely positive.

“At the opening [in November], several people left the galleries saying, ‘I’m going to come back and see this several times,’” she said. “It’s the kind of show that will reward repeated viewings. There’s a great deal in that work and it doesn’t all unfold at once. It rewards thoughtful viewing and lots of thinking between viewings.”

Julia Forbes, head of museum interpretation, said Dial is trying to communicate issues of race, equity and war.

“His paintings are very sculptural with all kinds of found objects with layers and layers,” Forbes said. Dial’s materials run the gamut, as he uses everything from baby dolls to broken glass to broom handles to real animal bones.

In “Lost Calves,” Dial used cow skeletons, possibly from his own herd of cows, Forbes said.

“At one point he owned a herd of cows and was very upset when they all died,” she said. “He’s trying to get us to think about what it means to farm and to own cows. … If you look at it from the right angle, you see your reflection in the eyes of the cow [in a mirror], and he’s trying to get us to think about some hard decisions and choices we make in our modern world.”

In one piece, “Mercedes Benz Comes to Alabama,” he exposes the effects a car factory has on a community and other industries, such as fishing. The work includes a steering wheel, other car parts, fishing nets and fish made from machine parts.

“After he finished the work, he covered it in oil and set it on fire,” Forbes said. “So it has this sooty quality to it. … He wanted that to be right here present for us.”

One of his “Hard Truths” pieces, “Looking Out the Windows,” captures the innocent people who were trapped in the World Trader Center, and those who jumped from the twin towers Sept. 11. He uses dolls and a “very pervasive red, white and blue,” to present a powerful message displaying the grief of the families left behind, Forbes said.

Dial currently lives in Bessemer, Ala., and has five children, Crawley said.

“He is a very dignified man,” she said. “He is fairly quiet. He speaks very eloquently through his art.”

o What: “Hard Truths” exhibit

o When: now through March 3

o Where: High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St., Midtown

o Tickets: $19.50 for adults, $16.50 for seniors and $12 forchildren

o Information: www.high.org
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