Excerpt: Thornton Dial, edtied by Bernard L. Herman

Thornton Dial (b. 1928), one of the most important artists in the American South, came to prominence in the late 1980s and was celebrated internationally for his large construction pieces and mixed-media paintings. It was only later, in response to a reviewer’s negative comment on his artistic ability, that he began to work on paper. And it was not until recently that these drawings have received the acclaim they deserve. Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, edited by Bernard L. Herman, offers the first sustained critical attention to Dial’s works on paper. In this excerpt from the book, Herman describes the characteristics of Dial’s drawings and relates the story of how Dial came to focus on drawings in response to an art critic.

From Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper (pp. 3, 8-9):


Encountering Dial’s drawings, the first quality a viewer perceives is movement at once balletic and ballistic, where dance and power coalesce. Dial’s is a world of dynamic gesture, where each drawing fixes a continuous stream of action for a moment, much the way a photograph freezes flowing water and in that stilled instant reveals the unceasing agitation of liquid twisting and tumbling. Dial’s early drawings represented in the series of Life Go On, Fishing for Love (also called Fishing for Business), and Lady Will Stand by Her Tiger speak to a continuous poetical reflection about relationships between men and women, people and power, and struggle and faith. The women, tigers, birds, and fish found in Dial’s first drawings appear again and again through the thematic history of his works on paper. Birds nest upon heads; tigers prance and curl in impossible poses. Huge fish bracket painted faces. Roosters strut and make themselves available to admiring women.

[ . . . ]

Dial’s engagement with works on paper began in early 1990 following the publication of a review of his one-person exhibition, Thornton Dial: Ladies in the United States, at Kennesaw State College, located north of Atlanta, Georgia. The review of that show published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution contained this comment: “Mr. Dial’s drawing is crude and his palette sometimes sour. The effect can be almost ugly considered in purely visual terms. . . . The artist is, like so many of his ‘folk’ peers, a master of the ad hoc. He fashions assemblages out of string, scrap metal and other odds and ends, which he also affixes to his paintings; he creates reliefs with boat sealant, which is malleable until it dries.”[1] Dial later explained that these damning comments about his mixed-media work led to his lifelong commitment to works on paper:

My first art show was back in ’90 at a college in Atlanta. Show was called Ladies of the United States. The folks seemed to respect my art to the highest, then [an] art writer at the Atlanta newspaper, she written that Mr. Dial can’t draw nothing and his art is ugly. My work at that time was all did on plywood with rope and tin and house paint and stuff. This artist, John Shelton, he tell me I ought to be using paint [oil paint] and canvasses. He suggest I ought to draw pictures on paper to show peoples what I can do, and I started that at that time. I decided to draw my first paper pictures about women, ’cause the show the newspaper make fun of was all about women.[2]

Bill Arnett, who facilitated the Kennesaw State exhibition and was subsequently present when Dial began his works on paper, details the story: “Anything that ever got written about him, I read to him. So, I read it to him. And he said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘What does what mean?’ He said, ‘That part about the drawing is crude.’ I said, ‘She says you can’t draw.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?'”[3] Arnett elaborated, explaining to Dial that drawing and watercolor were media that many viewers and writers associated with formally trained artists and assessed as a benchmark of sophistication and ability in the connoisseurship of an artist’s works. The art politics of designations like folk, ad hoc, and deficient effectively sidelined the artist in the critical contexts of contemporary art, even as they acknowledged his creative abilities. The implied expectation in Fox’s formulation was that Dial, a self-taught artist, was unlikely to be an accomplished draughtsman or watercolorist and that his “assemblages,” no matter how powerful the work, were the best that he could accomplish. Thus, the art would always exist, at best, on the margins of more accomplished work. Arnett concluded his answer with a characterization of the practices associated with academically trained artists, replying to Dial: “They make watercolors, and they make drawings with pencils. He wanted to know what watercolors were, and I explained what it was. He said, ‘Man, all these things I do. I do that. I draw there.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but she didn’t see it. She’s saying you can’t draw for some reason.'” Dial’s rejoinder was his art. In February 1990, he began to draw in earnest.


From Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, edited by Bernard L. Herman. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Published in association with the Ackland Art Museum.

Bernard L. Herman is George B. Tindall Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper and Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780-1830.

  1. [1]Catherine Fox, “Self-Taught Artist Makes Compelling Case for Human Rights,” Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, March 13, 1990, http://infoweb.newsbank.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/iw-search/we/InfoWeb.
  2. [2]Thornton Dial, “Mr. Dial Is a Man Looking for Something,” in Arnett and Arnett, eds., Souls Grown Deep, 2:208. The passages from Dial in Souls Grown Deep were compiled from interviews with the artist conducted by William Arnett in 1995 and 1996.
  3. [3]Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from William Arnett’s recorded interview with Bernard Herman, Bessemer, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, April 15, 2010.