“Daybreak,” an exhibition of new works by artistic genius Thornton Dial, opened February 8, 2013 at the Bill Lowe Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia. Following a successful tour of “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial” at several museums and a current exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Dials’s new work reiterates his themes concerning the working man, family, and spiritual afterlife. At the age of 84 and in failing health, the self-taught artist of few words speaks volumes through his work. Bill Lowe, a long time friend of the artist, has an open conversation with me about the art world’s perception of Dial’s work and the man who is the exception to every rule.
Terry Check & Bill Lowe on “Thorton Dial: Daybreak”
Terry Check: Is Dial still regarded as an outsider artist?
Bill Lowe: Dial is considered an outsider artist, outside of the art establishment, but the conversation is shifting largely due to the multi-city museum exhibition, “Hard Truths” and the resulting media attention. Time Magazine stated, “Dial’s work is not vernacular nor is it outsider art. It is great art period.” The New York Times stated, “Dial is extremely gifted, reminiscent of De Kooning and Pollock.”
TC: How has his work evolved in recent years?
BL: If you look at these later pieces, the medium is less dense, a little more muted, and more open to interpretation. His work has a universal appeal. It is a natural metamorphosis for him and his profile continues to grow, becoming more aware of the broader art stage. For Dial, it is a natural progression. With the passing of years, he finds integration of themes and starts moving toward eternal resolution, maybe a glance into the hereafter.
TC: How does he want to be remembered?
BL: He speaks with great brevity about life after death. His mind is so broad and deep that his work affects people at emotional and spiritual levels, giving them an insight to what he has witnessed. His work chronicles observations, insights, and experiences into a visual diary, sharing his perception of the issues and having the viewer take away their interpretation.
TC: Living in poverty, Dial grew up without a father. Did women play an important role in his life?
BL: Women dominated his life and he views women as the backbone of society.
TC: Where would his artwork be today without the help of Bill Arnett?
BC: We would not know about Dial’s work if it weren’t for Bill Arnett. Arnett, an exceptional art history scholar, first met Dial and his artwork in the mid 1980’s. At that time, Dial viewed his ‘junk work’ as a personal endeavor until Arnett told him that his work is truly art. Arnett advanced this artwork from the backwoods of Alabama to the forefront of the art world.
TC: In the early 1990’s, Thornton’s career was hitting new heights with two exhibitions in New York City receiving great reviews. Why did Dial’s career falter after the controversial 60 Minutes interview?
BL: Dial, working with a tremendous vibrancy, created some of his best work during this period regardless of public opinion. As a result of the 60 Minutes story, Dial became a political “hot potato” for the art world to embrace, an African American artist whose advocacy is a white man from the Deep South. With the insinuation that Dial was being exploited, many people in the art world who would have readily embraced his talent, turned away from his work for many years.
TC: How did Dial regain his place in the art world?
TC: At the age of 84, in deteriorating health and limited to a wheelchair, does Dial still create new artwork?
BL: Yes, Dial is still very active as an artist in planning and creating his assemblages with his sons, Richard and Bobby, who help place heavy objects under Dial’s watchful eye. With the use of a mechanical lift, the artwork is raised or lowered so Dial can paint and apply elements to the artwork from his wheelchair.
TC: The “Daybreak” exhibition includes many assemblages such as “Grinder” and Daybreak.” What is the message?
BL: This generation of work transcends the narratives of his powerful earlier work and universalizes Dial’s voice, further cementing his place in art history.This generation of work transcends the narratives of his powerful earlier work and universalizes Dial’s voice, further cementing his place in art history.This generation of work transcends the narratives of his powerful earlier work and universalizes Dial’s voice, further cementing his place in art history.This generation of work transcends his powerful, earlier chronicles of artwork and brings to the forefront Dial’s universal voice. “Grinder” reflects the struggle of the working class … the daily grind in all people in any country. His work is becoming more collective … greater appeal to a broad audience. “Daybreak” voices the dramatic shift in life caused by nature (floods, tornados) or man (destruction of war). There is always hope … There is always regeneration … There is always a sunrise. Dial believes that life will always get better.
What’s so great about his work? It is undiluted and unpolluted by societal imposition. He cannot read or write and that’s a sad reality on one hand, but it is God’s blessing on the other.