Mr. Thornton Dial (1928-2016), A Game-Changer in the World of Art

Comments by Anne Brown, January 2016

Thornton Dial in November 1998 at his first exhibition at The Arts Company (Photo: The Arts Company)

Thornton Dial in November 1998 at his first exhibition at The Arts Company (PhotoThe Arts Company)

Contemporary Artist Thornton Dial has died at the age of 87.  We are sending notice to our Arts Company friends who have met Thornton Dial and purchased his work in our gallery over the past couple of decades.  

His first exhibit with us was in 1998, followed by a couple of decades of representing his elegant drawings and large paintings in our Nashville gallery, thanks to our long-time friend, Bill Arnett of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, who introduced Mr. Dial and his work to us and to the rest of the world.  When I first saw a stack of Mr. Dial’s drawings, I knew I was looking at something incredibly different.  I felt I knew what it must have been to experience seeing Picasso’s work in person for the first time before his work came out into the world.  I knew this work was something special.  Indeed, Dial’s work was clearly a game-changer.  I was seriously interested in outsider art, but had never seen anything quite like Dial’s work. 

Through many conversations with Arnett, I came to understand about the artistry of Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, the Gee’s Bend Quilters, and many more totally unknown African-American artists who had worked in obscurity for decades in the South, never imagining themselves to be artists.  What Arnett had done was uncover a legion of major artists at work in virtual obscurity.  When I asked Arnett one time how they could be referred to beyond describing them as outsider or folk artists, he replied simply:  Great American Artists.  I have never forgotten that conversation.  On thinking of my privileged access to the work of many of these newly-found American artists, especially through the various books Arnett researched and edited about what he referred to as “souls grown deep," it is clear that Arnett has completed his mission:  namely, to make the connection between indigenous southern music that produced jazz and the indigenous visual art that produced “visual jazz.”   This is truly rich art, art with grit—fresh, original, and contemporary.  Dial has given new life to the meaning and substance of art.  He has shown us our American culture from a totally different perspective.

Mr. Dial invented new approaches to record visually daily experiences as well as profound issues in American life using found materials.  He transformed the lives of African-Americans into a new visual mythology that is now entering the mainstream of what art can be about and why it matters in a new century.  Mr. Arnett and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation have given us all a gift when they gave 57 pieces of new- found art from heretofore unknown artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  As Sheena Wagstaff, Chair of the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art acknowledges:  “The most important aspect is that the collection adds to the American story of twentieth-century art—not the African-American story but the American story.”

Mr. Dial was a game-changer, indeed.  His friend Bill Arnett was side by side with him all the way. The art world and American culture are indebted to both of them.     

Mayor Karl Dean and Thornton Dial in August 2014 for the installation of his public sculpture for William Edmondson Park, commissioned by Metro Arts (Photo: The Arts Company)

Mayor Karl Dean and Thornton Dial in August 2014 for the installation of his public sculpture for William Edmondson Park, commissioned by Metro Arts (Photo: The Arts Company)