For Thornton Dial, creative expression was a way of being: In interviews with art collector William Arnett, the self-taught artist from Alabama said, “My art is proof of my freedom.” Throughout his life, Dial created works of art in response to his everyday joys and the struggles he faced as a black man living in the rural south. Even after suffering a stroke, he adapted his art style to his declining health.
During the last years of his life, and after his death in 2016, his works traveled to prestigious museums in New York, Washington, DC and Houston. This fall, much of his artwork returned to where he grew up and raised his own family. The latest exhibit at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Me too, I’m Alabama offers a homecoming for Dial, showcasing his drawings, paintings, and assemblages of giant found objects, including previously unseen massive paintings that were in his Bessemer studio after his death. Me too, I’m Alabama is free and open to the public and will continue until December 10, 2022.
The solo exhibition is a comprehensive and thoughtful tribute to the artist and his place of origin. “Nobody in his neighborhood got to see it in the context of Alabama,” says guest curator Paul Barrett. “We literally wanted to bring him home to people who knew him in real life and felt his presence.” Dial, who has spent his whole life in his native country, was not initially a career artist: as a young man, he left school to support his family on a sharecropping farm and a former cotton plantation in the segregated rural town of Emelle, Alabama. – which is now one of the most toxic waste dumps in the country. While Dial continued to craft furniture and metalwork, he still used his hands, whether responding to President Barack Obama’s inauguration, crafting sculptural fishing lures, or shaping a scene in the world. dog show with metal, wire, marbles and bread bags.
Text panels from the exhibition and passages from the catalog weave together a multi-voiced narrative with the voices of Dial’s friends, art scholars, museum lenders and collectors as well as excerpts from interviews with his family. It also brings together artists affected by the influence of Dial, including Alabama Poet Laureate Ashley M. Jones, Los Angeles artist Umar Rashid and one of Dial’s sons, Richard Dial. “The exhibition became a little bit of news about what Thornton Dial meant to everyone,” says John Fields, director of AEIVA.
Accessibility was a priority for the Conservatives. “It was important that the sites were free and open to the public with no barriers to entry,” says Barret. “We didn’t want to turn anyone away because they didn’t have the money to pay the admission fee.” At the beginning of the fair, AEIVA offered free shuttles from the municipal library to Me too, I’m Alabama. “We recognize that there is a problem [in the art world]– for communities across the United States, museums have traditionally not been viewed as welcoming spaces for people of color. Most museums resemble courthouses and government buildings. It can be intimidating.
Some of the most meaningful curatorial moments have come from working with Dial’s family. Dial’s son, Richard, runs the 360 degree virtual tour of Dial’s Bessamer studio, speaking of his dad with kindness and deep admiration. “The joy of working with him, and his spirit, seemed to linger here,” Richard shares during the virtual tour. “That studio was all him, and his image fills the room. Those are the closest memories you can get.
Barrett recalls how happy Dial’s family was at the start of the show. One of the artist’s granddaughters found familiar pieces in one of the sculptures, including a teddy bear. “She and her mother went through and through, pointing out different things they remembered. He used their materials in his sculpture. They saw their toys differently, they saw it as art,” says Barrett.
For Fields, witnessing this intergenerational interaction spoke directly to the power of Dial’s work. “Inanimate objects that have changed hands over generations can retain memories and energies. In works of art made from found objects, they can be charged,” says Fields. “The kind of memories and stories the objects have affects how the viewer reacts to them. You almost teared up.
As for Dial’s family members, they shed their own tears of joy. “They thought they would die without seeing something like this,” Barrett says. “Everyone said that this show, hands down, meant more to them than any other presentation of Dial’s work. Because it’s my home.