Self-taught artist Thornton Dial has died

Thornton Dial, the celebrated, 87-year-old self-taught artist from Emelle, Ala., died today at his home in McCalla, Ala.

According to a 2012 profile in the AJC by Howard Pousner, Dial left school at age 12 and worked a series of blue collar jobs before launching a long career as a metal worker for the Pullman Standard boxcar factory. In his spare time he began making assemblages with found materials.

In 1987, self-taught artist Lonnie Holley introduced Dial to art collector William Arnett, who in turn introduced the world to Dial.

Dial was the subject of a retrospective show, "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial," at the High Museum of Art in 2011-12. Spanning 20 years, the exhibition contained 59 works that ranged from drawings in charcoal and colored pencil to what AJC art critic Felicia Feaster described as "monumental, propulsive and spirited ... large-scale paintings coated with tar-thick paint, insight and anger," that addressed social injustices such as poverty, the war in Iraq and the African slave trade.

Thornton's works are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the High Museum of Art. His 42-foot sculpture dedicated to civil rights activist Rep. John  Lewis resides in Freedom Park at Freedom Parkway and Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Thornton's health had been declining in recent years following a stroke. When he spoke to the media at the "Hard Truths" show in 2012, he was in a wheelchair piloted by his son, Richard Dial. At that time, Dial was asked what he'd like his legacy to be.

"Think good of me, " he said.

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About the Author

Suzanne Van Atten
Suzanne Van Atten
Suzanne Van Atten is Features Lead Content Manager for the AJC and editor of Personal Journeys, a long-form narrative feature that appears every Sunday...