Congressman John Lewis admires the ‘Hard Truths’ in Thornton Dial’s art

ON VIEW

“Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial”

Through March 3. $18; $15, students and seniors; $11, ages 6-17; free, 5 and younger. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4200, www.high.org.

Visiting the High during the holidays

Also on view at the Midtown museum is “Fast Forward: Modern Moments, 1913-2013,” drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and highlighting five watershed years in 20th-century art-making; and “Susan Cofer: Draw Near,” the first career retrospective by the longtime Atlanta artist known for her minutely detailed, nature-inspired drawings.

The High, open regular hours of 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 22 and noon-5 p.m. Dec. 23, will have extended holiday hours starting Dec. 24 (a day it is normally closed), when it will be open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and offer free admission. Other holiday hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Dec. 26, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Dec. 27, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Dec. 28 and Dec. 29, noon-6 p.m. Dec. 30, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 31 (closed Christmas Day).

They were born a dozen years apart and on different sides of Alabama, but U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and the acclaimed self-taught artist Thornton Dial had similar experiences growing up in segregated rural outposts during the Jim Crow era.

Both rose from humble roots to national prominence in their respective fields, but on those rare occasions when these quiet-spoken friends of some two decades get to visit, they tend to talk more of their challenging days growing up and the way Alabama has changed than the worlds they have traversed and conquered.

An art lover with a sizable collection he’s never counted or cataloged, Lewis proudly displays a large-scale Dial wall-mounted sculpture at his Atlanta office as well as paintings by his pal in his Washington and Atlanta homes.

The 72-year-old politician considers himself a kindred spirit with the artist, 84, who is the subject of a nationally touring retrospective, “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.”

With “Hard Truths” on view at the High Museum of Art through March 3, we talked to Lewis about Dial, whom he calls “a very moving person,” and the places where their lives intersect.

Lewis was born in 1940, the son of sharecroppers, outside of Troy in east Alabama, roughly an hour south of the state capital of Montgomery. Inspired by the mushrooming civil rights movement, he attended Fisk University and organized sit-ins at segregated Nashville lunch counters.

Dial was born in Emelle, a tiny burg near the Mississippi line in western Alabama’s Black Belt region, so named for its black soil that supported cotton plantations before the Civil War. He was working in the fields by age 6 or 7, and left school at age 12. After the death of the great-grandmother who raised him, he moved to be with relatives in Bessemer, near Birmingham, working for many years as a welder for the railway car-maker Pullman Standard Company.

Throughout his life, Dial made “things,” usually sculptural constructions from found objects. He came to encode these pieces with increasingly sophisticated social observations and messages that received belated recognition in the late 1980s.

Dial was recognized as one of folk art’s leading lights when Lewis selected him to create a public artwork in Atlanta commissioned by supporters who sought to honor the congressman’s civil rights achievements.

“The Bridge,” a 42-foot-long outdoor assemblage by Dial, was dedicated in 2005 in Freedom Park at Freedom Parkway and Ponce de Leon Avenue. It alludes to the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” protest Lewis helped lead across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

A few miles away at the High, “Hard Truths” is comprised of 59 wall-mounted assemblages, free-standing sculptures and drawings that unblinkingly address issues such as racial oppression in America and the marginalization of the underclass.

“I love his work,” Lewis said. “People classify him as a folk artist, but I think it’s more than folk art. To me, it’s almost classic.”

Lewis also commented …

On what he connects to in Dial's work: "He takes ordinary, what some people would consider throwaway, materials and makes it some of the most colorful and some of the most moving pieces. He makes it real, he brings it home to you."

On what they like to talk about: "We talk about growing up in Alabama, not so much about the art. I think he has this deep and abiding feeling that his art speaks for itself and he doesn't need to elaborate on it. So you have to sort of bring it out of him."

On what Dial told him about "The Bridge": "He said it's like the old and the new, it's traveling from one place to another place, and along the way, you come in contact with different parts of human life. And that we're still crossing a bridge. He was saying in effect: This is one bridge, but we have more bridges to cross."

On if he relates to the sculptural figure crossing "Bridge": "I can identify with it. I think it captures the essence of what I have been all about, what I've tried to do."

On some of his other favorite artists: "I have several pieces from different (folk) artists: R.A. Miller, the minister in northwest Georgia (the Rev. Howard Finster), a piece by Bernice Sims (an Alabama memory painter known for depictions of civil rights protests), Mose T. (Tolliver). … I admire them all but also love (Romare) Bearden and (Jacob) Lawrence."

On if Dial shares Lewis' sense of hope, despite the hard truths his art addresses: "Oh yeah, he's not hostile or bitter. He's a very positive human being. What he's been able to do with his art is capture the essence of what he saw, what he felt. And to a significant degree, he is telling stories, as part of our history, part of our past. It also tells us something about the future."

On Dial's legacy: "These (large sculptural) works of art of his belong in a museum, preserved for generations, because they tell us the story of a particular period in the history of America and especially the American South."

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