1928 to 2016- Thornton Dial - One-of-a-kind artist.
I was born in Sumter County, Alabama. A midwife delivered me to my mama in a little country house in the field, one of them kind you can lay down and look up through the ceiling and see the sunshine.
I was born on Luther Elliot's plantation. My great-granddaddy Rich Dial lived there, and his family. Phil, Pete, Will, Bryant, Mattie, Sarah, and Martha Jane were his children. They were sharecropping, picking cotton.
They kept on farming and didn't ever come out of debt. The Man advance people from one end of the year to the other end. Every year the Man always say, "You just about come out of debt this time but didn't quite make it."
Rich Dial’s daughter Martha Jane was my grandmother. She married Gene Bell. They had my mother, named her Mattie—Mattie Bell. I never owned no daddy. My mama didn’t give me one. My mama told me once that my daddy was James Hutchins. My name supposed to be Bell, or Hutchins, but the Dials raised me and give me their name.
We picked cotton when we got big enough to walk. We go in front of my grandmama and pick cotton, and she carry the sack. We put it in her sack. She take a switch to us if we didn’t pick. I was just a little bitty something but I had to earn my way.
I was raised up in a old house in the pasture. We moved to it, on land belonged to the white Dial family. I was about something like six or seven, and they pay me to run the mule around the hay baler. We was working for my cousin Buddy Jake Dial. He was bright skinned, almost white. His mother look like a Indian lady—long pretty black hair. He take the money I make and give it to my grandmama. I’d drive the milk cows up to the barn for Fanny Allison, Buddy Jake’s sister. Used to help milk.
Across the road was a house owned by Cousin Irma on land she owned with her brother Columbus and her sister they called Honey Bee. Irma married James Hutchins, the man that may be my daddy. They already had a house on that land, but James Hutchins built a new one, and added on a barn and the old pump house and the fences around the pasture.
I didn’t go to school worth nothing. Mighty little bit. When I come to Bessemer about ’41, I was thirteen. Sarah Dial, my grand-mama’s sister, was living m Bessemer, married to Dave Lockett. They sent for me. I tried to go to Sloss’s Mining Camp school but the children made fun of me because I was so big, thirteen in the second grade and stuff like that. I didn’t know nothing, hadn’t been to school much, was more a man than a schoolboy. That was embarrassing. I went enough to learn a little bit. They told me, ”Learn to figure out your money and write your name: That’s as far as a Negro can go.”
I learned that. But it was just too embarrassing, all of them little children teasing me. I wasn’t just big; I looked “country”—country hair and clothes and all that.
I’d tell Auntie I’m going to school, but I’d sneak off and work, making money from the white folks. Not much, but I was enjoying doing something. Auntie never did know I wasn’t going to school. I’d join up with the children going to school and join them coming home from school. Lot of little fellows would lay out in the weeds drinking whiskey and shooting dice or flying kites all day long. I mostly worked.
I have did every kind of farming. All kind that been called. I come up hard, and I didn’t want to suffer. That will make you work. Other people let me use their land to grow things on just to keep it clean. I had little farms all over Pipe Shop [Dial's neighborhood in Bessemer]. I cleaned up the neighborhood. It’s consolation to my mind. I growed everything there, garden stuff—collard greens, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, squashes, watermelons, peanuts, tomatoes, rutabagas, beets, okra, turnips. Everything that growed I done tried. Didn’t have no plow, worked it up with a garden fork and a hoe. I’d take what I need, give the folks what they want off their own ground, sell the rest of it if I could. If I couldn’t, I give it away.
I ain’t never laid down on nobody. I always want to help myself and other peoples, too. If I could ever have enough for myself, I always give the rest away. I had my little children working together with me. That help to raise them up. leach them how to have something and to share.
I have raised a heap of animals. I have raised hogs, chickens, cows, goats, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and some other things, too. One time I had about a hundred head of hogs, price fell on them and I lost some big money. Dogs killed thirteen head of my calves. Animals is O.K., but you got to be able to hold it. A big man can make big money in animals. I always want to help myself, but animals was not for poor persons to get up with, ’cause they can’t hold on to them long enough.
I was doing some drawing recently about the Negro and the history, about slavery, about the families, about how we come to be in the United States, and about the future for everybody. I was drawing about the coal mines and the ore mines, about mules and horses, and coming to town—what you seen on the road.
It is exactly the truth that the Negro has been mistreated in the United States, that he been used. But we got to look at at what we have had to use, what he have built, after what he been through. I come through it myself, and I know what life was like at that time, and I can respect myself and the Negro for what we have did.
We was captured and brought over here to the United States. That was the Negro family, captured to do work on the farms. We had to work, and we had also to pay attention. We had to learn surviving. We had to learn that everything you want to do, you got to struggle for it. There’s still a lot of dislike and grudge around the Negroes, from the white man. Some people like to see things live and see things grow, and a lot of people like to kill things.
The Negro family was hard to keep together. The Negro man never had enough, and the hard part of his life was that he had to go to the white man and ask for anything he need or want, even after he had done worked for it. The black woman sometimes would think the black man didn’t do enough for the family to survive, and she disrespected the black man for letting the white man put him in a hole. There was love in the family, but so many struggles caused big problems between the black man and the black woman. Today’s different from back in that time.
Wasn’t nobody free back then but the white man. The white woman wasn’t even free. The black woman had a little bit of freedom, ’cause she was in the kitchen cooking for the white man, and washing up the dishes, and going off with him, whatever he asked for. And he prefer the black woman sometimes, and that give the black woman a kind of freedom.
The Negro wasn’t given nothing when he got here, so he had to work for it. And sometimes when he get freedom he didn’t know what to do with it. The white man ain’t never wanted the black man to be nothing, so he trained him not to be nothing, so the black man sometimes didn’t know how to be something when he got that opportunity. If you haven’t had no freedom you might not know what to do with it, except overjoying with it. White man don’t know how to handle free, overjoying black people.
It’s about likes and dislikes. People in the United States do not hate one another. No. But they be scared of one another. The way life have been taught is to make black peoples and white peoples be against one another in fear. I don’t believe there is any natural hate in people. I believe there is natural love. We can relate to people’s spirit and we can relate to their mind. I understand those things, and I believe we need to make the mind more close to the spirit.
I got this drawing about a bulldog. It’s showing you something about life, how the Negro always be hunting for something if he need it, and how he got to hunt all day, and sometimes he don’t catch nothing. Like Little Buck [Thornton Dial Jr.] say on a bad day sometimes, “Can’t kill nothing and won’t nothing die.” Like the government working the man all day and he didn’t get nothing in his life, and if he do finally catch something the government want half of it.
I lived that life, the back part of my life, coming on up like a bull in the pasture. Doing the work on the farm, chopping wood, toting brush. These are my pictures. I was part of the capture, lonely in those times. No freedom. But I was still flying like a bird. Inside me, picking up things, life always running good. I always had that mind, the dream of life, vision, that I could go up in the world. And thinking about the changing of life when you get up.
I done most every kind of work a man can do. Cement work on the highways, pouring iron at Jones Foundry, loaded bricks at Harbison Walker brickyard, did some pipe fitting, worked down at the waterworks, did carpentry and house painting for different white contractors, metalwork—all kind of it—iron and steel at at Pullman Standard for about thirty years. I’m a working man.
All my times was not good times. But the Lord always be paying attention. The Lord is like the heart in your body, always moving. So you keep on trying, you keep on learning. You can make life last and death pass.
Since I been making art, my mind got more things coming to it. The more you do, the more you see to do. The spirit works off the mind and get stronger. Like an angel following you around. Angel watching over you is just the life in your own body.
I have always been trying to do something in my life. The first thing I remember making I was a little old bitty thing. I hook up a matchbox to two hoppergrasses, tie threads around their neck. I wanted to have my own mules and wagon. Called it “the green horses.” You know, a hoppergrass kind of favor a horse. I fixed up hurt animals, too. Called myself a “doctor.”
I made little cars. Roads and trails in the sand. Roll them out with tin cans or a bottle. Build little houses. Make persons out of corn shucks. Build little hills, bridges. Me and Arthur [Dial's brother] done this underneath this old shade tree by Brown Chapel, this little church in Emelle [Dial's hometown in Sumter County]. Make little towns under the tree. I used to sit in a sandpile and draw pictures in the dirt, men working on the roads, mules on the road, houses by the road. I was drawing and making stuff about everything I would see. I did so much stuff back then.
I went to school a little bit, but mostly I just would sit there with the other boys, Archie Lee Pettigrew and a lot of them, and all of us drawed a lot; that’s why I didn’t learn too much. I was drawing pictures of Tarzan and cowboys and stuff like that I learned from the boys that went to the picture shows.
I always had the idea to draw. Put time at something like that you get better at it. I put in more time with drawing than I did with my lessons. Instead of being in my books I was into the drawing, and Professor King, the principal over the school, gave us so many ass-whippings. Back then, shoot, they whip you till you pee in your pants. So I quit school and went to work at the ice-house. It was more safe.
I done made so much stuff for the cemetery. A lot of that is still down there: flower stands, out of cement and iron; crosses, out of hardwood; cement blocks for grave markers. My cousin Velma sold some of it for me. She had a lot more orders, but I quit when I figured I couldn’t make a go of it.
I made a heap of fishing baits. Used to make them for bass-fishing by hand. Made them with screen wire, telephone cable line, aluminum, and plastic. I couldn’t never get the baits to work, but then y’all started buying them things for art collecting. Maybe it was art all the time but I didn’t know it.
I knitted I-don’t-know-how-many fishing nets. I even made a few basketball nets. I made a fence like a fishbone. I made it to beautify my yard, make people pay attention. I thought a fishbone would make a good fence design, so I went on and did it.
My art is talking about the power. It is talking about the coal mines and the ore mines and the steel mills. It is talking about the government, and the unions, and the people that controls the hills and the mountains. The power of the United States is the fuel that carries the United States on. It carries everything, the mills and factories and stores and houses. I try to show how the Negroes have worked in all these different places and have came to help make the power of the United States what it is today. When I was coming up they didn’t have this kind of power. They was using the Negroes at that time, but they didn’t want them to think. If Negroes tried to think, and would come up with a good idea, the white man would say, “Look at this idea I come up with.”
I had this idea once at Pullman Standard. They had this punching iron with a hydraulic cylinder. They didn’t have anything behind the cylinder to hold it in and keep it from blowing out. It was costing them money. They would lose cylinders and lose production. I had the idea how to correct that problem and save them a lot of money. I had Clara [Dial's wife] write it out, and I drawed pictures to show how it worked and give all of it to the people down in the office. About two or three weeks after, all that stuff started to get did in the factory. A white man I worked with, he said to me, “There go your patent.”
I used to have all kinds of ideas for them that would help them be improving the plant. Had a lot of them. I drawed them out, how to do it, to explain it to them. Sometimes I turned them in, sometimes I told the supervisor my ideas. They always seemed to use my ideas—maybe three weeks, a month later—but they never said nothing to me about it. Not even “Thank you, Dial.”
I have seen the Negro next to the mule, used like a farm animal at that time. I seen cruel things like that. A grown man should have not been handicapped that way. He should be able to fight for his freedom to say, “Yes, I will do because I want to do.” Black folks know what they got to do to live, and they will do it, they will work hard as they know how, as hard as the next man, by the sweat of their own brow. They want to have their own strategy for working, to use their own energy and spirit the way it come to them to do it, not do something because someone else make you do it. That’s freedom.
My art is the evidence of my freedom. When I start any piece of art I can pick up anything I want to pick up. When I get ready for that, I already got my idea for it. I start with whatever fits with my idea, things I will find anywhere. I gather up things from around. I see the piece in my mind before I start, but after you start making it you see more that need to go in it. It’s just like inventing something. It’s like patterns that you cut out to show you how to make something—a boxcar, or clothes. Everything got a pattern for it. The pattern for a piece of art is in your mind; it’s the idea for it. That’s the pattern.
I seen a lot of stuff peoples were making for the farm, and I watched blacksmiths. I have paid close attention to the blacksmith works. When I start making something, I gather up the pieces I want to work with. I only want materials that have been used by people, the works of the United States, that have did people some good but once they got the service out of them they throwed them away. So l pick it up and make something new out of it. That’s why we pick up these things. Negroes done learned how to pick up old things and make them brand-new. They had to learn them things to survive, and they done got wiser for doing, wiser by looking at the things and taking them into the mind. You call that “smart.”
I like to use the stuff that I know about, stuff that I know the feel of. There’s some kind of things I always liked to make stuff with. I’m talking about tin, steel, copper, and aluminum, and also old wood, carpet, rope, old clothes, sand, rocks, wire, screen, toys, tree limbs, and roots. You could say, “If Dial see it, he know what to do with it.”
I build a piece of art with those materials first, and then paint the thing. Art is future life, and I try to match up colors that fit that life. Art supposed to show the way the world is: sometimes dark, sometimes light. A piece of art is like the movement of the clouds, or the sun in the sky, like the works of the United States go, constant moving, always changing. The movement of the world always make changes in things. When I make art I have to keep making changes till I get it right. People say, “Hey Dial, that piece look good, ain’t it finished?” I say, “Nope, it ain’t finished till you got the feeling that it’s finished.” I like to touch every picture all over the surface of it. It got to be a finished product. I like to work on that surface, rub it, scratch it, smear it. I beat on it sometimes, knock holes in it. I have even set fire to it. I want that finished piece to be exactly right when it leave my hands. The piece going to have Mr. Dial in it, under it, and over it, and everybody can know it.
When I went to making art on plywood, I drawed it out first with a pencil, and after that I put on the other materials, stuff I find or stuff I have, like the steel, carpet, and old tin, and then I paint it. But under all those things I did a big drawing to guide what I put on top of it. If I wasn’t drawing under there, I was cutting out with a jigsaw. I cut the figures out of plywood, then the leftover pieces become something else in the next picture. Everything you pick up going to do you some good. Don’t nothing need to be throwed away. I could cut whatever out of a piece of plywood. I could imitate anything: a dog, a person, a tiger, a building, or a cloud. I paid attention to those things at that time. People got to pay attention to every little thing they do.
After while I just went to building my pieces right on to the board. I didn’t need to draw them out. Cutting out tin and carpet and stuff come natural like drawing. The mind do the imagining. I got where I could bend and twist the old materials as beautiful as I could draw it out with a pencil.
I was raised by women. It did a whole lot for me. Coming up in the world that way make me realize what struggle they have. Make me understand how to be a man.
Women was the ones always responsible for me. My great-grandmother raised me up. After she died when I was ten years old, I went to my mother’s sister, stayed there for two years, then come to Bessemer. Sarah Lockett took me in and raised me on up. My mama had moved to Bessemer and got married but wasn’t able to keep me.
Women are the creation of the world. They give love and care, and they also give strength and power. But you got to listen. I always paid attention to what the women was saying, ever since I were a little fellow. Women back then was picking cotton, doing hard time fieldwork, cooking, making, and providing. All the children back then had to respect grown ladies. It had to be “Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am” or you better not say nothing.
People say I make all my art about tigers, but I got tigers in just some of it. Women be in just about everything I have made, in one way or another way. That tiger for me symbolized the Struggle, in the works of life, but women are the creation of the world, at the creation of all works. If it wasn’t for women it wouldn’t be none of us here, and without them we couldn’t make it through the struggle. Man do a lot of struggling—that’s true—but without women giving the power and strength of their struggle to man’s struggle, man going to lose his struggle.
My first art show was back in ’90 at a college in Atlanta. Show was called Ladies of the United States. The folks seemed to respect my work to the highest, then the art writer at the Atlanta newspaper, she written that Mr. Dial can’t draw worth nothing and his art is ugly. My work at that time was all did on plywood with rope and tin and house paint and stuff. This artist, John Shelton, he tell me I ought to be using art paint [oil paint] and canvasses. He suggest I ought to draw pictures on paper to show peoples what I can do, and I started that at that time. I decided to draw my first paper pictures about women, ’cause the show the newspaper make fun of was all about women.
I have learned to make a beautiful picture by just using pencils and charcoal. The rubbing and the smearing is the struggle to make something beautiful with your own hands. I don’t use much color stuff now. You can make a lot of different colors only with black. I reckon every artist figured out that kind of stuff way back there.
I have learned a whole lot about drawing from my work at the Pullman Factory. Designs was punched out in the iron and steelworks; big, beautiful pieces of steel start out with a little design. They drawed out the designs for the templates on paper, then make them on wood, then bring them to be punched into iron to go on the train car. I got to seeing how things you draw out can be the design for everything. Everything in the world got a pattern. The mind got to see it, the hands got to make it.
It ought to be a whole lot in my art to help change things. If we going to change the world, we got to look at the little man. All them little folks out there—black peoples, poor white peoples—got big minds. We got to use them minds. If one person can get out there like I can and build things, that sets an example and it will let people improve the world.
One thing I learned: most middle-class white people see a black man struggle, they will help him with his struggle. You got to struggle your own self but if it be too much for you, somebody will help you.
All my pictures somehow be mostly about freedom. The black race of people have freedom now. That’s true. And we have the opportunity to look back at what we have did and be proud. Martin Luther King helped us to get that, with what he told us about the freedom of life. He said these things will happen, that we will join hands together. The world is getting more civilized now, more than I have seen ever in my life. A black man can be recognized now. That’s true. I know that I don’t have to ask nobody for a license to make art. My art talk about that freedom. People have fought for freedom all over the world. I try to show that struggle. It is a war to be fought. We’re trying to win it.
It seem like some people believe that just because I ain’t got no education, say I must be too ignorant for art. Seem like some people always going to value the Negro that way. I believe I have proved that my art is about ideas, and about life, and the experience of the world. I have tried to learn how to explain everything I have did. I tried to name everything that could be named about that experience, and if a person still see ignorance in me, he might just be looking into his own self. God made everything so clear that even a fool could not err. At least, even a fool ought to not. Education mean different things. I ain’t never been much good at talking about stuff. I always just done the stuff I had a mind to do. My art do my talking. Everything I think about and every idea my mind come up with, and all the stuff I have seen, every last thing that I believe, is right there in my art. It ain’t much different than writing a book. Some people supposed to can read art, like some people can read a book. Somebody that make art or somebody that can read art, they is somebody that been educated.
I plan for my art to help a person think. If he think about what art is saying, he going to be thinking for himself. Everything a artist make supposed to help a person handle his life better.
You start off with a vision in your mind, just like a blueprint for a house in your head. Like when I built my house. They ask me where I got a blueprint. I say, “In my head. I got no blueprint, just a mind.”
I been gone out there picking up lot of pieces. Everything I pickup be something that done did somebody some good in their lifetime. So I’m picking up on their spirit. It’s going to make you think about the work, the labor, what good they have did. When you make things beautiful out of another person’s ideas, it make the world more beautiful. I been studying a lot of stuff. Now I’m going to build it. The material I get, there was a design to it before I get it. Then you got to come back and redesign it.
Art is strange-looking stuff and most people don’t understand art. Most people don’t understand my art, the art of the Negroes, because most people don’t understand me, don’t understand the Negroes at all. If everybody understand one another, wouldn’t nobody make art. Art is something to open your eyes. Art is for understanding.
I always be looking to the future. I respect the past of life, but I don’t worry too much about it because it’s done passed. The struggles that we all have did, those struggles can teach us how to make improvement for the future. Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world. It can lead peoples through the darkness and help them from being afraid of the darkness. Art is a guide for every person who is looking for something. That’s how I can describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something.
Taken from interviews with Thornton Dial by William Arnett in 1995 and 1996.