Hailing from Alabama, Thornton Dial (b. 1928) had a long career as a railroad welder for the Pullman Standard Company before he turned to art. Throughout his practice, Dial has repurposed found materials, sometimes in homage to their original purpose, sometimes in the service of new narratives. Hard Labor is a wash bucket surrounded by flowers and a fire; it speaks to women’s work. It is also an ode to the deep South in keeping with Dial’s frequent depictions of Southern rural life, which are often “rendered in a muted palette and composed of tattered...materials [that] reify the passage of time and offer a haunting tribute to a past marked by deprivation and adversity” (Joanne Cubbs and Eugene Metcalf, eds., Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial (Indianapolis, 2011), p. 107). Dial’s respect for women - and their difficult jobs as cleaners, cooks, gardeners and caretakers - is expressed through the tub and celebrated in the roses that flank the canvas. These flowers, made from found cloth, repurpose the rags of domesticity to a beautiful end.
Dial’s titles are integral elements of his process, and they lead viewers to find meaning in sometimes abstract visual scenes. “Hard” is a keyword that recurs in many instances. In the Roosevelt Time (Hard Labor), a drawing now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, depicts a woman picking cotton; Hard Truths was the name of the artist’s most recent touring retrospective. The works and projects that share and incorporate this word can reveal social struggles of African Americans, challenges faced by women, or political problems in America. Taken as a whole, the artist’s “hard” works and projects are a succinct and poignant cross-section of his oeuvre.
Dial has been the subject of several retrospectives, including the major 2011 touring exhibition Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. His work is in many museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Dial’s work will feature prominently in an upcoming exhibition of Southern African American Vernacular Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.