Thornton Dial Sr. was born in Emelle, Alabama. He grew up in poverty and only attended school through the fourth grade. Lacking conventional toys, Dial and his siblings constructed playthings out of discarded items; a practice that influenced his later work as a sculptor.
Dial worked for the Pullman Standard Company for 30 years. He did iron and cement work, and was a sort of jack-of-all-trades. Collector and scholar Bill Arnett learned of Dial’s art through the self-taught artist Lonnie Holley and brought the artist’s work into the limelight in 1987. Before that time, Dial’s wife, Clara Mae, would make him bury his “junk.”
Dial, sometimes called Buck Dial, created sculptural objects and large assemblages using found objects. He also utilized pastels and paints on paper, varying in size and medium to suit his subject. Having lived his entire life in the rural American South as a black working-class man, his art reveals a unique perspective on America’s most difficult and pervasive challenges, including its long history of race and class conflict, the war in Iraq, and the tragedy of 9/11. Dial has had solo shows in major museums in New York City and Houston. Although for most of his life he was unaware of the formal meaning of art, he once stated in an interview: “Art ain’t about paint. It ain’t about canvas. It’s about ideas. I have found how to get my ideas out and I won’t stop. I got ten thousand left.”