A Day With Thornton Dial Sr.

By Christopher Gamboni

In 1991, Frank Maresca, Roger Ricco, and William Louis-Dreyfus visited the studio of Thornton Dial Sr. Filmed by Christopher Gamboni in Bessemer, Alabama.

Thornton Dial Sr. was born in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama. He grew up in poverty, only attending school through the fourth grade. Dial and his siblings, lacking conventional toys, constructed playthings out of discarded items; a practice which clearly influenced his later work as a sculptor.

Dial worked for the Pullman Standard Company for thirty years. He did iron work, 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 Dial’s work to the art world in 1987. Before that time, Dial’s wife, Clara Mae, would make him bury his “junk.”

Thornton Dial, sometimes called Buck Dial, creates sculptural objects and large assemblages using found objects. He also uses pastels and paints on paper, varying in size and medium to suit the subject. Dial has deep convictions concerning racial, religious, political, and social values that he expresses in his work. Dial has had solo shows in major museums in New York City and Houston. Not long ago, he was unaware of the formal meaning of art, yet he recently 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.”