Life of Thornton Dial, Sr. Honored With Exhibit

March 31, 2016

Virginia Union University will be celebrating the life of prominent African American visual artist, Thornton Dial, Sr., who passed away on January 26, 2016. The event will be held on April 5, 2016 in the VUU Museum Galleries.

A self-taught artist who was born on September 10, 1928 in Emelle Alabama, Dial was most famous for his pieces that depicted being African American in the Black Belt of America, and a rapidly changing society during the Civil Rights era. He built his pieces with whatever he could salvage while working in the industrial suburb of Birmingham. Much of the work that he created he did not consider art until his 50s, when art collector William Arnett discovered him.

“I knew I was witnessing something great coming out of that chicken coop,” Arnett has been quoted saying upon his discovery of Dial in 1987, who fit Arnett’s mold of African American artists in the deep South whose work he wanted to preserve to incorporate into his collection, Souls Grown Deep.

After taking him under his wing, Dial’s fame rose through the 90s with pieces being displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of Art. With a repeating theme of tigers, a symbol for the strength and survival in the black community, strong brush strokes and texture, Dial’s work paralleled the likes of Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. Drawing inspiration on what he knew best, Dial’s commentary on the darkness of the Deep South and resilience of the spirit of the black community still resonates with us today.

Thanks to a generous donation by Barbara and James Sellman, Virginia Union now houses over 70 pieces of his collection on permanent display in the L. Douglas Wilder Library and are one of the most important repositories of his work in a private university.