Often reticent, if not reluctant, to discuss the meaning behind his work, Thornton Dial encouraged viewers to make their own interpretations, saying “You got my art. You got my mind.” Known for his lyrical drawings and intricate sculptural constructions composed of found objects, Dial created art that speaks to African American experiences in the twentieth century.

Dial’s teenaged mother gave birth to him in a cabin on a former Alabama cotton plantation on September 10, 1928. When his mother could no longer care for him, his great-grandmother assumed that responsibility. As a boy, Dial labored on the farm—picking cotton or driving a mule—and rarely attended school. Following his great-grandmother’s death, the twelve-year-old future artist moved to Bessemer to live with another relative. He held a series of odd jobs, from hauling ice blocks to laying concrete, until he found permanent employment as a metalworker at the Pullman-Standard Rail Car Manufacturing Company. He would remain at the boxcar factory for the next thirty years until it closed.

Thornton Dial married Clara Mae Murrow in 1951, and the couple had five children. Using the techniques he learned at the factory, Dial began making shapes out of scrap metal and other random materials. When Pullman-Standard folded in 1981, Dial went into business with his sons, crafting metal outdoor furniture. This enterprise facilitated Dial’s practice of “making things” with any used objects available—rope, twigs, rags, and spray paint. His creative impulse was so strong that his pieces covered the yard and piled up in the house, leaving the property in disarray and prompting his wife to ask him to bury the detritus. Dial would later recall in an interview: “When you start doing something and don’t nobody pay attention to it, you’ll throw it away, too.”

The year 1987 would prove to be a monumental one for Dial. A fellow self-taught Alabama artist, Lonnie Holley, introduced Dial to an Atlanta-based collector named William Arnett. Before Dial met Arnett, he was unaware that his assemblages could be considered art. Through Arnett’s advocacy, Dial obtained necessary financial support and was able to wholly devote his days to producing art. Arnett also introduced the artist to new materials, such as chalk and watercolor, and encouraged him to experiment with drawing. Despite Dial’s insistence that Arnett was a friend, the public found this relationship fraught with exploitation. A disastrous 1995 interview for "60 Minutes" presented Dial in stereotypical terms and portrayed Arnett as a white profiteer. The segment thwarted Dial’s critical ascent and commercial success as museums canceled exhibitions and acquisitions ebbed. But Dial continued to create in light of this adversity, becoming one of the most consequential contemporary American artists to date. Arnett went on to establish the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of artists from the African American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted.

Materials hold significance for Dial, who vowed that “I only want materials that have been used by people, the works of the United States, that have did people some good.” The history embedded in the objects often define the artwork—for instance, animals bones used to reflect the cycle of life. Rich saturated color, gestural movements, and layered surfaces give voice to the array of gathered objects. In this way, Dial’s work relates to another Southern multi-media assemblage artist, Robert Rauschenberg. Dial’s vernacular language incites a reevaluation into how art is categorized, collected, and interpreted. In 2011, the High Museum mounted an extensive retrospective of the artist’s work, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, which “depicted the tragedies and triumphs of humanity.” The artist’s work is represented in American’s most prestigious institutions.