Thornton Dial: “I, Too, Am Alabama”

“Antioch” – Thornton Dial

“I, Too, Am Alabama,” an eye-opening retrospective of the transcendent art of Thornton Dial, is currently on-view at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts on the UAB campus in Birmingham. Thornton Dial (1928-2016) is often lumped with groups of artists referred to as “outsider,” “self-taught,” “primitive,” or “folk” artists. The Abroms-Engel exhibition prefers the label “vernacular artist” and clarifies that Dial’s artistry holds its own with mid- to late 20th-early 21st century contemporary artists of many styles.

Over the years, I have usually viewed Dial’s art alongside other of his contemporaries in the vernacular art movement. His importance was clear in those earlier shows but walking into large galleries surrounded by nothing but Thornton Dial’s work in a variety of media makes it clear just how significant his artistic vision is.

An Alabama native, Dial was born in Sumter County and spent most of his life in Bessemer, outside Birmingham. He worked as a metalworker at Bessemer’s Pullman-Standard plant until it closed in 1981, after which he focused on his artistic output. Dial’s first solo art exhibit was in New York in 1993 and marked the beginning of his rise to recognition in the art world.

“How Things Work: The Parade of Life” – Thornton Dial

“I, Too, Am Alabama” derives its title from the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too” and its famous final line, “I, too, am America.” In the current show at Abroms-Engel, the curators, Paul Barrett, assisted by Tina Ruggieri, have assembled a large collection of Dial works from various sources and in various styles. Large hanging works are dominant, but there are sculptures, works on paper, and smaller works scattered throughout the exhibit.

Most of Dial’s work, and something he has in common with other vernacular artists, consists of elements of assemblage. His incorporation of found objects includes toys, metals, cloth, plastics, shoes, gloves, tree branches, gravel, rope, carpet, soda bottles, hickory nuts, and myriad other objects. I think that one of the elements that makes this work most striking to me is that these found objects are most often embedded within layers of paints – enamels, spray paints, oils. These painted coatings transform the artworks from found to finished.

“Fairfield” – Thornton Dial

In “Fairfield,” for example, a found patchwork quilt is merged onto a canvas, flanked by two shadowy quilters, one of whom looks squarely at the viewer. “Separation,” a muted abstraction, is beautiful to gaze upon as other, smaller, suggestions of words and images appear among its various fragments. The complexity of works like “Nobody Know What Go on Behind the Jungle” and “How Things Work: The Parade of Life” demands extended and repeat viewing and, still, obscured images emerge each time.

Dial’s work addresses social issues and history, especially the history of Blackness, civil rights, and the concept of otherness in the United States. His recurring motif of the tiger is a symbol of survival. The viewer must ponder these works to find intrinsic messages. With Dial, an agenda never supersedes his artistic agency; these are, first and foremost, masterful creations of an assured individual vision.

“Separation” – Thornton Dial

“Nobody Know What Go On Beyond the Jungle” – Thornton Dial

“I, Too, Am Thornton Dial” will be on view at Abroms-Engel until December 10. A companion show of Dial’s works on paper is at Samford University’s School of the Arts Gallery through December 2.

Latest Reviews for Alabama Writers’ Forum

Two of my recent book reviews are now available for viewing at Alabama Writers’ Forum. The Gold-Plated Scarab and Other Stories is a lovely collection of short stories by Norman McMillan and More than Peanuts: The Unlikely Partnership of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver is Edith Powell’s book about a lesser-known collaboration in the scientist George Washington Carver’s storied career.

While you’re there, check out all of the other reviews and the newly renovated Alabama Writers’ Forum website:  https://www.writersforum.org

The Gold-Plated Scarab & Other Stories

More than Peanuts: The Unlikely Partnership of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver

Rhapsody in Rust

Marc Steel

Driving east on Sixth Avenue South in Titusville toward downtown, the abandoned Marc Steel complex is on the left just before the railroad underpass which marks the entrance into Birmingham’s expansive Southside. This abandoned industrial site has teased my imagination for a long time. Marc Steel was an industrial steel fabricator from the late 19th Century, when steel was the backbone – figuratively and literally – of Birmingham and the surrounding area.

Perhaps it is because I spent a childhood in Birmingham when the steel mills were still in full operation that the rusting remnants of that time have an enduring imaginative pull for me. I keep an eye out for industrial decay that, for me, has the same power and dignity of ancient relics. I can imagine a time when these places had purpose, when the lives of the locals were dependent on them; I can remember a time when the night sky would blaze orange and gold as molten metal was poured at the foundries.

Marc Steel

Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark is the grande dame of Birmingham industrial sites but the aesthetics of the Marc Steel structure – its silhouette, those massive windows, the rusting – have their own complex beauty. I understand that inside the Marc Steel buildings there is a trove of graffiti. Ideas are currently being solicited for renovation and the best uses for the property and the idea of affordable housing is being discussed. I wish them the best. The Marc Steel property cannot continue to deteriorate indefinitely; its restoration and renovation are essential. But, to me, it is magnificent in its decay (www.themarcsteel.com).

 

 

Fetch

When Railroad Park opened in 2010 next to the railroad tracks that split the north side from the south side of Birmingham’s central city, there wasn’t much else happening in the immediate area. Regions Field, home of Barons baseball, came soon after and the Parkside area now teems with entertainment, business, and residential options in new and converted spaces.  Railroad Park quickly earned its designation as “Birmingham’s Living Room” (www.railroadpark.org).

Fetch

Among the more interesting recent additions to Parkside is a new Birmingham hub for Fetch Rewards. The rusty panels on the building’s facade create a striking patchwork on a contemporary structure. The design was an unexpected find in my passion for rust. The first time I happened to catch a glimpse of the building out of the corner of my eye, I remember thinking wait, what? and parking the car to examine the find.

 

Another addition to my inventory of Birmingham rust is a brand-new entertainment nook in Avondale, nestled – once again – next to railroad tracks just down the street from the main Avondale business district. Elysian Gardens is the vision of artist William Colburn Jr., whose metalwork and whimsical sculptures adorn the location. Colburn’s metal flowers are his best-known works; I received one of Colburn’s fierce Venus Flytraps as a present not that long ago. His patinated flora is generously placed throughout the comfortable outdoor space which houses a bar, two restaurant spaces, and a stage suitable for a variety of performances.

Elysian Gardens

A particular charm of Elysian Gardens is that it enables its patrons to sit and wander among the sculpture. Colburn has fabricated butterfly-back chairs and barstools and, on a recent Sunday afternoon, casual visitors came, went, and stayed for a spell.  If Railroad Park has become Birmingham’s living room, Elysian Gardens seems on the path to become a cozy family room for Avondale (www.elysiangardensbham.com).

Book Review: It Falls Gently All Around

Alabama Writers’ Forum has just posted my review of Ramona Reeves’s award-winning collection of short fiction, It Falls Gently All Around. The book was just published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Read the review here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/10/07/it-falls-gently-all-around-and-other-stories

Book Review: Yazoo Clay by Schuyler Dickson

My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum is currently available on the AWF website. Dickson’s ambitious story collection is a co-winner of the Tartt First Fiction Award given annually by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama. Read the review here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/09/14/yazoo-clay

Book Review: Homer Hickam’s New Memoir

My latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum is now available on their website. Fans of the book, Rocket Boys, and its movie adaptation, October Sky, will be interested in the further adventures of their protagonist.

Read it here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/08/22/don-t-blow-yourself-up-the-further-true-adventures-and-travails-of-the-rocket-boy-of-october-sky

Another 5th of July

When I was taking a shower the other morning, Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” started playing in my head. You know, the one with the refrain that goes “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” (Actually, it was the Byrds’ version of that Dylan song that was playing in my head.) I can’t remember the last time I actually heard that song so it’s strange that it started playing in my head in the shower on a Saturday. I’ve been thinking about it since, though. Many consider the lyric to be a turning point and Dylan’s rejection of sorts of the more strident protest lyrics of his early career.

Pondering “My Back Pages” made me recall Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man,” a lyric that I once identified with. The title character martyrs himself “With his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand,” and “he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell.” The song’s narrator confesses that “I once believed in causes too, / I had my pointless point of view, /
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.”

In Lanford Wilson’s play Fifth of July, June Talley – a former ‘60s activist, tells her daughter, “You’ve no idea the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.”

Be warned, I need to vent now.

I’m not sure why these thoughts (and songs, and lines) are coming into my head, but I have a hunch: With all of the news about gun violence, a frightening activist conservative Supreme Court wreaking havoc with gun control, the environment, and women’s rights, and the general divisiveness in the country, I wonder what I can do about it and previous history tells me not much. Of course, I can vote, but we are now plagued with a generation of Alabama Republican politicians that would make George Wallace look progressive and I am finally acknowledging – after decades of preaching to students that their vote does count, that my vote in Alabama no longer counts for much. The Republican women running for Alabama state office feel the need to show themselves with firearms in their commercials and to demonstrate regrettable misinterpretation of the second amendment. The concept of separation of church and state is equally misinterpreted by those same people; they don’t seem to realize that its intent was to protect their religious freedom. Even though a known January 6 insurrectionist was defeated in his bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Alabama, the chirpy, gun-totin’ woman who defeated him managed to seem even worse.

I love Alabama and my family’s roots run deep here. I realize that my politics don’t align with the conservative majority, but I also know a lot of Alabamians whose politics align with my old-fashioned liberalism. What irks me is the way these politicians talk is if they represent all Alabamians; for the record, they don’t represent me. Even more galling, perhaps, is the fact that national progressive and liberal politicians seem to write off Alabama as hopeless to their politics and ability to gain votes. I feel overlooked and ignored from both sides of the spectrum.

I watch the protests on television and usually think bless their hearts. I’m with them in spirit, but I’m not sure I have much confidence in what they’re accomplishing other than looking a little silly with their rote chants and their predictable signs. I’ve seen it all before and, beyond the Civil Rights era, I’m not sure it’s still effective. Maybe it makes the protesters feel better at the end of the day; I certainly understand the desperation that drives them there.

I notice that we Baby Boomers seem to catch the blame for all of the evils in the world today, especially in snarky online posts, and especially among Generation Z types. But I have a different take. The three Supreme Court justices appointed by the previous occupant of the Oval Office, all of whom lied or misled during their confirmation hearings, are all post-Baby Boom (one of them, born in 1965, is on the cusp, actually). My theory is that the current regression of American culture is being fueled by the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who was idolized by many of that post-Baby Boom generation and whose political tenure was the beginning of all the things that so many of us are lamenting right now.

I have always taken comfort in the aspirational phrase “in Order to form a more perfect Union” in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It always seemed to mean we’re not perfect yet, but this is what we’re working toward. Throughout my lifetime, progress has been made – slowly but surely – toward that ideal. Today, though, it feels a little like we’re going backward and the conservative unbalance in the Supreme Court is going to plague us for a long while.

As I composed these thoughts, word came across that a seventh victim of the mass shooting at the Highland Park, Illinois, 4th of July parade, has died. Three people were gunned down a few weeks ago at a potluck supper at an Episcopal church just a few miles from my house in Birmingham. There are reports that the white supremacy domestic terrorist group, Patriot Front, is making its presence known in Birmingham on the eve of the opening of the 2022 World Games.

I may have to hit the streets in protest yet.

Alabama Writers’ Forum Reviews

I have two new reviews at Alabama Writers’ Forum. James Seay Brown Jr.’s Distracted by Alabama is a refreshing frolic through some of the state’s lesser traveled attractions. Christopher Shaffer revisits his youthful tour of duty as a teacher in post-Cold War Slovakia in the very entertaining Moon over Sasova.

Catch them both here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/

Just Steps Away

 I have been staying with a sick parent 24/7 for a couple of weeks now. My dad put a small raised flowerbed in the backyard right after they moved to this house on a mountain slope. The bed is anchored by four rosebushes; lantana and other perennials pop up as Spring turns to Summer.

When they first moved here, Mother started planting the inevitable Spring Easter lilies in a small corner by the fence in the back of the yard when they began to fade. Dad said they wouldn’t come back the following year, but they did. Eventually, that tiny patch was crowded and the annual Easter lilies in pots began to be transplanted to the raised bed, along with the occasional Calla lily.

This year’s crop of lilies was slow to bloom, but they are finally splendid and, on this rainy morning, I count about three dozen blooms either fully open or about to pop.

Finding time to look out a back window is a welcome respite from sick-bed duties. Two days ago, two chickadees worked hard to build a nest on top of a post on the back porch. A front came through and the next morning the small birds’ handiwork was scattered on the ground. I noticed later that the scatterings had been gathered into a neat pile on the porch floor. I hope it was the chickadees and that they plan to make another effort when the weather calms down.

Last night, when I let Lulu the chihuahua out, she and I stood and watched our first fireflies of the season as they floated across the backyard and in the woods below. Back in the house, I related the mating rituals of fireflies to Mother. I learned the ritual, which consumes the fireflies’ two week adult life-span, from my readings of scientist E.O. Wilson.

Once again, I remember that one can find real peace and pleasure by pondering the world just outside the door.