Tigers’ Eyes on Alabama Paper: Tailing Thornton Dial’s Drawings in the Princeton University Art Museum

Thornton Dial, McCalla, Alabama, 2007. Photo: Jerry Siegel. © Jerry SiegelAlthough Alabama continues to battle over voter redistricting and compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequent critical media coverage abounds, the state achieved a hard-won victory in late 2022 with the deletion of racist language from its 1901 constitution. Attempts by voters to remove this language were defeated in 2004 and 2012, but Alabamans remained undeterred. This fighting spirit is reflected in Alabama’s music, spirituality, athletics, and particularly in its Black vernacular art, also called folk art.

No artist draws a timeless portrait of the history of African American struggle in Alabama and the Deep South better than Thornton Dial Sr. (1928–2016) of Bessemer, Alabama. The sharecropper’s son transcended the limitations of poverty, a lack of formal education, and racism to create new and inspirational visual paradigms of Black life in the American South. Dial did not begin as a professional artist; he forged his artistic path while working at the Pullman-Standard Boxcar Company as an industrial laborer for close to thirty years. He was discovered in 1987, at age sixty, and patronized primarily by the indomitable collector of works by African American artists of the South, William (Bill) Arnett.

Early on, art critics panned Dial’s drawing style as crude and limited in publications such as the Atlanta Constitution.1 Critics also questioned the relationship between Black Southern self-taught artists and their patrons. This relationship was portrayed as exploitive in the controversial and scathing 1993 60 Minutes segment in which Morley Safer interviewed Dial, Charlie Lucas, Bessie Harvey, and other artists, as well as Bill Arnett. Safer’s exposé is as unnerving as a Southern Gothic novel on a rainy Sunday night. (Ms. Bessie Harvey put a hex on Bill Arnett for which unpaid pieces?!) Instead of focusing on Dial’s artistic process, skill, use of found and fine art materials, repetitive use of animals or female figures, and African American subject matter, Safer zeroed in on the “opportunistic” financial transactions between Dial and Arnett.2 Nevertheless, Dial remained limber and continued to make strides in the art world. He did not tire himself in senseless or safe pursuits. Dial did not allow himself to be captured by circuitous critical discourse about what art supplies his dealer should or should not purchase that would impact his style or how he should be labeled as an artist. He was a relentless tiger—an iconographic and personal emblem of Southern Black masculinity, Black political leadership and social change, independence, and stealth—on a visual mission to portray the struggles and triumphs of his people in whatever medium he was given access to.3

Thornton Dial (1928–2016; born Emelle, AL; died McCalla, AL), In and Out of Traffic: The Works of Life, 1992. Charcoal, graphite, and red chalk (rubbed), 76.2 × 112.4 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Donna Howell and her sons Matthew and Jonathan in memory of her husband James S. S. Howell, Class of 1974. © Estate of Thornton Dial / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New YorkThanks to his critics, Dial grew from an artist who used raw and unorthodox materials in preparatory sketches to one who worked diligently to create the finished treasures that we enjoy today in the Princeton University Art Museum’s collections. With the synthesis of high-quality paper, varied art supplies, and a fierce desire to master drawing, the tiger was on a new hunt. The Museum is fortunate to have five Thornton Dial works in its collections. Two 1992 works on paper, In and Out of Traffic: The Works of Life and You Can’t Get Away from the Business, demonstrate the resilience of the Alabama spirit even when facing daunting obstacles. “Chasing the tiger’s tale” is a euphemism for undertaking a dangerous endeavor that can come back and bite you, especially if you do not catch that tail.

In Dial’s In and Out of Traffic, two tigers and three disembodied female figures are in communication in symbolic ways. Dial’s floating, segmented female forms—unlike Willem de Kooning’s harsh, jerky, and abrasive renderings of the female nude—are inviting, deceptive, and sumptuous. The drawing’s central figure appears ready to envelop the extra-long tiger below in her fluid red-chalk arms as she slowly leans toward its tail. All three female heads lean in the direction of the tail. These three cunning Graces are of one mind: catch the tail before the claws of a second, sketchily drawn tiger above obliterate their efforts.

Thornton Dial, You Can't Get Away from the Business, 1992. Charcoal, graphite, and red chalk (rubbed), 76.2 × 112.4 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Donna Howell and her sons Matthew and Jonathan in memory of her husband James S. S. Howell, Class of 1974. © Estate of Thornton Dial / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New YorkWhile Dial was particularly interested in depicting sexual and power relationships between men and women, this work’s focus is not just on romantic endeavors in the uncertain jungle of seduction or persuasion—although to keep the unsuspecting tiger at bay below, some charisma and caresses are required.4 Nor is the tiger only a symbol of Dial, strong Black male sexuality, or Black political leadership. I argue that this tiger drawing reflects a sense of apprehension prior to the capture of political fortune, as Dial seized the artistic opportunities, good and bad, that lay before him. The central figure must seize the tiger’s tail at the right moment and handle it correctly to evade the attack of not one but two tigers—the tiger in the swirling cursory sketch above, full of violence and gumption, and the polished, seemingly serene, tiger below. Dial confronted these two other tigers in the wilderness. First, he employed Arnett to access the commercial art world and dealt with the fallout from hostile art critics. Second, he addressed the naysayers who believed that he did not have what it takes to make it as a contemporary American artist by displaying his adaptability, versatility, and creative roar in painting, sculpture, and drawing. He did not waste a moment.

What the women represent remains clear—they are unafraid in the presence of both tigers, almost energized by the lustrous tiger eyes. Dr. Bernard L. Herman states that the tiger becomes a docile, playful creature in the hands of Dial’s sensuous women, but that is more the case in You Can’t Get Away from the Business. The tigers in In and Out of Traffic are ready to pounce at any time; the moment of tranquility is only temporary. The women remain on guard, and the upper tiger’s claws are already extended to scratch the wily woman who will catch the lower tiger’s tail.

In You Can’t Get Away from the Business, Dial utilized the same media—charcoal, red chalk, and graphite—but here he employed multiple tigers and female heads and bodies. The tigers are not running in fear of their tails being caught; they are galloping and lying on their backs like winsome Tiggers from Winnie the Pooh, behaving like tigers in the wild. They claw at the women, while the women mostly stare on with curiosity and interest. The circular axis on which the figures reside is disorienting. We are reminded of the train cars and tracks that Dial built, but there is no starting point for the tigers and the women. They are almost encased in an ensō—a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism, an open and closed circular field of imperfection and perfection, beauty, and self-realization.

While not all the contested language in Alabama’s constitution was removed by voters in 2022, three important paragraphs were erased regarding antiquated laws on slavery and convict labor, poll taxes, and segregated schools.5 This provided some of the renewal and restoration on Alabama’s soil that Dial aesthetically outlined with his eyes and hands. The road to justice requires constant vigilance and maintenance, or it will fall into decay, ruin, and disrepair, much like a neglected train track. Dial delineated his hopes for greater respect, better relationships between men and women in the South, and for an Alabama that fosters creativity and recognition for its native Black artists and workers. The acquisition of his works by tony galleries and museums is only one part of the victorious story. The determined citizens of Alabama successfully tore through the wounding pages of legal history with overwhelming votes.

Danelle Bernten
Summer 2023, PLACE and Museum Voices Intern
PhD student, Florida State University

Ms. Danelle Bernten (she/her) is a doctoral student studying modern and contemporary art at Florida State University. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Louisiana State University. Her primary research interests are African American art, southern art, arts of the African diaspora, and folk art and spirituality.

1 Bernard L. Herman, “Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper,” in Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, ed. Bernard L. Herman (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 8.

2 Thornton Dial et al., “Tin Man,” interview by Morley Safer, 60 Minutes, CBS, November 21, 1993, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rklC5Kmfadc.

3 Paul Arnett, “Art Is Strange-Looking Stuff,” in Thornton Dial: I, Too, Am Alabama, ed. Paul Barrett and Rebecca Dobrinski (Birmingham: University of Alabama at Birmingham Press, 2022), 141.

4 Juan Logan, “We All Grew Up in That Life: Thornton Dial’s Sexual Politics on Paper,” in Herman, Thornton Dial, 145.

5 Sarah Swetlik, “Alabama Approves New State Constitution, Strips Racist Language from Text,” AL.com, November 8, 2022, https://www.al.com/election/2022/11/alabama-approves-new-state-constitution-strips-racist-language-from-text.html.