Nari Ward in Conversation with Thornton Dial, in his studio, 1993
Filmed by: France Morin
Location: Bessemer, Alabama
Around the time that Nari Ward was installing his work Carpet Angel in the New Museum’s New Work space at 583 Broadway, curator France Morin approached him to see if he would be interested in assisting with another upcoming exhibition. A solo show focusing on Thornton Dial, then known as a “folk artist,” was scheduled to open in November 1993, held jointly at the New Museum and the American Folk Art Museum in New York.1 Morin asked Ward to accompany New Museum staff on a trip down to Dial’s farm and studio in Bessemer, AL, to conduct a videotaped interview.
Ward agreed, later saying that Dial—who also worked with found material in dialogue with African-American experience—was particularly inspiring because his practice existed largely outside the mainstream of white-cube galleries and major metropolitan institutional spaces. In the video above, made public for the first time as part of the New Museum’s Digital Archive, Ward and Dial speak about Dial’s sense of survival, his imagery and motifs, and the use of everyday materials in the artistic process.
The heavily encrusted, built-up surfaces of Dial’s paintings are the result of foraging, reclamation, and reorganization: the artist affixes found materials like scrap metal, bits of rope, tree limbs, discarded clothing, and handfuls of sand to the canvas surface and then further works them into the representational plane by applying paint. For Dial, the repurposed objects he chooses contain histories of labor and transformation that existed long before he came along to reclaim them. In a series of interviews with art historian and collector William Arnett for the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Dial noted:
“I seen a lot of stuff peoples were making for the farm. And I watched blacksmiths. I have paid close attention to the blacksmith works. When I start making something, I gather up the pieces I want to work with. I only want materials that have been used by people, the works of the United States, that have did people some good but once they got the service out of them they throwed them away. So l pick it up and make something new out of it… . Everything I pick up be something that done did somebody some good in their lifetime. So I’m picking up on their spirit. It’s going to make you think about the work, the labor, what good they have did. When you make things beautiful out of another person’s ideas, it make the world more beautiful.” 2
In the conversation between Ward and Dial, this idea of the creative process carrying on the legacy of an object or material forges a space of shared understanding for the two artists:
Nari Ward: How do you choose what goes into [your] paintings?
Thornton Dial: Oh, just like you say—you go out and you find your stuff and you bring it back and you put it together. And then you wait with your picture. You wait with your picture until you get it right … . Everything I put in the picture was somebody else’s idea before it was mine. Before I picked it up, and brought it back to life.
Nari Ward: It’s so funny hearing you say all this, because that’s exactly the same sort of approach that I do.
In his closing remarks for the panel discussion, Ward affirmed the significance of speaking to Dial (and to artist-musician Lonnie Holley, whom he met on the same trip) about the ways in which they openly integrated magic, spiritualism, and religion into their artistic expressions:
“In coming back from Bessemer, Alabama, I had a real good feeling, and not just from meeting Mr Dial and Lonnie Holley. I had a real good feeling that something I was missing, I was exposed to. In the past when I’ve talked about my work, it’s always been the formal things and the process—the formal aspects and the materials. And when I met Lonnie Holley and Thornton Dial, these people and the way they talked about their work, they were expressing things that I was afraid to say because they weren’t supposedly ‘important contemporary art issues.’ Things about spiritualism, things about religion and how I grew up as a Baptist and how that affected my view of the world, and my view of materials and materials that were part of other people’s lives. So it allowed me to feel free about speaking about these things and feeling that I belonged … and it was a feeling of being thankful that I had gone.” 5
Maggie Mustard, Ph.D. Marcia Tucker Senior Research Fellow, New Museum of Contemporary Art Published March 25, 2019.