On Thornton Dial (1928-2016)
February 4, 2016

The American artist Thornton Dial died on January 25, 2016, at the age of 87. Leslie Umberger, SAAM's curator of folk and self-taught art writes an appreciation about Mr. Dial and his work.

Thorton Dial

Thornton Dial. Photo by Vanessa Vadim.

In large-scale painted assemblages and mixed-media sculptures that were both mellifluous and arresting, Dial channeled his perspectives on black life in the American South. He was an artist of paradoxes. He used colors, compositions, and material combinations that appeared bold and contemporary although his experience was that of poverty and hardship in the segregated South. In spite of little formal education, his paintings speak allegorically about African American history and culture with an overriding theme of struggle and the will to overcome. Dial's extraordinary artistic sophistication challenged the boundaries of the mainstream art world and any number of assumptions about art made by an untrained, uneducated African American from rural Alabama. His impact on the art world has already been enormous, and it is only just beginning to be fully gauged.

Dial's mother was a sharecropper and the daughter of sharecroppers and he was raised primarily by his grandmother in Emelle, Alabama. "I was born in Sumter County, Alabama. A midwife delivered me to my mama in a little country house in the field, one of them kind you can lay down and look up through the ceiling and see the sunshine," Dial recounted in interviews from 1995 and 1996 (on file at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation). He goes on to say:

"It is exactly the truth that the Negro has been mistreated in the United States, that he been used. But we got to look at what we have had to use, what he have built, after what he been through. I come through it myself, and I know what life was like at that time, and I can respect myself and the Negro for what we have did.

We was captured and brought over here to the United States. That was the Negro family, captured to do work on the farms. We had to work, and we had also to pay attention. We had to learn surviving. We had to learn that everything you want to do, you got to struggle for it."

It had always been Dial's nature to make things, and coming from a family of little means, using available materials to make things such as toys and fishing lures was the only option. But when his creations grew increasingly large and creative, he hid them, fearing that he was breaking some unspecified law by expressing his personal views.

In 1992, the Smithsonian American Art Museum was among the first museums to welcome a major work by Dial into our collection thanks to a gift from William Arnett, who championed the artist from the time they met around 1987 after being introduced by the artist Lonnie Holley. Holley and Arnett convinced Dial his expressions were not only valid, but meaningful and important.

In African Jungle Picture: If the Ladies Had Knew the Snakes Wouldn't Bite Them They Wouldn't Have Hurt the Snakes; If the Snakes Had Knew the Ladies Wouldn't Hurt Them They Wouldn't Have Bit the Ladies, Dial ruminates on the complexities of trust, using a subtle, fable-like depiction to speak about the larger issue of race relations in the United States. Dial's narrative poses a hard question: How can our culture ever move beyond a centuries-old cycle of mistrust?

SAAM is home to the largest collection of works by African American artists anywhere. In 2012, Dial was among those selected for the exhibition African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond. And, his work appears in this month's online exhibition of African American Art in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. The painting Top of the Line (Steel) (1992), given to the museum by Ron and June Shelp in 1993, is a frenetic interpretation of the 1992 Los Angeles riots—the response to the acquittal of four white policemen who severely beat the unarmed motorist, Rodney King. The colors black, white, and red tell a tale of racial conflict and bloodshed.

Thornton Dial

The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle; 75 x 112 x 13"; Plastic soda bottles, doll, clothing, bedding, wire, found metal, rubber glove, turtle shell, artificial flowers, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood; Private Collection; STEPHEN PITKIN, PITKIN STUDIO/© THORNTON DIAL

In the fall of 2016, one of Dial's major works, The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle (2003), will be on view in a first floor gallery dedicated to the themes of struggle and persistence. In this vibrant and commanding painted assemblage, Dial speaks of the ephemeral nature of all beings. The colors seem warm and optimistic, yet the tangled composition and the work's title suggest the unending complexities of navigating and surviving this world we share.

It is hard to measure the significance of an artist like Thornton Dial. I was fortunate enough to be among those who met him in the mid-1990s. I was introduced by Bill Arnett, who was already hard at work making sure that the world would know about him, and making sure that Dial would see himself as a part of something vital. Dial made a great impression on me and had an inestimable impact on my own path. But I can't say I knew him. Matt Arnett, Bill's son, has explained:

"Mr. Dial was a private man. He had learned that the best way to survive was to keep his ideas and intentions to himself. It's hard to explain how uncomfortable he was, at first, with all the attention. He spent the first half of his life having very little interaction with white people. He'd rarely eaten at integrated restaurants and never outside of the small town he lived in. He'd rarely had conversations with white people who weren't his boss, and this was in tough, factory settings in the Jim Crow South."

Dial kept making art regardless of who supported him and who didn't; year after year he faced the challenges like he had his entire life. Today Dial's work is held by some of the most notable institutions in the country: the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the High Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Posted by Jeff on February 4, 2016 in American Art Everywhere, American Art Here
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February's Handi-Hour
February 3, 2016

Handi-Hour: String Art

February's Handi-hour is sold out, but don't despair! You can get your own private tutoring session with our videos right here. This month we're making string art with map pins, cork boards and embroidery floss. Create an artwork inspired by Gabriel Dawe featuring your initial or home state. And, as is our Handi-hour tradition, we have SweetArts. Make a sweet (or snarky) Valentine like the teacup one featured here.

Handi-Hour: Make a Valentine

Keep an eye out for our next Handi-hour video to go up in mid-March and tickets for our Handi-hour on May 24th will go on sale in early May.

Posted by Gloria on February 3, 2016 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Seeing Things (15): Looking Through Glass
January 29, 2016

This is the fifteenth in a series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. Take a look at Howard's other blog posts about seeing things.


Pierce Francis Connelly's Cordelia, taken on Museum Selfie Day, 2015

Today, in the museum, I noticed all kinds of looking, and realized that often we're looking at images through glass. In certain galleries, light-sensitive works of art are behind protective UV, and fragile three-dimensional objects are often cased. I saw an older couple take out a magnifying glass from a small black case that looked like a deck of cards to check out details in a photograph behind a frame.

People of all ages take out their cell phones and snap pictures of art—or of themselves in front of art—and send them to friends in other buildings, in other cities, in other parts of the world. Their phones will ping and they'll be invited to see an image through glass. I thought of all the ways we look and share art these days, and then I thought of Alice—perhaps our foremost storyteller—who traveled to the other side of a mirror to seek her adventures Through the Looking Glass.

We all want to fall into a good story. When we send our images that will be viewed behind a clear screen, perhaps we're following Alice's lead—adding our own narratives to the never-ending mirror of storytelling.

Posted by Howard on January 29, 2016 in Seeing Things
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Painting with LED Light at the Renwick
January 27, 2016

"Years ago when we started looking at LEDs they just weren't ready for use in museums," says Scott Rosenfeld, lighting director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. In 2010, Rosenfeld set out to see what he could learn about LED lighting and apply it to the museum. All lighting within the galleries and public spaces in the recently renovated Renwick was converted to LED after extensive research, testing, and prototype development. In fact, Rosenfeld's work is changing the way museums within the Smithsonian and elsewhere light their galleries and works of art. Incandescent lighting is so last century; LED technology is the wave of the future.

Lighting the Maya Lin

Lighting Maya Lin's Folding the Chesapeake. Top: Traditional modern art lighting. Bottom: Lighting with LEDs and plastic lenses.

Rosenfeld and a team of scientists from the Department of Energy (a lighting scientist), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (a vision scientist), and the Getty Conservation Institute (a conservation scientist) were able to develop LED lighting that hit all the right notes for museums, both aesthetically and technically. They set up two test galleries in the Renwick and SAAM to try out LEDS by different manufacturers.

One thing they learned is that a new kind of fixture needed to be created. The old incandescent light fixtures were sealed to prevent light leak. However, since "electronics hate heat" a fixture had to be created that eliminated high temperatures. "We went from wanting completely sealed lights to canisters with holes for ventilation. The air can pass through but not the light," says Rosenfeld.

The LEDs have brought an array of benefits to the museum. "There are such compelling reasons to use them," Rosenfeld tells me as we walk through the Renwick, "They last at least three times longer than incandescent bulbs and they use a quarter of the electricity. "If this were an all-incandescent museum, we'd use five watts per square foot. We're now down to one watt, a savings of about 80 percent of the energy. It looks beautiful and its better."

LEDs use less energy and help stabilize the climate for the museum. "A museum with all incandescent lighting takes three hours for climate controls to catch up," Rosenfeld says, "We don't have a massive heat load, so the museum has a more stable temperature and humidity environment."

The LEDs also allow Rosenfeld to call on his background in theater lighting and really pinpoint the light. What's most important for Rosenfeld is the artwork and the visitor experience. The question he always asks himself is, "What can I do with light to help create a dynamic experience that conveys the artist's ideas?" The original idea for lighting Maya Lin's WONDER installation, Folding the Chesapeake, was to floodlight it like modern art. When Lin came in and saw it she thought, "Oh no, not flat lighting." Rosenfeld and Lin spent the next five hours redoing the light. "I started tracing the rivers with light. This type of lighting would not have been possible with conventional halogen spotlights. LEDS are directional by nature, so we noodged the industry to create a 4-degree LED spotlight for us. With the addition of special plastic lenses, LEDS allow me to paint with light. I can stretch the light, and in effect, make rivers of light. The secret of lighting design, I was once told, is to put the light where you want it and take it away where you don't."

"LED is not the story, the art is the story," Rosenfeld says, then quickly adds, "Unless of course the artwork, like the Leo Villareal installation (Volume (Renwick), is composed of LED lights."

Posted by Howard on January 27, 2016 in Museums & Technology
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Luce Artist Talk with Jesse Shipley
January 20, 2016

Parmly Sisters

Thomas P. Rossiter's The Parmly Sisters

Very rarely does an artist get the opportunity to see their artworks come alive, but Jesse Shipley's designs do on theater stages throughout D.C.

On Saturday, January 30th the local costume designer will visit the Luce Foundation Center to discuss what it's like to see your art as a part of a live performance. This discussion will be the first in in our Luce Artist Talk series for 2016.

Since receiving her Bachelor's degree in theater from George Mason University, Shipley has been a costume designer and wardrobe specialist for some of D.C.'s most exciting theater productions. And she has had the opportunity to channel her creativity into creating costumes for several, including Cultural DC's Source Festival.

While at the Luce Center, Shipley will discuss the connection between fine art and performance-based art. And she will use as examples artworks now on display in Luce's open storage area, such as Thomas P. Rossiter's The Parmly Sisters. She will also bring in costumes from her own career to illustrate and highlight the connection between painting and costume design. At the conclusion of her talk, there will be a question and answer period.

Luce Artist Talks begin at 1:30 p.m. Beverages will be served until 3:30 p.m.

Posted by Adrienne on January 20, 2016 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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