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Sharing a Moment, Experiencing a Life: My Day with Mr. Dial

Mr. Dial at the opening of the exhibition, "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial." Photo by Tad Fruits.

The first time I learned about Thornton Dial was last fall in my Introduction to Museum Studies course at IUPUI.  As preparatory work for a visit to the IMA, my class watched the documentary Mr. Dial Has Something To Say, which is now continually on view in the Davis Lab.  I highly recommend it!  Knowing all of the work he has accomplished in his life, I was overwhelmed when my boss, Cliff, told me that I was to escort Mr. Dial around the museum the morning that Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial would open.

On Thursday, February 24th, I stood in the the Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion with butterflies in my stomach.  Let me tell you, the anticipation of meeting a person you know to have such strength of spirit is extremely intimidating.  Then I met Mr. Dial, and though his spirit is just as strong as I thought it would be, his personality was amazingly warm and inviting.

As we moved into Hard Truths, Mr. Dial saw, for the first time, his life’s work exhibited in a way that truly represented the emotion and care that exists in each of his pieces.  He released a sigh, as though he had been holding his breath for twenty years.  It was like friends meeting again after a long separation.

Though I was a silent observer, I was able to share an amazing experience with Mr. Dial – both of us seeing, for the first time, the most extensive and complete exhibition of his artwork to date.  “You made it so beautiful,” Mr. Dial kept saying.  Joanne Cubbs, Adjunct Curator of American Art, would continually reply, “You are the one who made it beautiful.”  Walking with Mr. Dial was both amazing and humbling, and it made me appreciate his work and skill all the more.

Something that will stay with me is that when he spoke, though his voice was soft, everyone listened.  People didn’t just stop talking out of courtesy or because Mr. Dial was the man of the hour, although he was that.  People listened to what he said.  They listened because when Mr. Dial spoke, he said things.  His words, filled with stories and emotions, are windows into his artwork, and his artwork acts as windows into life.  His artworks tell stories that really say things. When you walk into Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, I hope you take the time to discover his stories for yourself, because each piece really does have something to say.

Filed under: Art, Exhibitions, Thornton Dial


Dial-ing In: From Gallery Model to Model Gallery

I saw everything in miniature first. The model held the new exhibition in exact scale. Upstairs in Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, our patrons were perusing the galleries but down here, in the IMA’s Design and Installation Department, I was towering over the same rooms’ diminutive sisters. I didn’t know a physical model was made of each exhibition before it was installed but not only do they exist—they’re painstakingly accurate. The walls, floors and tiny art pieces are all perfectly portioned effigies. It’s pretty adorable.

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Filed under: Design, Thornton Dial


Dial-ing In: Target Audience

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is filled with amazing pieces of work. I know that because I’ve been here, a lot. In fact, a lot of people who have never been to the IMA know it’s filled with amazing works. Our challenge isn’t convincing the public there is art here; it’s convincing people there is art relevant to them here.

Meg Liffick is the Assistant Director of Public Affairs here at the IMA. Meg and her team tightrope a difficult role between the curator and the museum-goer. The curator, as I understand it, is the head-of-household in the gallery and the coming/going/hopefully staying artwork is his or her children. It’s the curator’s job to know the artwork inside and out. It’s Meg’s and her teammates’ job to translate that expertise to a viewer who doesn’t know anything about the artwork or any artwork for that matter.

So how do they do it? How can someone be motivated to come to an art museum? Well, they have a few tricks up their sleeve.  Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial is our most recent exhibition/huge marketing undertaking. Dial is an extremely bold artist. You won’t find political, social or historical commentary listed as any of the many materials Dial employs in his art, but they’re there. Because Dial’s work embodies such strong emotions, it’s the very kind of art some people are afraid of. It can make you uncomfortable—not because it’s vulgar or offensive–but because you might not know how to feel at first. We’re used to the art of the snap judgment, not the art of the deeply expressive Alabama welder.

Thornton Dial. Photograph by David Raccuglia.

All of our marketing materials (brochures, posters, radio spots, etc.) are designed here. “We do everything in-house. Everything.  That’s what’s special about the IMA—we all collaborate, no one does anything alone.” says Meg.

The marketing around the city for Hard Truths pushes the story or experience of the exhibition and Dial, himself. Meg explains, “Once they’re on-site we allow people to form their own perspective, but we need to give people a reason to come initially.  We wanted to communicate that these works were largely 3-D.”

"Stars of Everything," 2004, 98 × 101. 1/2 × 20. 1/2 in., Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

The people involved with the IMA’s marketing have to create a way to honor and advertise the art, however, most –  if not all of them – don’t have formal art history training. Meg explains, “We don’t have art backgrounds, but we can communicate passion.” This exhibit is a completely different experience; one that not everyone would jump at initially. But it’s still relevant. It’s important to have some surprises in life, to (as our radio spots encourage) “Be amazed.” “Be inspired.”  I think Meg says it best, “Museums are here to fulfill the need that you have of finding spirituality, creativity and inspiration.”

Filed under: Art, Exhibitions, IMA Staff, Marketing, Thornton Dial


Capturing the Tiger: Photographing Thornton Dial

There are many responsibilities as Chief Photographer at the IMA, but none more rewarding than the opportunity to document contemporary artists in the process of artistic creation, social interactions, and exhibition installation.

These moments of observation are significant in service to the mission of the museum, and can potentially provide a collateral glimpse into the inner workings of creative practice.

In the summer of 2009, I was fortunate to accompany Conservation Department colleagues, Richard McCoy and Kathleen Kiefer, on a visit to Georgia and Alabama. The purpose of my presence during the trip was primarily to create documentation related to the evaluation and condition assessment of Thornton Dial’s works prior to the Hard Truths exhibition.

We chose to drive down from Indiana, as I loathe flying with every fiber of my being, and it was an opportunity to immerse ourselves in all things Dial along the way…audio interviews, books for the non-driver, and music steeped in southern culture and history. Setting the proper tone and knowing your subject are so important for interviews and photography, and we spent our driving time together reflecting on one man’s life and how his art connects us all through his personal experiences and vision.

Our days in Atlanta, prior to the scheduled Alabama visit, were a great occasion to spend some quality time with Mr. Dial’s assemblages in person, and provided a precursory opportunity for us to experience the works of art that will inform the photography process.

The grueling temperature of the Georgian warehouse in July was a test of will, antiperspirant, and intellectual mettle, seemingly akin to a purification of the mind, body, soul, and spirit. The sweat lodge effect was less than ideal, but we clearly understood its role in the South and the appropriate lesson that was layered into our collective experience of Mr. Dial’s art.

The most provocative portion of our travel was the end of the week outing to Bessemer, Alabama to meet Mr. Dial…and the only opportunity we had to interview and photograph him at the Dial Metal Patterns facility.

There was no guarantee I would have the opportunity, but my hope was to photograph him in his studio for publishing and media projects related to the exhibition.

Accompanied by collector Bill Arnett, Kathleen, Richard and I made the three-hour drive with anticipatory glee, as this was the moment to apply our research toward meaningful exchange and content creation efforts.

Due to the heat, we spent fewer moments as a group in the main workspace of the open-air building, but I was able to capture images of Mr. Dial’s studio space, as well as details of his art supplies, studio floor, etc. – anything that speaks to the artistic process, the artist’s intent, and can inform a broader portrait of the artist himself.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Photography, Road Trip, Thornton Dial


Hard Truths

Around the IMA, we’re full steam ahead for the February 25 opening of our next exhibition, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial. Installation is underway in the galleries, catalogues have arrived in the shop, final preparations are being made for the opening reception, the exhibition website has launched, and finishing touches are being put on the TAP mobile tour.

Thornton Dial presents his perspective on the big issues of our time – from current events that speak to him from a constant stream of news television to the resulting impact of social issues in our nation’s history – through his incredibly layered and symbol-rich work.  The lack of abandon he demonstrates with his choices of materials builds upon traditions found in African American yard art, re-purposing salvaged items while still mindful of their previous incarnations.  As he stated, “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 I pick it up and make something new out of it.”

Throughout the course of the exhibition, we’ll be featuring a series of blog posts inspired by Thornton Dial – not only discussing his art, but also exploring the larger topics he references in his work.  We’ll also look at the many ways that staffers at the museum work on the exhibition, and how these behind-the-scenes stories contribute to the whole. Stay tuned!

Filed under: Exhibitions, Thornton Dial


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