Thornton Dial | Self-taught artist, 87

Thornton Dial, 87, a self-taught artist who transformed discarded junk into sculpture and painted in bright colors and bold lines, died Monday at his home near Birmingham, Ala.

Born in 1928 to sharecroppers in rural west Alabama near the Mississippi line, Mr. Dial made things from materials he found for years. His work frequently dealt with history, politics, and race relations.

After working for decades in a boxcar factory, Mr. Dial came to wide attention in the art world in 1987 when he met Atlanta collector Bill Arnett through another self-taught artist who lived in Birmingham, Lonnie Holley. Arnett said Mr. Dial began pulling works out of an old poultry house the first time he visited the artist.

“I knew I was witnessing something great coming out of that turkey coop,” Arnett, who began the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, said in a statement. “I didn’t know at the time that it wasn’t simply the sculpture that was special. The man who had created it was a great man, and he would go on to become recognized as one of America’s greatest artists. I can’t think of any important artist who has started with less or accomplished more.”

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