THORTON DIAL, OUTSIDER ARTIST WHOSE WORK TOLD OF BLACK LIFE
Mr. Dial was a self-taught artist whose paintings and assemblages fashioned from scavenged materials found their way to the permanent collections of major museums.
Who gets to be called an artist?
Thornton Dial, a self-taught artist whose works with everyday materials spoke to the difficulty of black life in the South, challenged the art world’s answer to that question. Dial died on Monday at the age of 87.
“The first thing I remember making I was a little old bitty thing,” Dial said in an interview with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which owns a number of his pieces. “I hook up a matchbox to two hoppergrasses, tie threads around their neck. I wanted to have my own mules and wagon. Called it ‘the green horses.’”
He often worked with found materials — rope, cans, carpet and steel — and styled them, drawing on African-American folk art traditions, into commentary on the problems of systemic racism and oppression in the South. Some of his pieces spoke to the tradition of African-American yard shows, which consisted of sculptures created from cast-off objects. He “made something out of nothing,” Alvia Wardlaw, who curated an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2005, said.
The collector Bill Arnett met Dial in 1987 and spent the next few decades championing Dial’s work through the mainstream art world, in part by organizing tours of curators through Dial’s studio in Bessemer, Alabama. At the time, many self-taught artists were relegated to the category of “outsider art,” a problematic designation that seemed to suggest his art was less worthy of attention, said Joanne Cubbs, who curated a retrospective of Dial’s work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2011 and authored a book on his work.
On the contrary, his work “challenges the canons of art history,” Cubbs said. “You could say in many ways that Dial’s artwork represents a missing chapter in American art history and serves as a kind of emissary for the rich, and yet unrecognized, tradition of black vernacular art for the South.”
Dial’s work defied the stereotype of what self-taught art looks like — it was bold, expressive and provided insight into some of the deepest socio-political issues in contemporary history, Cubbs said. “He changed the art world’s world conception of who artists were or could be and where art comes from,” she said. “He confused the stereotypes normally assigned to artists … who were ‘untrained’ in the conventional sense.”
As museums began to show his work in the 1990s, his work drew comparisons to Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning along with critical admiration. “He has a genuine talent that he brandishes fearlessly,” art critic Roberta Smith at The New York Times wrote in 1993.
But Dial never liked to talk about himself, according to Phillip Jones, the former director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. “The thing that he said all the time was, ‘You have my art, so you have my mind. Why would you ask me what I think about something when you can see for yourself?’” Jones said.
So we followed the artist’s advice. Here’s what the curators had to say about four of his pieces.
“Don’t Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together”
The damage to this flag is immediately apparent. Bits of fabric — Cubbs called them “bloody rags on a war-torn battlefield” — form a twisted version of the U.S. flag.
Dial created this piece in 2003 at the outset of the Iraq War, and it is “conscious of the horror of an unchecked quest for domination and power,” Cubbs said.
The flag, though, forms only one layer of the painting. Beneath it are mattress coils, along with two figures, one black and one white. The mattress coils form “a metaphor for the hard bed we’ve made for ourselves,” Cubbs said.
But the piece — and especially its optimistic title — also reflects the idea that all U.S. citizens are held together by the flag, however shredded it becomes, Jones said. i think it’s a lovely but simple statement on the importance of getting along,” he said.
“Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle”
Cubbs called this piece “one of the most overt musings on the metaphysical that Dial created.” This analysis comes in part from the painting’s emphasis on living things; scraps of floral fabrics, artificial plants and soda bottles form the shapes of vegetation, surrounding the figure of a doll. That doll could be interpreted to represent humanity at its birth, Cubbs said. “I think this is his sort of rapturous vision of how we all came into being,” she said.
Dial used a lush blend of yellow tones in the piece, ones that he has used before to symbolize racial equality. Through those colors, “He wants to represent the coming together of the races, coming together of all humanity, a kind of blending,” she said.
“Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly”
The painting is a historical heartbreak. One of a series, it shows figures of birds constructed from work gloves hanging on a line, a reference to the historical atrocities that people of color have endured in the U.S., Cubbs said.
In the background is a “green, enigmatic field of color,” Cubbs said. That, along with the piece’s title, makes reference to Psalm 23:2, which speaks of comfort and relief from suffering in “green pastures.” Cubbs called it “a Biblical reference to the world beyond physical and historical adversity, and the final place of redemption for those who suffer oppression in this world.”
Jones said the figures could also be interpreted as a “statement about lost potential.”
“Stars of Everything”
At the center of the painting: a half-buzzard, half-American eagle figure, downtrodden and bloated.
Constructed from a background of paint cans, split open to form the shape of stars, the painting positions the central figure as an entity that presides over his own artistic materials. Jones said he has always thought the piece was a self-portrait of Dial.
By 2004, when Dial created this piece, he had gained fairly widespread recognition in the art world. The positioning of the figure, along with the materials used to create it, speak to Dial’s reaction to that success and the struggle to gain it. It also speaks to the idea of power in general and who wields it, Wardlaw said.
The figure itself is partially constructed from carpet, an illusion to the social oppression of black men, and “presides over a universe fashioned from his used paint cans,” Cubbs said. “He is, in a sense, satirizing the notion of celebrity here, as well as representing a kind of genuine quest for success.”
Jones called the piece “a lighthearted way of speaking to what was happening in his own life with his work.”
CONCEPCION PICCIOTTO DIED. YOU KNOW WHERE SHE STOOD, EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW HER NAME
She’d held a peace vigil in front of the White House since 1981.
WASHINGTON — Concepcion Picciotto died Monday. You might not recognize her name, but if you’ve spent any time in Washington, D.C., you know who she was.
Picciotto was that peace protester camped out in front of the White House since 1981 — the face of what’s been called the longest-running political protest in U.S. history. When the weather was nice, she often stood outside her makeshift tent handing out flyers to the tourists who, after taking their obligatory photos of the president’s house, drifted over to see what exactly was going on with those massive signs decrying nuclear bombs.
She wore a headscarf constantly, and if you looked closer, you’d see a helmet underneath it. That was for protection, she’d tell you, because she’d been attacked over the years by random people — even pushed around by the Secret Service, she said. When she wasn’t at her tent, she lived at The Peace House with other activists who took turns manning the encampment. Someone has to be at the tent all the time, or the U.S. Park Police can come along and dismantle it.
That happened in September 2013, when the activist on duty one night walked away.
The Huffington Post talked to Picciotto the next morning as she stood at the site, waiting for the police to bring back her tent. They eventually did.
“This is the time, more than ever, we need people to mobilize, to stop killing and the wars all over the world,” she said. “It’s frustrating, because it’s hard to be there. I am in the heat, in the cold and the snow.”
Picciotto sat in that tent during blizzards and heat waves. She was there through presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Whenever any of them looked out the front windows of the White House, the peace vigil was in plain sight. There’s no evidence that any of them ever went out to talk to her, though.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that he didn’t know if Obama was aware that Picciotto had died. But he praised her commitment to the cause of peace.
“We’ve certainly got to pay our respects, not just to the life that she lived but her passion for making the world a safer and more peaceful place,” said Earnest.
The peace vigil was started by another activist, William Thomas. Picciotto joined up with him some months after it began, and they camped out there together for 25 years. When he died in 2009, she kept it going with help from other activists she lived with. It wasn’t always pleasant. Some saw her as a hero, others as a fool, per The Washington Post. There were also concerns about her mental health.
“Connie may not have been the easiest person to live or work with but the peace vigil was never about Connie and even throughout the biggest struggles we all knew that,” reads a Tuesday post on The Peace House’s Facebook page. “That was the reason why we suffered through sub-zero temperatures, hurricanes and dealing with impolite people.”
On Wednesday morning, people left bouquets of flowers for her at the protest site. Someone wrote a note and clipped it to the top of the tent: “Concepcion R.I.P.”
The vigil will go on. Craig, who was manning the tent on Wednesday, said Picciotto had been taking turns with four other people staying at the tent. After she died, 17 more people signed up to take shifts.
“That’s 21 now,” he said. “A lot.”
Picciotto died at N Street Village, a D.C. nonprofit that supports homeless women. She was 80 years old.
ABE VIGODA, SAD-EYED CHARACTER ACTOR
By Hillel Italie, AP National writer
Character actor Abe Vigoda, whose leathery, sad-eyed face made him ideal for playing the over-the-hill detective Phil Fish in the 1970s TV series “Barney Miller” and the doomed Mafia soldier in “The Godfather,” died Tuesday at age 94.
Vigoda’s daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, told The Associated Press that Vigoda died Tuesday morning in his sleep at Fuchs’ home in Woodland Park, New Jersey. The cause of death was old age. “This man was never sick,” Fuchs said.
His death brought to an end years of questions on whether he was still alive — sparked by a false report of his death more than three decades ago. Though Vigoda took it in stride, the question of whether he was dead or alive became something of a running joke: There was even a website devoted to answering the much-Googled question, “Is Abe Vigoda dead?” (On Tuesday, it had been updated with “Yes,” with the date of his death.)
Vigoda worked in relative obscurity as a supporting actor in the New York theater and in television until Francis Ford Coppola cast him in the 1972 Oscar-winning “The Godfather.”
Vigoda played Sal Tessio, an old friend of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) who hopes to take over the family after Vito’s death by killing his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). But Michael anticipates that Sal’s suggestion for a “peace summit” among crime families is a setup and the escorts Sal thought were taking him to the meeting turn out to be his executioners.
“Tell Mike it was only business,” Sal mutters to consigliere Tom Hagen, played by Robert Duvall, as he’s led away.
In a statement, Duvall said Tuesday it was “great working with Abe in ‘The Godfather’ and wonderful to have him among us. We had some great memories together and he will really be missed.”
The great success of the film and “The Godfather Part II” made Vigoda’s face and voice, if not his name, recognizable to the general public and led to numerous roles, often as hoodlums.
But it was his comic turn in “Barney Miller,” which starred Hal Linden and ran from 1975 to 1982, that brought Vigoda’s greatest recognition.
He liked to tell the story of how he won the role of Detective Fish. An exercise enthusiast, Vigoda had just returned from a five-mile jog when his agent called and told him to report immediately to the office of Danny Arnold, who was producing a pilot for a police station comedy.
Arnold remarked that Vigoda looked tired, and the actor explained about his jog. “You know, you look like you might have hemorrhoids,” Arnold said. “What are you — a doctor or a producer?” Vigoda asked. He was cast on the spot.
“The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” a reference book, commented that Vigoda was the hit of “Barney Miller.” ”Not only did he look incredible, he sounded and acted like every breath might be his last,” it said. “Fish was always on the verge of retirement, and his worst day was when the station house toilet broke down.”
Vigoda remained a regular on “Barney Miller” until 1977 when he took the character to his own series, “Fish.” The storyline dealt with the detective’s domestic life and his relations with five street kids that he and his wife took into their home.
The show lasted a season and a half. Vigoda continued making occasional guest appearances on “Barney Miller,” quitting over billing and salary differences.
But he remained a popular character actor in films, including “Cannonball Run II,” ”Look Who’s Talking,” ”Joe Versus the Volcano” and “North.”
His resemblance to Boris Karloff led to his casting in the 1986 New York revival of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” playing the role Karloff originated on the stage in the 1940s. (The murderous character in the black comedy is famously said by other characters to resemble Boris Karloff, a great joke back when the real Karloff was playing him.)
Born in New York City in 1921, Vigoda attended the Theater School of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall. In the early 1950s, he appeared as straight man for the Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn TV comedies.
For 30 years, he worked in the theater, acting in dozens of plays in such diverse characters as John of Gaunt in “Richard II” (his favorite role) and Abraham Lincoln in a short-lived Broadway comedy “Tough to Get Help.”
Vigoda attributed his high percentage in winning roles to his performance in auditions. Instead of delivering the tired soliloquies that most actors performed, he wrote his own, about a circus barker. At a surprise 80th birthday party in New Jersey in 2001, he gave a spirited recital of the monologue to the delight of the 100 guests.
Reflecting on his delayed success, Vigoda once remarked: “When I was a young man, I was told success had to come in my youth. I found this to be a myth. My experiences have taught me that if you deeply believe in what you are doing, success can come at any age.”
“Barney Miller” became his first steady acting job.
“I’m the same Abe Vigoda,” he told an interviewer. “I have the same friends, but the difference now is that I can buy the things I never could afford before. I have never had a house before, so now I would like a house with a nice garden and a pool. Hollywood has been very kind to me.”
He was married twice, most recently to Beatrice Schy, who died in 1992. He had his daughter with his first wife, Sonja Gohlke, who has also died. Vigoda is survived by his daughter, grandchildren Jamie, Paul and Steven, and a great-grandson.
Reruns of “Barney Miller” and repeated screenings of the two “Godfather” epics kept Vigoda in the public eye, and unlike some celebrities, he enjoyed being recognized. In 1997 he was shopping in Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan when a salesman remarked: “You look like Abe Vigoda. But you can’t be Abe Vigoda because he’s dead.”
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles and Entertainment reporter Lauri Neff in New York contributed to this report.
Biographical material in this story was written by The Associated Press’ late Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas.
YVONNE CHOUTEAU, WHO BROUGHT GRACE AND ACCLAIM TO THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA
By World’s Editorial Writers
Posted: Saturday, January 30, 2016 12:00 am | Updated: 1:31 am, Sat Jan 30, 2016.
We note with sorrow the death of Yvonne Chouteau, an Oklahoman whose artistic brilliance brought great pride to her home state.
Chouteau started her dancing career at age 14 with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and went on to found (along with her dancer husband, Miguel Terekhov) the University of Oklahoma School of Dance and the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet, the precursor to the Oklahoma City Ballet.
She was one of the “Five Moons,” five female American Indian dancers from Oklahoma who took the ballet world by storm. The five — Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin, and Chouteau — are honored with statues on the lawn of the Tulsa Historical Society and in a mural at the state Capitol.
Chouteau, 86, was prima ballerina and an acclaimed teacher. The whole state mourns her loss.