Up Close: Thornton Dial’s “Heaven and Hell on Earth”
See it without leaving home
“Heaven and Hell on Earth” is one of three works by artist Thornton Dial recently acquired by the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College through the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Souls Grown Deep, which takes its name from a line in a 1921 Langston Hughes poem, was founded by art historian William Arnett. It is devoted to and contains the largest collection of art by southern American Black artists. That includes Dial, born in Bessemer, Alabama, a self-taught, sometimes described “outsider” artist whose assemblage paintings express complex themes through the use of simple, discarded objects.
“Heaven and Hell on Earth” (1995) (not pictured here, but just wait) is expansive in size and thick with everyday items that had become detritus: corn husks, rope, bedding, and a Christmas tree ornament, before they were elevated into tools of art in Dial’s hands. The left side of the painting is dark and forbidding and industrial, the right side lighter in color and more pastoral.
If you take a trip to the Hood, you can stand before and drink in the intricacies of “Heaven and Hell on Earth,” and have the great good fortune of observing other of Dial’s works, including “The Tiger Cat” (photo, top). But through the magic of modern technology, (thanks to Cogapp and the Hood Museum) you can check out “Heaven and Hell on Earth”—in detail—by using an interactive digital device (click here) from the comfort of your breakfast table. You can zoom in and out; the guide dispenses information and poses questions over the course of this self-conducted, on-screen mini-tour. Before or after, you may want to read Dial’s poignant autobiographical sketch here.
The speculation is that the left side of the painting represents hell and the right heaven, but . . . Despite the clear distinction between the two “halves,” the interpretation may not be either-or. Commentator Joanne Cubbs puts it this way:“For Dial, who has lived in both worlds, the debate remains unresolved. Regarding hell versus heaven, he [Dial] notes, ‘They’re always together. We’re living in both all the time.’”
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.