Alabama folk artist Mose Tolliver spent the final 40 years of his life creating images that won him international renown. Tolliver, who signed his work Mose T., painted on simple wood boards, using ordinary house paint, and these "stylized figurative paintings were instrumental in gaining international recognition for Outsider artists of the American South," asserted David Ebony, a critic for Art in America. Of his career that began only after a work accident in his late 40s left him permanently disabled, Tolliver took a more easygoing view. "I ain't interested in no art," he once told an interviewer, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Howard Pousner. "I just like to do my pictures."
Tolliver was born in Pike Road, Alabama on July 4, but sources report varying dates for the year of his birth that range from 1915 to 1920. His parents were sharecroppers. Tolliver had limited formal schooling, and was diagnosed with dyslexia, the learning disability, later in life. His family moved to the Alabama state capital, Montgomery, where in 1930 he took a job with a local furniture company. For the next 35 years, he worked as a mover for McClendon Furniture to support the family of 12 children he had with his wife, Willie Mae, whom he married in 1941.
One day in 1965, Tolliver was sweeping the floor in the shipping department at McClendon's when a box of marble slid off a forklift and onto him. Both of his feet were crushed, and he spent the remainder of his life on crutches. A few years later, an executive at the company who was an amateur painter took him to an art exhibition, and encouraged Tolliver—who had painted tree stumps as a creative outlet during his teen years—to take some art classes. Tolliver decided to teach himself to paint instead, and by the mid-1970s the front lawn and porch of his Montgomery home were often decorated with his art, which he sold to passers-by for a dollar or two.
Tolliver painted on masonite and plywood panels that his sons cut for him to a size that he could place on his lap, and he used ordinary household paint to create images of animals, flowers, and fruit. Word soon spread of his talent and ever-growing collection of paintings—some days he finished as many as ten—and art aficionados began paying visits to his home. In 1981, he was offered a solo exhibition at the Montgomery Museum of Art, and the honor made him one of the first African-American folk artists of his generation to have a major museum show. That event, wrote Sue Steward, a journalist with London's Guardian newspaper, "registered both Tolliver and African-American folk art on mainstream radar, and, as a result, his home drew collectors from afar."
A year later, Tolliver's work was included in Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibition, which also toured several U.S. cities, was a landmark event for the recognition of black folk artists and Outsider Art in the mainstream art world. Sometimes called vernacular art, Outsider Art is a genre of art that comes from entirely self-taught artists working "outside" the influences of prevailing artistic currents. Artists like Tolliver painted the world they knew, and scholars of the movement consider Outsider Art some of the clearest representations of a deep-seated human desire to depict the visual world.
Of the hundreds of images Tolliver painted, his rather risqué female figures became a favorite of collectors. These depicted a woman, with the characteristic oversized head that was a hallmark of his portraits, with her legs extended over the head; sometimes the women sat atop scooters. His more conventional figurative works "were more challenging and edgy," noted Pousner in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with "characters frequently staring directly at viewers with ambiguously cool expressions and straight-lined lips. Yet around these haunting countenances often would swirl gorgeous patterns and dabs of paint, applied in wet-on-wet coats that added depth and variations of color."
Other works from Tolliver's bedroom studio—where paintings were stored under the bed and in a closet in which a collector once sprinkled with rat poison to make art-buying visits less fearful—had political overtones. His "Freedom Bus" paintings, for example, referenced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that was prompted by the arrest of civil rights hero Rosa Parks and the organized boycott that is considered the start of the civil rights movement in America. Tolliver's fellow blacks in Montgomery relied heavily on public transport for their jobs, but the bus company refused to bow to pressure to desegregate seating, and empty buses ran along the routes along for more than a year; Tolliver's paintings depicted these passenger-free buses.
Tolliver enjoyed immense recognition for his work during the last quarter-century of his life. His paintings were sold in galleries for five-figure sums, and he was honored with solo exhibitions at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City and several group shows, including Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South, which originated at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan and toured several American cities. Collectors still came to his Montgomery home, and "depending on his level of inebriation and whether Willie Mae was around, they would leave with paintings as gifts or having paid realistic prices," wrote Steward in the Guardian. After Willie Mae died in the early 1990s, the "relatively wealthy local celebrity…let his passion for nightclubs and cars run free," Steward added.
Tolliver encouraged his children to pursue their own artistic talents, and his daughter Annie emerged as a respected folk artist in her own right. Other relatives sometimes painted images, which he signed himself with his distinctive "Mose T" signature with its reverse "s"—a rather worrisome issue for private collectors and museums, who wish for authentic works by an artist's hand. In his final years, he was disabled by a stroke and stopped painting altogether when his vision declined. He died of pneumonia on October 30, 2006, in Montgomery. He had been the last living artist among the 20 included in the Black Folk Art in America exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery back in 1982. "His death perhaps marks the end of an era that we may well look back on as a golden age of self-taught art," Susan Crawley, associate folk art curator at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Now that the market for work by self-taught artists is established, it is less and less likely that we will find artists like Mose Tolliver whose style was developed without any influence from the marketplace."
At a Glance …
Born on July 4, 1915 (some sources say 1919 or 1920) in Pike Road, AL; died of pneumonia, October 30, 2006, in Montgomery, AL; son of sharecroppers; married Willie Mae 1941 (died 1992); children: 12.
McClendon Furniture, mover, 1930-65; self-employed gardener, 1930-65; artist, 1973(?)-.
Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Alabama, 1981.
Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY, 1993.
Corcoran Gallery of Fine Art, Washington, D.C., 1982.
Anton Haardt Gallery, Montgomery, Alabama, 1992.
New Orleans Museum of Fine Art, 1994.
Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI, 2000.
African American Museum, Dallas, TX.
Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Montgomery, AL.
Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY.
National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.
Philadelphia College of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA.
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA.
American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997. Periodicals Art in America, January 2007, p. 174.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 14, 1998, p. B2; August 13, 2006, p. K1; November 1, 2006), p. E1.
Guardian (London, England), December 12, 2006, p. 32.
New York Times, November 3, 2006, p. B8.
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