Tolliver, William 1951–
William Tolliver 1951–
In an age when the rules of art have either been abandoned in favor of an antiformalist attitude or have been institutionalized in academic study, William Tolliver has emerged as a brilliant self-taught artist—a Mississippi-born Renaissance man whose creative intelligence combines the study of formal structure with a innate sense of human observation. Far from the marketplace of the New York City art world, Tolliver arose during the mid-1980s a brilliant regional talent, an individual impelled by a desire to capture the landscapes and people of his native deep South. Whether dealing with everyday workers or back-alley jazzmen, he conveys a universal message through scenes of the common human experience.
While plaintive in mood, Tolliver’s works evoke compassion with an underlying sense of expressive emotion. “I could draw on a lot of sad and depressing things in my life,” he admitted in the Lafayette, Louisiana, Times,“but I’d rather emphasize the positive.” An artist of insight and natural ability, Tolliver is a deliverer of an artistic message imbued with unique expression and spiritual upliftment.
William Mack Tolliver was born in December of 1951 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Although his mother worked in the cotton fields by day, she found time to rear and help educate her 14 children. To stimulate their interest in learning, she often challenged William and his older brother to drawing contests. Discovering William’s talent, she borrowed art books from the library that exposed her son to the works of the European masters. As Tolliver later explained, in The International Review of African American Art, “It’s very unusual for a mother from my economic background to be teaching her child something like that.”
Despite his dispassionate view of art, Tolliver’s father never discouraged young William from pursuing his interest. Motivated by his mother’s lessons, by age eight Tolliver began copying the detailed works of High Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and Dutch painters Rubens and Rembrandt. His astute power of observation led him to study subjects from books, black-and-white photographs, nature, comics, and family members who posed as models.
Since the local public schools did not have an art curriculum, Tolliver continued his course of self-study. From inexpensive dime-store, watercolor sets purchased with
At a Glance…
Born William Mack Tolliver in December, 1951, in Vicksburg, MS; son of William Tolliver (a carpenter); married, 1977; wife’s name, Debrah.
Artist, 1981—. Worked variously as a housepainter and in construction, 1970s-1981; works have been exhibited at Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, LA; New Orleans Museum of Art; and U.S. Senate Building, Washington, DC; completed promotional poster for 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA; has created numerous paintings, including High Cotton,1985, The Runner,1985, Ceremony in Red,1986, and Luther,1993.
Addresses: Office —c/o Bob Crutchfield, Galerie Royale Ltd., 312 Royal St., New Orleans, LA 70130.
money earned by mowing lawns, Tolliver learned to mix and blend colors. “Actually there is no better teacher,” he admitted in a biography by the Galerie Royale of New Orleans, Louisiana. “Everything is diagrammed, every little spot, every color. Once I did one or two of those, I understood the principles.” Using this system he experimented with mixing color and skin tones and by age eight was able to create academically correct paintings.
Admired van Gogh
Despite his avid study of color and form, however, Tolliver began to experience a “feeling of emptiness” toward realistic art. At age 13, he discovered the work of another self-taught artist, Vincent van Gogh. The work of van Gogh served as a revelation: “van Gogh painted purely for the love of it,” Tolliver commented in The International Review of African American Art,“I can relate to that. I also liked his use of color, the way the light was reflected in his paintings, the powerful feeling in his work.” He was also inspired by van Gogh’s ability to paint his local countryside and its rural folk with a power of deep human insight. “van Gogh painted people digging potatoes and struck a universal chord,” Tolliver explained in Upscale. Relating to the destitute farmers and laborers of van Gogh’s Holland, Tolliver found even more significance in the study of his own people living within the Mississippi Delta.
At age 14, Tolliver dropped out of school and left Mississippi to join the Job Corps program in Los Angeles. During his year-and-a-half stint with Job Corps, he studied carpentry at a government-sponsored trade school and brought his reading skills up to the college level. Assisted by an instructor at the trade school who was also a visual artist, Tolliver received additional instruction and information about the techniques of painting.
From Los Angeles Tolliver moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he served for a time as an assistant to a local sculptor. While there he met a number of other artists whose encouragement and exposure helped gain greater appreciation for his own work. The artist eventually returned to Vicksburg, taking a day job in construction and spending his evenings painting. Married in 1977, he soon found a greater demand for establishing a steady income.
Reached an Artistic Plateau
In 1981 Tolliver moved his family to Lafayette, Louisiana, where an oil boom had created employment opportunities in the construction trades. In Lafayette he worked as a wallpaper hanger and a house painter. Two years later, however, the city’s building industry fell into decline, leaving Tolliver unemployed. Laid off from his job and without income, he set out to relax in his free hours by painting with his daughter’s paint kit.
Tolliver’s wife, Debrah, confident that her husband’s paintings would sell, suggested he show them to a gallery. Tolliver, however, believed his works would not be well received and refused. Defying her husband’s decision, Debrah presented nine Cajun landscape paintings to Bob Crutchfield, owner of Lafayette’s Live Oak Galleryorks. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Crutchfield pointed out that the works showed great potential and real talent. The nine paintings sold in ten days; requests for more followed.
Tolliver soon began to paint in a new and unique style that has been termed “representational abstract expressionism.” Bringing these new works to Live Oak Gallery, Tolliver presented them to Crutchfield, who, upon realizing that Tolliver had reached a new creative level, stood speechless, unable to find words to express his elation. In Galerie Royale’s biography of Tolliver Crutchfield recalled, “I was silent, not because of anything other than complete awe.” Assuming Crutchfield did not like the works, Tolliver began to gather them in his arms. As Crutchfield related to CBB, Tolliver disappointedly told him, “I knew you wouldn’t like them.” Crutchfield immediately assured Tolliver that he found the paintings to be excellent and that he wanted to show them at his gallery. These new works sold within 24 hours.
Because of Lafayette’s oil industry, the city brought in out-of-state businesspeople and investors who purchased Tolliver’s works. In the late 1980s, the artist’s abstract-style paintings were shown at museum collections and exhibitions, including the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the U.S. Senate Building in Washington, D.C. Tolliver also completed a promotional poster for the 1996 Olympics, to be held in Atlanta, Georgia.
Able to work in numerous mediums—oil, acrylic, watercolor, oil pastel, and dimensional reliefs—Tolliver is forever exploring new techniques. By his own desire and inquiry, he has, according to Nanette Jolivette in the Lafayette Times, “managed to the bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences.” In Tolliver’s opinion, the organization of abstract colors is a “mathematical” and deeply analytical process. Using a creative method similar to that of great writers and musicians, Tolliver brings together an astute understanding of formal structure with the inspirational and spiritual nature of the human experience—qualities not often found within the ranks of most academically trained artists.
Like other African American artists such as Mississippi-born novelist Richard Wright and jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, Tolliver has traveled a path of self discovery and independent vision. He is able to grasp the elements of form while expressing a unique creative perspective. Viewing art as an important means of human communication, Tolliver asserted in Upscale, “Nothing in my paintings are for decoration: everything serves a purpose in creating the mood or atmosphere of a painting.” A serious student of such modernist painters as Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Marc Chagall, Tolliver is a prolific artist who spends countless hours painting, preparing, and researching methods and techniques.
Equally important to Tolliver is his concern for thematic content. He stresses that art is a means for documenting one’s history. This outlook has inspired him to capture scenes of rural black southern life in works that have included themes of cotton-pickers, stevedores, children fishing, and women tending the earth by hoe. Describing Tolliver’s observation of working people, Louisiana State University professor of art Joann E. Quillman wrote in Celebration of Life and Color, “Particular attention was paid to [Tolliver’s subjects’] hands. The importance of manual labor, or rather work that hands could do, was emphasized by enlarging them and using them as design elements in themselves. The enlargement of the hands, then the torso, and finally the heads filled his canvasses until Tolliver’s people became monuments to celebrate the dignity of honest labor and to celebrate life itself.”
In addition, Tolliver’s passion for African American music has resulted in numerous works portraying blues and jazz musicians. His paintings of musical subjects evoke not only the mood and sensibility of the musician, but the atmosphere and the sounds of the music itself. Luther, for example, is a brilliant cubist-inspired painting that is a hauntingly powerful study of a lone-acoustic guitarist—a composite portrait dedicated to the legendary bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta.
Critically ranked with such famous African American artists as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, Tolliver is rapidly gaining a reputation as a great painter. Since relocating to the Galerie Royal in New Orleans’s historical French Quarter in February of 1989, owner Bob Crutchfield has sold hundreds of Tolliver’s works to private collectors, corporations, and such celebrities as Sheri Belafonte, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Richard Pryor, Cecily Tyson, David Winfield, and Ellis Marsalis.
Though he initially created art out of personal desire, Tolliver believes the purpose of art is to communicate with his fellow human beings. “Art has no place in society,” Tolliver contended in the Lafayette Times, “if it doesn’t move anybody but its creator.” This belief, combined with passion and an exploratory creative intelligence, has produced works rich in human experience. Like the great African American storytellers and musicians portrayed in his works, Tolliver possesses a visionary artistic talent that has emerged as a gift to American culture.
Times (Lafayette, LA), April 18, 1984.
Upscale, January 1993; May 1993; January 1994; June 1994; November 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Galerie Royale biography of Tolliver; an interview with Bob Crutchfield, owner of Galerie Royale, on August 24, 1994; and the publication Celebration of Life and Color, Zigler Museum, 1987.
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