Born Mose or Moses Ernest Tolliver on July 4, 1921, or '22, to tenant farmers Ike and Laney Tolliver in the Pike Road community southeast of Montgomery, Tolliver was one of twelve children. He remembers that his parents’ house was “just a shack, but my mama had pictures all over the walls.” He attended school until he was eight or nine, then moved to nearby Macedonia, where he worked for the owner of a dry-cleaning business in Montgomery who also operated a small truck farm in Macedonia.
Too financially strapped to continue farming, the Tollivers, like so many others, left the farm for the city and moved in the 1930s to Montgomery, to a house on Sternfield Alley (later obliterated by the construction of Interstate 85). Tolliver supported himself and his mother by tending other people’s gardens; he did general maintenance, house painting, light carpentry, and plumbing as well. In the early 1940s, he married a longtime friend, Willie Mae Thomas of Ramer, Alabama. Soon after his wedding he entered the army, and prompted his own discharge, he says, to return home to Montgomery. He fathered thirteen children, eleven of whom survive. To support this family, Tolliver did mostly unskilled maintenance work; he admits that taking care of his progeny has always been difficult.
Over a twenty-five-year period, Tolliver worked intermittently for the family of Carlton McLendon, at first in the garden and around the house, and later in the shipping and delivery section of McLendon’s Furniture Company. It was there, in the late 1960s, that a thousand-pound crate of marble fell from a forklift and landed on Tolliver. Unable to walk without crutches, he was forced to stop working. He then saw some paintings done by McLendon’s brother Raymond and, after watching this amateur artist paint, thought, “He done it. I can do it, too.” McLendon offered to pay for lessons; Tolliver declined, but began to paint on his own.
To explore the range of Mose Tolliver’s visual intelligence and extraordinary power, one might begin by considering it’s close alliance with music, most particularly blues and jazz and their aesthetic. Unlike blues musicians, whose written or performed compositions frequently reflect the profound hardships and pain they have experienced, Tolliver’s art rarely hints at his own frustration and anger, although his experience does not seem to have been significantly different from that of the bluesman. According to Groove’s Dictionary, “A blues performer sings or plays to rid himself of the ‘blues.’” Mose Tolliver’s “performance” was just such an outlet; he has said that he painted to “keep my head together" during the turmoil of the period following a work-related accident that damaged his leg muscles and tendon and left him unable to walk again.
One may argue that there is a stylistic relationship between Tolliver’s pictures and the blues aesthetic. Blues came from the vernacular environment, developed by musicians who were either unable to read music or uninterested in so doing, and who created improvisational verbal and musical forms; the themes that Mose Tolliver has used and developed over his career emerged from images first seen in print and other popular culture sources.
Tolliver’s paintings are enlivened by variations in color and line and by painterly, virtuosic, rhythmic strokes. His wet-on-wet paint application with myriad color tones based on one or two hues over a solid ground, highlighting the intermediary mixtures, could be likened to musical chromatic harmonies, or the melodic blues note in which precise pitch or intonation is not fixed, “but varies according to the performer’s instinct and expression.”
Mose Tolliver’s artwork employs the musical components of variation, improvisation strong rhythm, syncopation, percussiveness, chromatic harmony, and alternating stasis and movement. William Arnett recently remarked that a good musician could “play a Tolliver painting.” Tolliver's turtle paintings present themselves as perfect illustrations of the musical correspondences in his art. Vivid dots of paint vary from short staccato bursts in some paintings, to more vigorous and generally larger dabs in others, and form optical “flickers” through their variation in size and placement, and the alternation of dark and light tones. The dancing strokes are sometimes sharply articulated, sometimes in closely related rhythm and color harmonies, at times more intense, dramatic, and expressionistic, resulting in different moods, each one spontaneous and fresh. The steadiness of the paintings’ rhythms creates a percussive effect underscored by a persistent beat—the repletion of a few basic colors that alternate and subtly vary in size and seemingly limitless color tones. The vibrant, large-scale turtle bodies are stabilized by a contrasting solid ground color, sometimes placing the subject in sharp contrast—to stand out as a soloist—other times, more closely related. Tolliver’s bird paintings take the musical parallels further. The glowing spots in Hooting Owl Toting Sticks in His Mouth to Build His Nest and the sweeping, wide brushstrokes playing against the richly dabbed body of the Rain Crow in the Mountains, golden decorative dabs pop off the dark, menacing body of the bird, and the wide vertical background strokes in the same general palette as the bird body come forward insistently and interact with the main subject.
Tolliver’s early memories of farm life in rural Alabama are illustrated in, among others, Windmill Down at Old Pike Road and a Man Got a Gun Trying to Shoot that Bird and several bird and animal paintings. Works of the mid-to-late seventies were similarly inspired by the artist’s environment. Birds, trees, and flowers were among Tolliver’s earliest subjects and are featured in the earliest Tolliver works in the Souls Grown Deep Collection. One small painting, one of a series of related works, has a compositional integrity and purity of form typical of his early works. The artist’s exuberance reappears during 1986-1989. During that time, Tolliver did many of his most important autobiographical pieces, including, Me and Willie Mae, Self-Portrait of Me with Crutches, Mae Hand, Small Face Eighteen Years Old (the artist’s wife), and Rainy Sunshine, Cats and Dogs, Drum Beater, a narrative filled with the people and animals in the artist’s life.
In Me and Willie Mae, a Tolliver masterpiece, the artist, on crutches, and his wife stand formally, full-figured, their hands nearly touching, directly facing the viewer, open-eyed without apology or artifice. The artist claims that the overhead birds and the “displayed” background figures (nudes with legs widely spread) are merely pictures on the wall. The balance of color, rhythm, and form are masterful in this painting, from the artist’s dabbed gray hair echoed in Willie Mae’s speckled blouse to the “C” curves balancing the shoulder lines of each of the figures, to the flaring legs of the displayed figures. In the other, individual portraits of the artist and his seated wife, the figures are again depicted frontally with large heads, small bodies, and tiny feet and hands. They are shown in repose with an elegance and quiet dignity, flanked by trees on each side. In Willie Mae Tolliver’s portrait, after a photo of her at age eighteen, the strong verticality is interrupted by the gently undulating lines of her seated body.
Religion is the subject matter of several Mose Tolliver works, including Good Time Jiving, a portrait of Adam and Eve; Black Jesus, a “crusell” (crucifix) picture; and Picture of Mary of the Bible. Tolliver’s Mary of the Bible elevates the already idealized and romanticized transfer image of the Mother of Jesus on a china plate, which served as the artist’s inspiration for this work. Here, Mary is seen clasping the Sacred Heart, holding lilies in her left hand, a colorful stemmed flower in her right. Rounded forms predominate, from the facial contour to the features-the hair, the oval eyes, and mouth-and on to the curves of the shoulders, arms and the sleeve openings. Dots of various sizes and colors embellish the surface and background areas, and contrast with the solid face, golden halo, and solid black painted border with curved corners. Unity and variety animate this work.
In the same way that the artists Anna Robertson “Grandma” Moses, Eddie Arning, and William Hawkins, among others in this century, have followed tradition and utilized popular print sources in their work, Mose Tolliver has with singular style transformed images found or brought to him. The china plate noted above was his source for Mary of the Bible; a dollar bill inspired his George Washington; an exhibition poster from Nall Hollis, an Alabama artist living in Vence, France, moved him to create his Angel Cry Child and Moodooja Indian Woman Back in Slavery Time; while the cover of Macy’s “Street Smarts,” an advertising circular celebrating Atlanta students, was the source for Matt, One of the Best Exercise Mens in the World.
Two Tolliver paintings, Bill Traylor People and Work of Bill Traylor, are reminiscent of Bill Traylor’s quirky, angular drawings, and appear similar to that artist’s drawing of two figures on the reverse of Man and Large Dog. Tolliver’s curves, glides, and rounded edges replace Traylor’s geometrically conceived pointing figures in a lyrical improvisation consonant with the blues. Tolliver never met Traylor, although the younger artist lives very near to Traylor’s downtown sidewalk “studio” of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Of course, in those days, Mose Tolliver was a young man whose every effort seems to have been focused on supporting himself and his mother. He likely first saw Traylor’s drawings in 1982 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s groundbreaking show of black art in which Tolliver was also included, and he probably had access to it’s catalog as well as one from a Montgomery Museum of Art exhibition held that same year.
In one of Tolliver’s versions of a Traylor, the figures face the same direction, as if waving to unseen persons; in the other, the figures face each other and appear to be communicating. A common gesture pictured in each of these paired figures invites further investigation by scholars of African American vernacular art, because it recurs not only in Tolliver, but also in the works of Traylor, Jesse Aaron, Mary T. Smith, Henry Speller, and several others. This recurrence suggests the possibility of a common cultural source. In the gesture, simply described, one arm extends upward, while the other is shown in a downward thrust, to form a horizontal “S” curve. This is a complex symbol, which Robert Farris Thompson has discussed. Other Tolliver subjects and techniques merit further investigation by scholars of African American culture. The African references are generic, not specific, with nothing in Tolliver betraying a conscious belief in or knowledge of African religion or culture in which non-human forms (especially birds fish, reptiles and amphibians) play a major role, yet Tolliver often uses imagery in his work that is found throughout Africa. Although birds and amphibians are indigenous to the rural South and local references must be considered, it seems more than mere coincidence that these creatures are important in the mythology, folktales, and culture of West Africa, from which most African Americans trace their roots. Birds, for example, figure importantly in Yoruba cultural manifestations, and the bird seems to hint at, to symbolize, transcendence and freedom. Tolliver’s difficult life, compounded as it was by his physical disability, would surely make the bird, with its freedom to fly, a favorite subject. In Me and Willie Mae, birds flying over the heads of the two figures strongly suggest culturally transmitted references that go beyond the artist’s explanation that they are background pictures on the wall. Tolliver utilizes a dotting technique similar to African and African American embellishments on sculpture, wall painting, house facades, shrines, and body decoration. Dotting is also prominent in the work of contemporary African American vernacular artists David Butler, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Mary T. Smith. The decorative dotting in Tolliver’s bird and turtle paintings releases kinetic energy and sometimes functions as a socially skillful camouflage. This dotting technique has also been discussed by Thompson.
Although Tolliver is unaware of his precise African Atlantic lineage, the similarity of his subject matter, techniques, and styles to those of other African American vernacular artists with whom he has had no contact once again underscores the possibility of a common source. In Tolliver’s work, for example, there seems to be evidence of a knowledge of southern African American tales, folk beliefs, and superstitions, some of which deal with metamorphosis, animism, conjuration, and magic, including the belief that humans could be transformed into nonhuman forms and natural objects such as birds, trees, rocks, and shrubs. These beliefs may shed light on some Tolliver subjects: his undulating, embracing trees; and his Pet Drafer Owl and Love Owl, which appear to be half-human, half owl. One noted scholar of southern folklore observed that the hoodoo or root doctor practicing powerful folk medicine, was often believed to have transformed himself, and cites a narrative about a hoodoo who became a screech owl. Tolliver’s owls share none of the dark side of hoodoo, but are rather humorously presented, with prominent eyes, in a soft palette of warm pinks and powder blues, with jewel-like embellishing, decorative dabs, and the merest hint of cross-hatched tree forms. Tolliver’s bird paintings reveal his interest in the anatomy of birds and his ability to endow them with personalities—from sweet and humorous to fierce—suggesting a correspondence with nature and with traditions in which animals possess human traits.
Tolliver’s aesthetic sensibility allows his “going into” (painting in or over, embellishing) paintings, photographs, and prints brought to him, and he approaches these paintings with a special flair, adding a bird or two here, a flower there. In Mountains and Pack-a-Mules Trees, and a French Bird and a Peko Bird, he painted over a discarded department store print, simplifying the ground and tree areas and adding two overhead birds. Early on in his painting career, he worked over old photographs, discarded television picture tubes, a movie poster, and other recycled materials. The artist enjoys painting old furniture with his characteristic technique and style. Two works, a coffee table with a Tolliver-added green and pink surface of figures and birds, and a chest of drawers with Tolliver’s pink, sprightly, animal and floral forms on a Prussian blue ground, lend a witty vigor to the machine-made pieces. These two examples were executed by Tolliver himself, although family members at other times painted objects with him.
Tolliver’s paintings also lend themselves to formal analysis. An intuitive painter, his spartan color palette yields a broad spectrum of tonalities derived from the subtle interaction of intriguing shades. His well-balanced images of trees, flowers, birds, turtles, snakes, sheep, cows, horses, vehicles, and people (both real and invented) are executed in a lively language. Since the 1970s, the palette has alternated between closely related color harmonies and sharply contrasting ones.
Early experimentation involved both very thick and very thin paint application. Color preferences varied from time to time; his early choices may have been influenced by paints brought to him by others. Light pinks and blues—bedroom colors may have been supplied by friends and neighbors with leftover materials. But Tolliver also favored a palette of vibrant colors: saturated bright red, yellow, and orange, as seen in Moose Lady on Exercise Rack. In this painting, the predominant, hot yellow-orange is balanced by purple, one of the artist’s favorite colors, used here for the painted frame.
Tolliver’s mastery of compositional placement and creation of movement in a single bulky subject is illustrated to great effect in Mountain Deer on His Knees. The amusing, soulful-eyed yet determined, heavily dabbed, chunky beast is vigorously pushing at the painted edges as his head is pressed solidly in the lower left of the work. The fat rear of the beast likewise presses in the opposite direction at the upper right. The painting suggests the moment before the animal bursts forth from the frame, free to go where it pleases.
The artist admits to the enjoyment of creating erotic subject matter, especially the paintings of Moose Lady, also known as Girl on an Exercise Rack, Oyster Girl, Girl on a Tricycle. Ancient Egypt, a Time-Life book Tolliver retrieved from a trash pile, was the source for the original version of the subject. The depiction of the Ka, the immortal spirit said to dwell in every person, was the source for the erotically displayed female. In his celebratory variation on his original “displayed” woman, Tolliver turned the god’s thrusting vertical arms into legs. A brilliantly colored Moose Lady illustrates the blatant and graphic yet playful way Tolliver views sexual matters. The intense yellow of the body and hair suggests the promise of undiluted pleasure. Fanciful titles and variations on them are reminiscent of the improvisational element associated with African American vernacular arts. The artist’s sense of humor and fun are expressed in narrative title descriptions such as Moose Lady on Exercise Rack with John Duval and Diane Lowe, Lady in Love Finds John Duval and He Was in Love and He’s Trying to Give Her Some Satisfy, and Moose Lady with a Gentleman Named Charlie Bailey. He Told Her He Wanted to Talk to Her and She Told Him He Could Talk All He Wants To.
Sexual images are not realistic, but hint at different sexual practices. Vulval, breast, and phallic indications are omnipresent, as in the Gypsy Christmas Tree with Two Flag Birds or Quail Fish, and there are physical ambiguities in Tolliver’s tie/phallus and Willie Mae Tolliver’s scarf/vulva.
Tolliver’s art is not static. While his pictorial expression has been consistent, his subject matter has broadened to include images as diverse as George Washington and the Virgin Mary, as noted above. His materials—paints (he prefers housepaint, which he calls “pure”), brushes, supports, hangers—have also evolved. He has moved from slow-drying oils to water-based paint. He has for several years attached pull tabs from soft-drink and beer cans to the backs of his paintings on wood, rather than the twine, dental floss, and lamp-cord hangers of an earlier era. The earliest works are unsigned; Tolliver began signing his paintings using ink and later, marking pen. His signature appears in several forms.
Willie Mae Tolliver died in 1991; this prompted another emotional setback in the artist's life, but he now appears to have recovered and seems in good health and spirits. He has resided in the same house for many years, in the postwar era and throughout the civil rights movement, several major events of which took place just blocks away. Mose Tolliver, when so inclined, paints many pictures in a single day, seated at his bedside table. One of the earliest African American vernacular artists to receive popular recognition, Mose Tolliver today remains above all a picture maker, a master of American art.