Artist Profile – Mose Tolliver

c. 1918–2006, lived and worked in and around Montgomery, Alabama

(detail) Mose Tolliver / Chicken Snake and Turtle / 1990s / housepaint on wood / 12 1/2 x 35 1/5 in. / Private Collection

Born into a large sharecropping family outside Montgomery sometime between 1915 and 1920, “Mose T.”––as he signed his paintings––like so many self-taught American artists, only enjoyed enough leisure time to pursue his artistic practice once he could no longer work. Early employment as a tenant farmer and gardener allowed him to support his own growing family, but an ill-fated job for a furniture factory in the late 1960s resulted in his legs being crushed by a slab of marble. Perhaps on a whim, perhaps motivated by a local art exhibition, perhaps on the suggestion of a friend, Tolliver began painting, ending a period of inertia, depression, and drinking. Engaging in the great Southern African American tradition of yard art, he began displaying his paintings outside his Montgomery home, initially offering them for sale at one dollar each.

His life changed quickly once his work joined the illustrious ranks of the 1982 “Black Folk Art in America” exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery. Tolliver found himself the subject of intense interest from art collectors, curators, and critics. He continued to work with house paint on plywood, but productivity became an issue for this already prolific artist. His daughter Annie collaborated on many of her father’s works, functioning as a studio assistant and apprentice. Tolliver’s highly stylized portraits and images of nature tend toward strident palette choices, often juxtaposing a figure in front of an abstract background of pulsating polka-dots or simply solid strong colors. Much of his work is plainly erotic, involving sideshow-worthy displays of anatomical prowess and distortion.

Artist’s Work