I have a mini gallery in my breakfast room devoted to a special folk-artist friend from Alabama. His name was Mose Tolliver, or Mose T, as he was known, and although he’s no longer with us, his memory lives on, as “they” say. Mose was born on July forth somewhere between 1920 and 1925 (nobody really knows for sure), and he was one of twelve children. His schooling went as far as the third grade with dyslexia hampering his ability to read and write.
In the 1940s, he married his childhood friend Willie Mae Thomas and they had 13 children, 11 of whom survived. He worked with plants and designed creative yard plans with an unusual flair and became a respected gardener.
He worked from time to time for McLendon Furniture Company (sweeping out the shipping and delivery area early each morning) and during the late 1960s he was severely injured when his legs were crushed by a load of shifting marble which fell from a forklift. The accident left him unable to walk without assistance. He was encouraged to try oil painting by his former employer, who offered to pay for lessons, but Mose decided to explore this idea on his own. Little did he know that his life was about to change, forever, again.
First, he painted birds, flowers and trees and later added people and animals, all the while developing his own unique style and sense of humor. Even the titles of his paintings were unique, as was his signature with a backward “s.” He used any surface he could find: wood scraps, metal trays, Masonite, furniture, cigar boxes, even a piano, and items that were given to him. He’d display his paintings in his yard and later on his front porch and in his living room and eventually they started selling.
Mitchell Kahan, a former curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, AL, admired Mose’s work and set up a one-man exhibition for him in 1981. After that, Mose shared an exhibition entitled, Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, with another folk artist at the prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. First Lady Nancy Regan visited this exhibition and met Mose.
A friend took me on my first visit to Mose’s home on Sayre Street back in the early 1980s. After that, I used to go often. I was fascinated listening to him tell stories and show me his current paintings on the walls and his “pure paint” in its cabinet at the foot of his bed, also there in the living room. I found out that “pure paint” was gallon cans of exterior house paint, first oil-based, then later, water-based latex, which dried faster. He was so prolific, he needed faster drying paint, and whatever colors were in the cabinet were the colors of his latest art pieces. He painted them while seated on his bed, his walker close at hand.
As time passed, I started taking him pieces of wood left over from my neighborhood construction sites and he seemed pleased to have some unusual shapes to use. In the early 1990s, I redecorated my kitchen and asked Mose if he’d create a painting for me of strawberries to hang in that room. I brought a bowl full for him to use as a guide, but he was more interested in eating them. Several weeks later, I visited again and there was my strawberry painting. I think it may be one of a kind. I really cherish it. But, more than that, I cherish my times visiting with this gentle man, hearing his stories and witnessing his love of life. He was truly inspirational. I was saddened to hear of his passing in 2006 at the age of 82.
Mose Tolliver’s work has appeared at such renowned institutions as the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, The American Folk Art Museum in New York, The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, The New Orleans Museum of Art, The Milwaukee Art Museum and many more throughout the world.