Mose Tolliver used to hang his paintings in a tree outside his home in Montgomery, Alabama, pricing them at one or two dollars a piece. Twenty-five years ago few noticed his pictures, and he rarely sold any of them, no matter what the price. He just painted because he wanted to. Of course, every once in a while someone would stumble upon Mose's pictures in the yard and, for one reason or another, they would take an interest in them. Maybe it would be a young girl with little else to do strolling up his street on a hot summer day, or perhaps a transient drunk, roaming from the nearby Greyhound Bus Station past Mose's house, or maybe it could be a peculiar immigrant from Kansas who took some strange, unexpected delight in the muddy pink "dinosaur birds" and misshapen faces painted in Mose's pictures. In those days the number of people who bought Mose Tolliver's work or even knew of him outside his own community were few and far between.
Mose then lived with his large family on Sayre Street in downtown Montgomery's old section of town. Although its condition had deteriorated severely by the early 1970's, the area was once a well-to-do neighborhood of the 1920's. Nearby many prominent Montgomerians had lived including Zelda Sayre, daughter of the town's mayor, and later the wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Born the son of a sharecropper in Pintlala, Alabama, Mose had early jobs as a "very fine gardener" and later was an employee at McLendon Furniture Company. After an accident at the furniture factory left him permanently disabled and unemployed, the factory owner took Mose to an art show where he became inspired to begin painting. Mose's days were spent dabbling and experimenting in his new found interest. On any given day he might paint a picture or two and then work on repairing an old broken fan, or just sit on his porch.
I was told about Mose's pictures by a friend who had seen them in the Tolliver yard. I was curious to meet this man who painted and hung his pictures in trees, and I wanted to learn more about the alien and alluring phenomenon which came to be called 'folk art' and 'outsider art'.
From the beginning, a visit to Mose's house was a strange and memorable experience, and that has never changed since that day I met him. I first encountered Mose in the summer of 1970, about a year after he began painting.
His wife, Willie Mae, had collard greens simmering on the stove, emitting a pungent smell only a Southerner could identify. I caught the scent as I walked up the stairs to the front porch. A loud radio was tuned in to the local soul music station. I gingerly knocked on the screen door, and a thickly accented voice hollered "come on in!" So I did. And there in the middle room, was Mose, sitting on the edge of his bed painting on a board that he held in his lap, just as he does now. He wiped his brushes on the bedspread, and his shoes and pants were covered with splatters of paint. Cans of cast off house paint in random colors were stacked all around his bed, ready for the next picture.
Willie Mae and daughter Dorothy Jean were in the small back bedroom. They resembled a pair of retired Sumo wrestlers as they lounged on their separate single beds, sharing a princess telephone and a large box of Cocoa-Puffs. Carzell, Mose's "mental" son (apparently suffering from some sort of mental disability and was temporarily institutionalized during his youth) shuffled around the painter's room, robot-like, repeatedly asking for "a dollar to buy a pack of cigarette" Several grandchildren ran in and out. Mose had taken a few sips of Red Dagger wine, but was not intoxicated.
I was amazed at this artist and his environment. Between Willie Mae yelling at Mose and Mose yelling at Carzell, I was finally able to steal a glimpse of the strange pictures Mose had painted.
In one way, Mose's paintings seemed ugly, but I was charmed by their raw beauty. I bought three that day - a small framed portrait on paper of Willie Mae, copied from a large photograph of her that hung over his mantle; a 20 by 24 inch oil painting of a "Scopper Bug" ("a bug who eats book insects"); and a painting on mat board of two pinkish turkeys with muddy mauve mountains in the background. They still hang in prominent spots in my home. As I recall, I paid around five dollars for all three and was amused at myself for actually paying money for this type of art.
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Over the next few years I visited Mose on a regular basis, we became friends, and I built up a collection of his paintings. By the late 1970's, I was actively trying to help Mose obtain higher prices for his work. Mose would consign ten or fifteen pictures to me, and I would try to get twenty-five dollars for each of them and then give him the money. He, in turn, would give me a picture or two in exchange.
Mose's work was slowly becoming popular. During those years, he had accumulated some admirers, although they were few in number compared to the many fans and collectors who now visit his home. Several staff members at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art in Montgomery admired his work, including Mitchell Kahan and Ren Brown, the museums director and curator respectively. Both were instrumental in bringing public attention to Mose's work, by giving him a one- man exhibition at the Museum in 1981.
In those days, Mose's pictures weren't as uniform in size, style, and subject matter as his more recent works. There was no assembly-line style plywood cutting, no power saws, and no great demand for his work. Mose had little money for supplies, so he painted on the backs of pictures, over oil paintings, furniture, or whatever he could find. Since his palette was also limited to the colors of the found and discounted house paint he used, his early paintings were much more monochromatic than his current works.
Then in 1982, an event occurred that brought Mose into the public eye and changed his life, to say nothing of the history of American folk art. The Cocoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., held the first comprehensive exhibition of Black American Folk Art ever organized, and curators Jane Livingston and John Beardsley selected Mose as one of the invited artists. I was asked to accompany Mose to Washington for the opening. The day that Mose, Willie Mae, fellow artist, Tom Moore and I left by Pullman for the unforgettable winter excursion, I knew this would be a major event in Mose's life. Although at times he may claim that he has traveled far and wide, the trip to Washington was probably the first time he had ever left the state of Alabama. (Once when I questioned him about the exotic titles of some of his pictures and how he came by such multicultural titles, he offhandedly replied, "I studied those in Hong Kong!")
The Corcoran exhibition was the first major event of this magnitude for black self-taught artists. It was a strange setting for Mose and the other older artists, most of whom where from small southern towns and visiting the capitol of the United States for the first time. The Corcoran for years has served as a repository and symbol of old money and a showcase for avant garde art. By conceiving the exhibit and calling this work "art" , Livingston and Beardsley had created a disturbance and attracted the attention of art circles and the national media.
It was wintertime in Washington, and on the exhibit's opening day there had been a blizzard so severe it had caused an airplane to crash into the nearby Potomac River, resulting in an extensive rescue mission that was accompanied by loud sirens and a great deal of confusion. Snow and ice were everywhere, creating an exotic setting at least for those southern artists who had rarely if ever seen snow before. Mose was dressed in a bright lime-green suit that his friend Granger Carr had given him as a traveling gift. Willie Mae wore a floral polyester knit dress complemented by fringed cowboy boots.
For the scheduled press conference, Mose and several of the other artists represented in the show sat in the huge, echoing chamber of the Corcoran Gallery's main rotunda, with its large granite columns and marble floors. Press releases with information about the artists and their work were distributed to those in attendance. Tall tripods supporting special lighting equipment for the press photographers and TV cameras had been arranged in the main hall for the session. The curators stood in the center of the spotlights speaking to the press, while Mose and the other artists sat close by. The news reporters took notes as the curators spoke high brow art history and commented on the artists and their work. Other speakers who participated: Bill Ferris (from the University of Mississippi's Southern cultural studies program): Delta bluesman and folk artist James "Son" Thomas; and African-American art scholar Regenia Perry, who acted as adjunct curator, providing
Mose, under the bright lights, appeared to be trying to focus his attention on the commentary, and yet, it seemed like his mind was still back in his Alabama home, painting his pictures. All of the artists quietly sat through the lengthy press conference, as if they didn't quite know what to make of being at the epicenter of all of this attention. It was somewhat surreal to see that group of men from culturally and economically deprived backgrounds who had been thrust into the midst of these among educated intellectual urbanites, theorizing about to what the impetus, value and quality of what these men had created
At one point during the press conference a young female reporter from Boston rushed up to Mose with a large black- foamed microphone in one hand and a notepad in the other. Her eyes were bright and alert, as she quickly, and with an intensity common to her profession, rattled off a number of questions. One question led into the next, all building up for Mose to take the cue and deliver a monologue on "coming to Washington and to the Corcoran". When she finally paused, ready for his soliloquy, Mose smiled politely and simply said, "I'm glad to be here, how are you?". The next day the headlines quipped: "Is this art?" and "Black Folk Art: What is it?" The news media attempted to answer the questions that Mose and the other artists were unwilling or unable to answer, at least not in any direct manner.
The following morning, a reception was held in honor of the artists and First Lady Nancy Reagan, for whom a special viewing had been arranged. Back at the hotel, while Mose and Willie Mae dressed for the occasion, Willie Mae ordered another one of her many room service deliveries, only minutes before we were to go to the reception and meet Mrs. Reagan. As I encouraged Willie Mae to hurry up, she quibbled, "I don't care who we're going to meet, I'm going to eat my oatmeal first!" Mose seemed to await the moment with equally nonchalance, grinning at me as I prodded Willie Mae along.
When we finally arrived at the Corcoran, we spotted Mrs. Reagan walking casually through the corridors observing the rather piquant art, while her flock of Secret Service men and a press crew followed along. We managed to photograph the entire event before we were asked for our press badges, which of course, we didn't have. Luckily our film was not confiscated, although we were asked not to take any more photos , a task reserved exclusively for Mrs. Reagan's crew. (Some of these photos are reproduced in this book.) Mose and Willie Mae seemed impressed upon actually shaking Mrs. Reagan's hand, as if validating that they were important enough for a First Lady's hand shake. Yet Mose still took this notoriety nonchalantly, pleased at the recognition and accepting it with pride, but still computing the whole experience as another day, another happening.
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At the hotel, Willie Mae and Mose had a room adjoining mine. Willie Mae was on top of the world with all the amenities of the room, especially room service, and most of all, the second telephone in the bathroom! She couldn't wait to call her daughters back in Alabama and tell them she was sitting on the toilet at the same time she was talking to them. Willie Mae, who was a big woman, and under normal back-home circumstances, she would be cooking a big meal of cornbread, collard greens, chicken or chops, and sweet potatoes. She had a large family of twelve children and various grandchildren who were at the Tolliver home at any given time for a meal. So not being behind the stove was a treat, and Willie Mae ordered room service, and then ordered more room service. The rooms were paid for by the Corcoran Gallery as were all the expenses, including food.
The food cart had glided in their door a number of times, pushed by a very important-looking black waiter dressed in his pressed uniform, when finally I felt compelled to assist . Figuring Willie Mae and Mose had not much experience at room service and all the protocol, I went over to the waiter as he delivered a double ham sandwich. I told the waiter quietly, so Willie Mae and Mose wouldn't overhear, that these people weren't used to room service and so they probably didn't know about tipping. I passed him a dollar to cover the sandwich, but to my surprise he looked at me and said, 'Oh, don't worry, I've been paid—Mrs. Tolliver just signs me a tip on her tab and charges it to the room!'. I looked at the check, and there next to the $4.75 sandwich was a $10 tip!
There was an air of excitement that evening in the corridors of the Cocoran as they filled with people arriving for the main event. It was a formal event and, although I didn't know most of the crowd, I imagine they were some of Washington's most prestigious art collectors and folk art enthusiasts. To have so much art of this type under one roof was awesome. Each gallery was devoted to a particular artist. Sister Gertrude Morgan's alcove was all in white, in keeping with her preference to this color in later years. Elijah Pierce's wood carvings , Sam Doyle's tin pieces and so many of the other artists' works gave the exhibit quite a powerful presence. Mose's gallery space was filled with many of his earlier paintings, very unlike the now familiar self portraits and "sprupe ladies" that he paints today. In the beginning of his career, his style was more diverse, as he experimented with images and techniques that later jelled into his well- known style. The monochromatic and sometimes flesh-toned hues swirled into mysterious fauna and erotic figures in provocative poses.
Son Thomas, a blues musician as well as a visual artist, was the featured entertainment at the opening. That evening he wailed his dark, down-home blues songs of "big legged women" for the audience of Washington's well dressed elite. Son was notorious for liking to drink, and I'll have to admit I had one too many drinks with him prior to and during the opening. What slipped up on me was the 151-proof rum he offered me, which I mistakenly assumed was the same as regular rum. Much to my embarrassment, I later actually forgot that I was chaperoning Mose, and at the end of the evening left for the hotel with Son Thomas.
Luckily, my associate, Tom Moore, took over my responsibilities and saw that Mose and Willie Mae arrived safely back at the hotel amidst the snowy blizzard. To this day, Mose gets a big kick out of recollecting the story of how I drank a little too much rum and left them at the Corcoran Gallery to fend for themselves on that wintry evening.
I had made a bet with Mose that if we brought ten of his paintings to Washington, I could sell them for a lot more money than he could ever imagine. I told him we'd try for one hundred dollars a piece, which was a lot in 1982. After the opening, several collectors came back to my room, including the Rosenaks, Janet Fleisher and Regenia Perry, and within fifteen minutes, I had sold all of Mose's pictures and had one thousand dollars cash in my hand. Passing it on to Mose was the highpoint of the event. His grin was even grander than usual.
The exhibition was obviously a huge success. Livingston stated that the work it showcased was "not the byproduct of the fantasies of eccentrics and naifs, but the achievement of artistic masters". The Washington Post published a glowing review with such comments as, 'astounding beauty... objects of such power...radiant rightness...evocative, original and memorable' and "How can unknown works of such power exist?"
On a more personal level, that trip was a re-uniting experience for Willie Mae and Mose. Back home they were often argumentative, amidst their family squabbles and reprimands by Willie Mae about Mose's drinking. In Washington, even Willie Mae took a few sips of whiskey, and of course Mose had more than a few sips. Willie Mae was feeling good and with the burden of her family responsibilities temporarily forgotten, she even danced a few steps to Son Thomas' music. After the event was over and they were enroute back to Alabama, they were having drinks together and holding hands in their Pullman coach—it was like a second honeymoon.
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The trip to Washington definitely inspired Mose to paint new and more exciting pictures. Before the Corcoran exhibition, his art had become somewhat uninspired after more than a decade of his the daily routine, sitting on his bed's edge and painting multiple versions of his familiar subjects. But after the Washington trip, he came home with new ideas, inspired by the other art he had seen, and just taking a break from his normal routine. He made several paintings of the Empire State buildings, the Statue of Liberty, George Washington, and numerous other fresh subjects.
After the Corcoran exhibition, Mose soon became more widely known in his hometown, and beyond . An article in the Montgomery Advertiser proclaimed, "Mose just wants to paint his pictures". Robert Bishop, then director of the Museum of American Folk Art, went so far as to declare that Mose's art was of "equal value" to Picasso's, commenting that " you can hang him beside a Picasso and you have the same creativity and deep personal vision."
More and more people began coming to Mose's home to purchase his paintings. His work was included in numerous folk art exhibitions, including "Mojo Working" and "Baking in the Sun", and the prices of his work slowly began to increase. In the Birmingham Post Herald, Gail Trechsel, the acting director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, was quoted as saying, "Mose T is considered one of the shining lights in folk art".
I had tried to make sure Mose got higher prices for his work. Even though fifty dollars or one hundred dollars sounded like a big price, I always told him to ask more. I remember one day I was at his house buying a number of pictures and asked if he could give me a good price. His son, hearing me, looked over and poked fun saying, 'Now Miss Anton, what goes around comes around!" So from then on I probably paid more than most, because I really couldn't avoid practicing what I preached.
Sometimes when friends would come to town, I would take them to meet Mose. He was the main attraction for visiting friends I had met during my travels. A film-maker from Berlin, or a housewife from Phoenix, Arizona. On special summer nights, a few friends and I would take Mose to Gordon's Patio Club and Luncheonette, a wildly 1950's tiled Gaudiesque African-American club. Mose loves nightclubs, socializing and flirting, so he always had a great time. Sometimes got in trouble with Willie Mae for encouraging Mose's attraction to other women by sending him post cards of buxom women. Willie Mae never approved of his more erotic paintings of spread-legged women or Russian women on exercise racks. She'd say, 'What you want a picture like that for, Anton?' Her love for Mose was deep although not always obvious. She saw that he had good meals regularly, and was instrumental in making sure he got decent prices for his work, especially if he had been drinking , at which times he has been known to sell a picture for next to nothing or give it away. If Willie Mae were there, however, she would see to it that the price was up to her standards. She often helped Mose on the paintings he did and actually painted and signed many of her own.
When my son was born, Willie Mae painted a high-chair with a spread-legged Diana woman on it for me, I guess figuring that was my favorite image. She loved for me to come and visit with her daughters and tell them of my recent love problems. If I showed them a new dance step, they'd laugh until they almost fell off the bed. "Turn the music up, Charles! Get down, An-tonee!" they would exclaim, as they prodded me to do another dance.
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Mose has a sort of cult following—a young man who only recently met Mose may be sitting by his bed sharing a bottle of Red Dagger wine, feeling like he and Mose are "one". And if one of Mose's old friends or collectors of, say 10 or 12 years, comes by to ask why Mose just sold the picture he had paid for that morning, the young man castigates the collector for being so business-like and says "that's not the way to visit Mose—don't you know better?", as if the young newcomer is the authority.
Many such episodes of confusing interactions occur among the dealers, collectors, fans, and old and new friends that drop by to visit. Mose has seen it all! I have been there when a dealer has come to pick up a painting he had paid for only to find another dealer there purchasing the same painting with Mose quietly observing the resultant squabble from the edge of his bed. Mose always gets a thrill out of reporting to me the latest news on who got mad at whom, or who just purchased "a whole carload of George Washington's". He usually gets the names wrong and spends forever, it seems, trying to identify "John from New York—you know John, can't remember his last name"—or "Bill from Kansas City".
One night several years ago, Atlanta art collector Bill Arnett and I took Mose out to dinner at a local Sushi restaurant. Mose had his eyes on the Japanese waitress and kept flirting with her. I don't believe he tried any raw fish, but I doubt that he will ever forget the waitress, and she'll probably never forget the big tip Mose gave her! His appetite for social exchange is great. He loves his semi-celebrity status and loves to meet the people.
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Mose Tolliver's work is now in private collections and museums across the U.S. and abroad. Gone are the days when he hung his pictures in trees and waited for someone somewhere to show interest in his work. He has continued to produce paintings that are alternately or simultaneously whimsical, erotic, and sometimes haunting. A "quail bird" glides over a cotton field in one painting, while a "spread leg Diana Lady" straddles a "Russian exercise rack". "Self Portraits" with Mose standing stoically with his crutches. His titles are as alluring as are his images: Tiger Toils, Dinosaur Birds, Co-Cola Dog, Japanese Men in Spaceships, Jick Jack Sally... .
On any given day there are always groups of collector’s and curiosity seekers at Mose's house. During their lunch breaks, conservative Montgomery city workers in their business suits and dresses come to browse. A photographer from Massachusetts follows, traveling across the country preparing a photo portfolio of folk artists. A dealer drives up in a dark BMW, and another in a beige van from Dallas just drives away.
The family scene at Mose's house is about as intense as it ever was , except that Mose spends less time at home since Willie Mae's death in 1991. He has one main girlfriend and several other women are his "good friends", and is by far the wealthiest man in his neighborhood. In the early years, his drinking was controlled by his purse strings: if there was no money, there was no alcohol. Now there is always enough money for alcohol and enough to buy a Lincoln Continental (of which he had three at one time a couple of years ago- and he can't even drive). Willpower is the only thing to control his drinking, often he falls off his straight course.
Mose's production process has changed considerably since I first met him. As opposed to the simplicity and limits of the past, now a friend or someone in his family cuts boards to size with a power saw and stacks them up against the side of his house ready to be used. Another relative often paints the backgrounds. Sometimes a neighbor or relative will paint a picture and Mose signs it as his own. Children from the neighborhood furnish the pop tops from soda cans that Mose tacks on the backs of his pictures for hangers.
Even Mose's dress code has changed due to his popularity. Visitors from different parts of the U.S. or beyond, give him T-shirts as gifts. One day Mose may wear a T-shirt exclaiming 'Memphis Rocks' in neon colors, or 'Texas Longhorns' or 'Toast Your Buns in Puerto Vallarta'. The following day he may be sporting one of his own 'Mose T' creations, silk-screened onto a T-shirt. Sometimes his fans trade art with Mose or give him paintings by other artists, so there may be a cut-out painted camel by Howard Finster on the wall, or some wildly painted stuffed squirrel by a contemporary artist from Wisconsin on the mantle.
The fundamental strengths of Mose's work, in my opinion, are his ability to express the simplicity of life and his lack of self-consciousness as to what his art is or should be. He is just direct today as he always has been. If he wants to paint, he does, and if he doesn't, he doesn't. He sits down to paint, puts a board in his lap, and the picture appears slowly before his eyes. He does not permit the world outside to confuse, embarrass, or enrage him. If the art world argues over the validity of one of his paintings, that's the way it is. If someone does not like the picture he paints because it might be too blue, then he paints in lighter blue-if he is in the mood. He seems to keep his own kind of clarity amidst any intellectualizing about his art by others, and even amidst any attempts to influence or "steer him in the right direction".
One day, for example, Mose had painted a large number of boards purple for a dealer. The dealer came by to pick them up and said, "Why did you paint all of these boards purple?" and Mose said, "Because I knew that was your favorite color' . The dealer said " Now, don't paint them for that reason, paint them for whatever color comes to mind—for your own reason, not to please me ", thinking he was purifying Mose's creativity, based on his intellectual concept of choice and self-motivation But Mose was working on a more personal level. He knew the man's favorite color was purple, so that inspired him to paint the boards purple. So Mose repainted the boards—still wanting to please. Yet, is wanting to please so wrong? Mose's simple concerns are heart-warming in times when simple concerns are sometimes lost in our modern world with philosophical guidelines as to what Art is. Although he may get requests for "another watermelon", he fills the order, using the request as just another chance to solve some riddle of balancing the green with the large red crescent. Mose continues his strong and simple urges through it all, "I just want to paint my pictures!"
For all that I've said about Mose from the twenty-five years I've known him, I notice that much is still cloaked in mystery of who Mose really is. Perhaps I have only absorbed that which Mose has chosen to reveal to someone so different from himself in age, education, family background, and socioeconomic circumstances. What is the attraction to Mose and his art? Is Mose a man whom we really can not be because we have experienced too much? In a sense, for us to see a man "spinning straw into gold" without contrivance is a magnetizing phenomenon. And although we cannot really know Mose, we can, through his art, perhaps touch a little of that innocence and purity that escapes so many of us. Mose is a man who doesn't attempt to explain or ponder about what he does. As reflected in the popular self portraits with crutches supporting him, he paints this simplicity of self, as if he is sincerely and simply saying, "Hello, I'm Mose. Who are you? Glad to meet you."
Copyright © 1998 ANTON HAARDT
All Rights Reserved.