By: Ellie Campbell, JD and University of Alabama MLIS student
Mose Tolliver was a renowned folk artist from Montgomery, Alabama. “Mose T,” as his signature read, was most famous for his paintings of figures on scrap wood, generally on themes including people, animals, and plants. He first gained national attention when he was featured in the groundbreaking exhibition Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His paintings are now held in major museums around the U.S., including the Modern Museum of Art in New York, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
Mose T was born outside of Montgomery, Alabama, in the Pike Road area, circa 1915. The youngest of twelve children, his sharecropping family moved around central Alabama several times during his youth. Tolliver held a number of odd jobs throughout his life, including working as a carpenter, handyman, plumber, house painter, and gardener. He married his wife, Willie Mae Tolliver, in the 1940s. She later helped manage his painting career, and they were married for almost fifty years until her death in 1991. Tolliver was injured in the 1960s while working at the McLendon Furniture Company in Montgomery; a case of marble fell on his left leg, and he used crutches or a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Tolliver had painted before the accident, so several of his friends and family encouraged his hobby afterwards in order to combat his depression over his injuries. He began hanging his art in his front yard and selling it to passersby. By the late 1970s, Tolliver had gained notice from art dealers, galleries, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. The museum hosted a one-man exhibition of his work in 1981, and his work was featured in another exhibit in Philadelphia that year as well. Due to this exposure, he was included in the Corcoran Gallery’s exhibit in 1982, which drew worldwide attention to African-American folk artists. Tolliver remained a key figure in African-American folk art circles until his death in 2006.
Tolliver’s earlier works were more varied than the work he produced after the Corcoran Gallery exhibit. He always used house paint, and early paintings might have been on many different sizes and types of material, from wood to metal to cardboard. His later paintings were usually on uniformly cut plywood. His subjects often included animals, plants, and people; he often painted his wife or other family members. Some of his most famous paintings are erotic depictions of women like his Moose Lady or Tiger Lady series. After his trip to D.C., he sometimes painted his interpretation of iconic American figures like George Washington, and occasionally drew inspiration from images in magazines or newspapers. In later years his family assisted with his paintings, cutting boards and preparing backgrounds; some of his children have become artists as well. Hoole Special Collection’s Mose T painting is an excellent example of his paintings, featuring a human figure made up of an oversized head and legs on plywood. On the bottom right corner, you can see his name with the signature backwards “s.”
Robert Ely. Mose T’s Slapout Family Album. Montgomery, AL: Black Belt Press, 1996. Hoole Library Alabama Collection ND237.T576 A4 1996
Anton Haardt. Mose T A to Z: The Folk Art of Mose Tolliver. Montgomery, AL: Saturno Press, 2007. Hoole Library Wade Hall Collection ND237.T576 H33 2006