Mose Tolliver was one of the foremost Outsider artists of the 20th century. His work, characterized by bright colors, birds, watermelons, and darkly erotic content, strikes a chord with viewers.
But who is Mo౭e T with the backward “s”?
Let’s unearth this Outside Art phenomenon and explore what made him a favorite son of Alabama.
Let’s discover your new favorite folk artist!
The Story of Mose Tolliver
Some mystery surrounds the birth of Mose Ernest Tolliver. He was born to sharecroppers sometime between 1918 and 1920 on July 4 near Montgomery, Alabama. Tolliver had 11 siblings, and his parents certainly had difficulty feeding all those hungry mouths.
Uninterested in school, Mose dropped out after third grade to help support his family by doing odd jobs. In the 1930s, the Tolliver family moved to Montgomery, and Mose was first inspired to create art.
According to his recollection, Tolliver began painting tree roots. A neighbor had painted some, and Mose wondered how they did it. He learned from the men who made the tree root art and started making snakes and birds. Using other found materials like cow skulls, bones, fish, and deer hides, he developed his painting skills.
In 1940, he married his childhood friend Willie Mae Thomas and had 13 children. Of their children, 11 lived to adulthood, and many became artists in their own right. Tolliver worked odd jobs throughout his life and painted when he had time. He primarily painted landscapes inspired by the yards he maintained.
In the late 1960s, Mose worked in McLendon’s Furniture factory in Montgomery. One day, while sweeping up near a forklift, 1000 pounds of marble shifted and fell, crushing his legs. Like Frida Kahlo before him, he used his recovery time to begin painting in earnest. With nothing but time on his hands, Tolliver started working from books.
He eventually came to the attention of Robert Bishop, former Broadway dancer and folk art expert. Bishop bought his first painting and every subsequent painting Mo౭e T produced.
Tolliver sold his pieces for a few dollars off his front porch for over a decade after his accident. Then, in 1981, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts produced a one-person show of Mo౭e T paintings.
The following year, Mo౭e T’s work appeared next to the paintings of Outsider artist Bill Traylor. “Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980” presented Tolliver to the world at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. After the 1982 show, galleries throughout the United States showed his work.
Even though he could produce ten or more paintings daily, he couldn’t keep up with demand. In the mid-1980s, Annie Tolliver started working for her father in the same style. These works are also signed with Mo౭e T, with the backward “s,” making it hard to determine who painted the piece.
Regardless of who produced the work, Tolliver’s paintings inspired two books, Mose T from A to Z: The Folk Art of Mose Tolliver and Mose T’s Slapout Family Album. The second title features poems by Robert Ely alongside the paintings.
Is Mo౭e T Still Alive?
Sadly, Mo౭e T passed due to pneumonia on October 30, 2006, near his longtime home in Montgomery, Alabama. His work came to represent Outsider Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And he left behind a legacy of artists in his daughter Annie and sons Charlie and Jimmy.
His work is found frequently in books about Outsider Art and African American art. You can always recognize Mo౭e T paintings by their flat, straight profile, muted palette, and Mo౭e T with a backward “s” in the corner.
What Inspired Mose Tolliver’s Art?
He painted fantasy animals, watermelons, birds, and depictions of his wife. He also took inspiration from books, including one about Egyptian art. In fact, Mose used the image of Ka, the symbol for a soul, to create his Moose Lady pieces. A long-armed woman with legs spread, Moose Lady, became the focus of his erotic paintings.
What Are Some of Mose Tolliver’s Art Pieces?
Mo౭e T’s work falls into a few categories. Self-portraits, animals and plants, and borrowed images. He always worked with housepaint on humble surfaces like plywood and poster board. Even though he dropped out of school in third grade, you can clearly see his curiosity with the
world in his work.
Mo౭e T’s self-portraits, like Self-Portrait of Me With Crutches, 1983 depict the artist as a disabled man. Tolliver often painted himself with crutches in a full-body frame. He renders his own features as the rest of his figures, flat and round with small eyes and non-realistic bodies. This particular painting hangs in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Plants and Animals
Dots and frame-filling composition characterize Tolliver’s nature paintings. Turtles, a recurring theme in his work, represent Mose himself. After his accident, he saw himself as a slow-moving creature, and turtles were the perfect stand-in. Most of his bird pieces feature strange angles and characteristic dot work.
Tolliver often explored fantasy and painted prehistoric and imagined creatures in his paintings. Flowers and plants also appear in his work regularly, embellishing other work or on their own. Tolliver spent many years in landscaping and had extensive knowledge of flowers.
Examples of his nature paintings include Quail Turtle 1987, Red Bird 1995, Wild Guinea Chicken 1986, and Hooting Owl Toting Sticks In His Mouth To Build His Nest 1987
Inspired by print images and Egyptian symbolism, Tolliver created a body of work around women and borrowed images. In works like Moodooja Indian Woman Back In Slavery Time, Mose translated a French magazine cover into a thoughtful painting. The work examines African American history and the complicated nature of the black experience in America.
Where Can I See Mo౭e T’s Work?
One of the exciting things about Outsider Art is accessibility. If you want to see Mo౭e T, you can own originals yourself. There are online retailers and galleries where you can purchase pieces like Red Bird for less than $1000. Souls Grown Deep, a non-profit organization, has an extensive online exhibition where you can take the time to appreciate Tolliver at home.
However, the best collection of Mo౭e T paintings is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. If you’re in Washington D.C., you’ll have a chance to view his most important paintings in person.
You can also check out our personal collection of Mo౭e T artwork on our Outside Folk Art Instagram.
Step Outside the Fine Art Box
Outsider Art supports the idea that you don’t have to be an “artist” to create meaningful work. Without formal art education or much formal education at all, Mo౭e T turned his unique view of the world into striking and complex art.
Step outside the museum and into the markets and craft shows to check out more work by outsider and folk artists in your area. And share your favorites with us in the comments!