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In an interview, Mose Tolliver claimed that he initially began painting landscapes on tree roots and glass as a teenager, learning from other people who were doing similar work. A forklift accident in the 1960s left him unable to walk without assistance when, while working at McLendon Furniture Company, a half-ton slab of marble fell on his legs. It was a turning point: no longer able to work he took up art making, developing a distinctive figurative style that was simple, flat, and colorful.

The day—July fourth—of Tolliver’s birth has been established, but not the year. It has been given variously as between 1919 and 1924. His birthplace was Pike Road, Alabama, sixteen miles southeast of Montgomery. His parents were sharecroppers, and he was one of 12 children. He attended school only until he was eight or nine, expressing little interest in education. He described his home as “just a shack, but my mamma had pictures all over the walls.” These were probably in newspapers, commonly used to paper and insulate humble dwellings. 

Tolliver worked a variety of odd jobs, mostly as a gardener and truck farmer, but also took on general maintenance tasks such as house painting and even plumbing. In October 1940 Tolliver was drafted into the military; he signed his registration card with an X, and it is not known how long or where he served. In the early 1940s, he moved into the city of Montgomery and married his childhood best friend, Willie Mae Thomas, with whom he had 13 children, 11 of whom survived until adulthood. Following the accident at McLendon Furniture Company in the late 1960s he was offered art lessons by his employer, but declined. However, he was given some supplies, with his  preference being house paint. 

After his accident, he had more time and possibly found painting rehabilitative; it became Tolliver’s passion and he declared he did it “to keep my head together.” He painted on wood; “the first picture I did on wood was a red bird.” He depicted other creatures, in particular birds, and did a whole series of turtles. He enhanced the oval shapes of their shells with daubs of paint. He also painted trees and flowers, but figures dominated, along with many self-portraits. Whether singly or in pairs, male or female, his subjects faced forward, and had large round heads and prominent eyes. Some were based on religious themes, such as a black Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, but his most notorious group represented women in erotic positions. They display a sense of humor and appear to have been based on a Time-Life book about ancient Egypt. He also painted on three dimensional objects such as a suitcase, coffee table, and bird house, usually decorating them with bird motifs and dots of paint. All of his subjects were painted from his own personal observations of life. 

In 1981, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts mounted a one-man show of his work. The following year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, mounted the exhibition Black Folk Art in America, featuring fellow Montgomery artist (whom Tolliver had not previously known) Bill Traylor. Shortly after this, demand for Tolliver’s work outgrew the pace at which he could paint. He taught some of his children his signature style, notably his daughter, Annie, so they could help duplicate his pictures and even sign his name. 

After his wife’s death in 1991, Tolliver once again underwent a difficult period, but he continued his painting. A New York Times review of the 1982 Corcoran exhibition summarized: “It was the role of black folk art to make the unbearable bearable.” 

He will be remembered as a picture maker, always signing his work Mose T (with a backwards “s”) and one of America’s first African American vernacular artists whose works were drawn from his own life experiences.