It sounds like the buildup to a tasteless joke, but it's all true.
Mose Tolliver went to the Alabama soil a dyslexic, speech-impaired, illiterate, crippled, alcoholic, senile and blind old man.
He was also ambidextrous, artistically gifted, prolific, imaginative, endearing and internationally recognized. He'd been a guest at the White House. In a Dec. 12, 2006, obituary in London's Guardian, Mose T. was remembered as the "highly collectable" outsider "who successfully penetrated America's art institutions."
As a human being, he also captured the heart of one woman who resides in Colorado Springs along with her private collection of some 200 Mose works. Though not the largest assemblage, it is inarguably the most personal. One local gallery curator calls it a "jaw-dropper."
If you can wait until March 2010, you'll see why.
The Black Picasso
Mary Allen, a leisure-time art collector in her late 40s, was shopping in an antique store at Montgomery, Ala., one afternoon in 1991 when vibrant paintings of a snake, a fish and a tree of life on the wall grabbed her attention.
"That's really nice of you, to put your grandchildren's work up there," she said in her disarming English accent to the elderly owners of the shop.
"No, no, no," they admonished. "That's Mose Tolliver. The Black Picasso."
"You're kidding," Allen blurted in sheer surprise.
"Do some research," came the reply.
Allen, new to Montgomery, didn't have to look far. On day trips to Atlanta and Birmingham, she'd bump into Mose works in galleries and malls. In fact, the navely whimsical paintings seemed to be in a lot of places where money was.
"For some, it was a status symbol to have a Mose," says Joey Parker, a friend of Allen's and a prominent Montgomery media figure.
Increasingly captivated, and hardwired with an adventurous spirit, Allen resolved to track down and meet Mose T., the name by which the artist signed his works and became affectionately referred. Her quest, and her resultant foray into folk art collecting, would inspire an unlikely, enduring friendship.
Born on the Fourth of July
To construct a biography of Mose Tolliver's life, particularly the early years, requires guesswork. Speculation on the artist's birthdate alone ranges from 1910 to 1923.
"Those that write about Mose keep using the same sources," explains Allen, "so they are repeated and seem to gain credibility, even though they weren't accurate in the first place."
The central reason for the disparities in Mose's life story stem from the extreme poverty into which he was born, as the youngest of seven children by sharecroppers Ike and Lannie Tolliver in the Pike Road community outside of Montgomery. According to Allen, Mose knew neither his age nor his birthday, so he chose the Fourth of July, "because they have fireworks that day."
"[Also] because he knew what it was: It was celebration time," says daughter-in-law Victorine Tolliver.
A baptism certificate discovered by family members after Mose's death on Oct. 30, 2006 suggests that Moses Ernest Tolliver was born in 1923, which would have placed him at 83 when he died.
Mose, who had dyslexia and a mild speech impediment, stopped attending school around the second grade, after his father disappeared. Nobody knows what occurred, or what became of him. But it left Mose to help support the family, which suited him just fine compared to making the long winter walks to and from school. He'd stuffed leaves into his shoes to keep warm.
Mose would never learn to read or do basic math. The only thing he ever learned to write was his name.
He became a gardener and general handyman, dabbling in plumbing, house painting and carpentry, as well as unskilled maintenance work, according to William Arnett's Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. According to Victorine, he was also a chef.
But all of that was before a thousand-pound crate of marble fell onto his legs. When, like a comic-book superhero forged by a freak accident, the super-famous artist Mose T. was born.
Always on the move
Mary Allen, 64, was born in Bath, England, and like Mose, she grew up without a father; a Royal Air Force pilot, he had been killed in World War II. So "country" relatives brought her up. When her mother remarried an enlisted British army man, she says, this side of her family was treated as "third-class citizens."
She moved with her stepfather's regiment, attending roughly 25 different schools, mostly with the same classmates, inside hangars, tents and sometimes chateaus.
After attending college, Allen was working a job at a U.S. advertising firm based in London. In 1963, she fell in love with an American "because he looked like Cliff Richard," (a popular English rock star of the era) and moved to San Francisco to marry him. But she says her new husband soon turned violent and she found herself fleeing with their 4-year-old daughter, Denise.
Allen eventually fell in with a U.S. Air Force pilot, and agreed to marry him when he got called for service in Vietnam. He wanted her and Denise to receive the security of his pension should he be killed, and they agreed to re-evaluate staying together upon his return. He did return, and gave Mary a second child, Tom.
But after 15 years together, the two split. Allen eventually married one of his squadron mates and came to reside in Colorado Springs from 1984 to 1989. While her husband taught at the Air Force Academy, she became a field director for U.S. Sens. Gary Hart and Tim Wirth.
By the age of 42, the nomad had lived in 43 different places.
When Mose married, it was in the early 1940s, to Willie Mae Thomas. The pair raised 11 children (two others were lost at birth), all born at home. The family always struggled to get by. They moved from place to place, and there were days his kids went without food, says Victorine.
In the late '60s, Mose was laboring in the warehouse of McLendon Furniture Co. when a stack of marble coffee table tops fell from a forklift, crushing his legs. He was permanently disabled, forced to use crutches from then on. Depression set in and he began drinking heavily, occasionally ending up on the police blotter.
"Mose always drank," says Victorine. "After he got hurt, he went on binges."
But he also began painting. One of his former employers, Raymond McLendon, offered to pay for art instruction to keep him busy. Mose declined the lessons, but had his family bring him scrap plywood plentiful in his dilapidated neighborhood and extra house paint. From there, he set out finding his own way with a brush.
If people liked a particular image, he'd replicate it.
Mose soon painted animals, imaginative scenes with mythic creatures, watermelons and various figures, including erotica pictures.
"It was his imagination that he painted," says Allen.
The illustrations tended to incorporate only a few colors, from whatever paint buckets were around at the time. Sometimes he'd cut his own hair for the person depicted in the painting. He also painted odd objects, like washboards, stools, windows, even frying pans.
The dry, dramatic wood grain of his medium, particularly in early works, tends to show through the vibrantly colored images. To hang the rectangular blocks, Mose would pound a shoe tack through the metal pop-top off one of his beer cans. When he couldn't locate one of those, he'd run dental floss or old shoestring over a nail.
This style fit into the category of outsider art, a contemporary term for art brut, meaning "rough" or "raw" art, created beyond the borders of what society considers normal culture. The term relates more to social status than artistic quality, and can encompass self-taught art, sometimes even called nave, visionary or primitive art.
"Part of what makes the work so compelling," says local curator Jessica Hunter Larsen, "is its insight into other ways of thinking or moving through the world ... a glimpse into a parallel culture, different than our daily experience."
After eliciting community-wide interest for more than a decade, Mose finally earned a local exhibition at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 1981. The next year found him in Washington, D.C., at a breakthrough Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 exhibit at the prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art, and also at the White House to meet Nancy Reagan. (He brought all the leftovers from the banquet back home on a train and threw a block party.)
International attention descended on Montgomery. Mose T. had made it. Mostly, he thought, because he could now have his sons pick him up wood from the lumber store, rather than the streets.
When they met
Mose had been celebrated for more than 10 years when Allen first approached his crumbling Victorian house.
"Comeonin!" a drawling, exuberant voice thundered.
Nervously, Allen ambled back to what in most houses would be a dining room. In the Tolliver house, this room adjacent to the living room was Mose's bedroom/studio/gallery, converted after his accident to accommodate a bed and dresser, an old-fashioned gas heater and stacks of paint cans and boards. There was also a mini-fridge for his beer.
"There," she says, recalling, "was this old black man, white hair, crippled, sitting on his bed, covered in paint ... and he was just a joy."
That first meeting, after chatting for a while, she bought her first Mose, a picture of one of his "freedom buses," depicting white folks sitting in back.
"From that day on, we became such close friends," says Allen. "In the end, he used to refer to me as his white child."
Allen took to coming by regularly, often with her son Tom, to spend time with Mose. Years later, she would bring both of her grandsons, Victor and Simon, to visit. Simon would sometimes play the guitar for Mose when he was sick. Victor enjoyed watching him paint; that is, when he wasn't helping.
"If Mose considered you family, he made you work," says Allen. "I'd sit and talk to him, and he'd tell me not to be idle or the devil would get me. He'd make me paint the under-color [the background]."
From this simple task, much controversy later stemmed.
"In the history of pre-modern art, artists had all kinds of assistants," explains Hunter Larsen. "Sometimes they'd paint areas of a large canvas. The whole idea of lone artists doing everything by hand is an inaccurate perception."
Thinking it would also make her famous, daughter Annie claimed that she'd done an abundance of Mose T. paintings herself. Turmoil still surrounds that assertion, which rather than launch her career, only served to devalue Mose's paintings.
"People have said that we all did Mose's artwork," says Victorine. "The family's artwork is different from his. They were inspired by him to do art. I was inspired by him to do art. But we couldn't stop helping him, because he couldn't do it for himself."
During that period, UPS-sized vans, often with New York license plates, would pull up at Mose's. Dealers knew of his penchant for drinking and would often bring the strong stuff to barter, waiting for Mose to get loose before the numbers game began. For pennies on the dollar, many dealers would clean him out of his whole stock.
"Mose was ripped off right, left and center. It was awful," says Allen, who got into shouting matches with those she caught.
Willie Mae wasn't there to look after him; she had died after 50 years of marriage. And, says Victorine, "You couldn't be there every day. A lot of people waited to catch him when no one was around."
The price Mose asked depended on the mood he was in, even with friends. Sometimes, says Victorine, "He'd say, "If I sold it for $50 and you take it and want to sell it for $1,000, that's you.'"
But a deal gone bust might have Mose asking for several thousand dollars and the buyers talking him down to half that. When the checks were written, the correct amount of zeros didn't always end up after the big numbers. And Mose thought checks were the same as cash. Years later, when helping tend to his affairs, Allen and Victorine would discover handfuls of them uncashed.
As for Mose's productivity, it, like the clarity and fluidity of his famous Mose T. signature, depended on how sober he was. He could "mass produce" about 10 or 15 paintings a day if he wasn't drinking. In a depression, he might not paint for a week.
Many like to dismiss his shortcomings by saying, "Mose was just Mose."
"But Mose wasn't just Mose," says Victorine. "Mose was comprised of his family."
They were the ones who stuck with him when he got drunk and shot his gun off in the house. Willie Mae stuck with him after he'd flag a cab and disappear to his girlfriend's for a week. And they all enabled his art.
Finding a home
After contacting several local galleries earlier this year, Allen finally found Hunter Larsen, curator of Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space in the new Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center.
"I was really astonished," says Hunter Larsen. "I never expected to find such a comprehensive collection here."
She had become familiar with outsider art at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls, Mont., where she'd organized a large show with works by sculpture outsider Lee Steen. While researching, she'd discovered Mose Tolliver.
Hunter Larsen particularly loves the directness of Mose's work.
"It communicates his perceptions in such an unmediated way," she says. "It's the idea of abstraction, meaning to pare something down to its absolute essence."
It's this economy of both line and color in addition to Mose's prolific production that's inspired Picasso comparisons.
Allen speculates that she might have the fifth-largest private Mose collection in the world. But what makes Allen's collection so special, says Hunter Larsen, is that "their relationship is a whole other piece of her collection, which is absolutely unique. It's the narrative that she can provide. Each piece has a specific meaning and is emblematic of the personal relationship. She's a co-creator, in a way."
During her search, Allen discovered that rarely do major art spaces schedule on short notice. The average wait for available wall space, as confirmed by Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS, and CC, tends to be between one and two years. Blockbuster shows may book five years in advance.
The timeline is a downside in scheduling sensitive to thematics, overall program balance and variety in media.
At the Sangre, curator Karin Larkin must consider seven separate gallery spaces that can focus on a single theme. UCCS curator Christopher Lynn says "conceptual threads" bind his shows and determine the calendar.
While the FAC Modern's booked until winter 2009, and the FAC main into 2011, Blake Milteer, curator of 19th-21st century American Art, says self-taught folk art aligns with where the FAC Modern plans to go: shows by local artists and works from local private collections, as exemplified by the recent Altered Space and Styling the Modern.
"One of the things I find most interesting about local private collections," he says, "is [they show] the expansiveness of the vision behind many of the private collectors here regionally. It's those threads from the Springs out into the rest of the world that I find particularly compelling."
He wasnt awkward
By 1995, Allen was living in Alabama but frequently visiting Colorado to see Denise and Victor, who'd maintained residence here. Then the unthinkable happened to Allen near Christmas, when her son Tom, then 20, was killed by a drunk driver. His girlfriend was six weeks pregnant at the time with Simon.
Allen essentially lost her grip on life. Her marriage dissolved, and in early 1996, she disappeared from society to a friend's remote fishing trailer on the bank of the Alabama River, 20 miles from Montgomery.
"The death of my child redefined me," she says. "I had to find out who I was and get my head straight."
She would end up spending roughly two years there, visiting Mose weekly. He'd been greatly upset by the news and could relate to losing a child.
"It was comforting to have him to talk to," she says. "He wasn't awkward" at a time when "everybody else was trying to find the right thing to say. He'd just pat me."
She fished and grew vegetables and learned to make nice with snakes and the occasional bullfrogs that would show up in her toilet. The only hole in the roof conveniently dripped above the clothes washer.
Allen had plenty of time to replay her decision to take Tom off life support, 13 days after the accident, and to reconcile the feeling that she'd killed her own son.
She eventually managed to find gratitude in her circumstance, that she was at least able to hold her son as he died. As a Senate field director, she'd met moms of MIA/POWs who never knew how their children had died, or even for sure if they had died.
But as she worked through her pain, money got tight. Allen was forced to sellpieces from her collection, which at one point was double its current size.
"I felt so guilty," she says. "I went to Mose to tell him, and he said, "You sell it. You make money. You come back and you buy more.'"
Fair price for a Mose T. depends on its age, size and how many of that particular image he did. Some pieces still sell for under $200, others for more than $2,000.
"The galleries are asking a fortune, and it's hard for me because I know what I paid, roughly, and I haven't gotten used to the idea of how much they're worth," says Allen. "I'm a bit like Mose in that regard."
The long wait
As years passed, Mose's production began to slow. In his art, his once-lively snakes turned to worms or slugs. In 2004, he suffered a stroke that heralded the onset of dementia. Allen spent almost every day with him from that point until his passing, bringing him gumbo, cleaning him up and tending to him when he was sick.
For a while, she gave Mose random objects to paint on, like bottles.
"He would sit and [make painting motions], but his daughters wouldn't let him have paint because he'd make too much of a mess," Allen says. She jokes that he made too much of a mess before, too.
Allen has the last piece Mose ever painted, a misshapen burgundy watermelon on a smudged white background, with a light sprinkling of black seeds. The paint went on thick, with heavy brush strokes visible, and the borders aren't clean. The last thing Mose could do was write his name, with help holding his hand.
His daughters elected not to let him undergo cataract surgery that would have prevented him from going blind. According to Allen, they said their mother had died in a hospital, and they weren't sending their daddy there, too.
Since Mose's passing, Allen has tended to drive between Colorado and Alabama every few months to be with both her grandchildren. But her home address is in northern Colorado Springs. She's currently working on her Ph.D. in neurolinguistics and clinical forensic hypnotherapy through the American Institute of Hypnotherapy. And last year, she began co-authoring a book about Mose with Victorine who says she considers Allen a "soul sister" and one of Mose's sons, Johnny Tolliver. They hope to wrap it up later this year.
"It'll tell some sides of Mose that people don't know," says Victorine. "He was a kaleidoscope of many things.
"If you'd listen, he'd tell you stories galore. There's just a whole lot more to the man than the art. His art is what put him out there, but there's a story behind so much of what he did ... [that] puts a different light on him and makes people take him a little more serious as a human being and not just as an artist."
With Hunter Larsen's vision, an exhibition of American Self-Taught Art is set for March 22 to May 12, 2010, at the I.D.E.A. Space.
"I fight my instinct," says Hunter Larsen. "I want to do it tomorrow ... that happens with every project constant self-restraint."
The show likely will be anchored around 50 Mose pieces, plus work of other folk artists in Allen's collection (Jimmy Lee Sudduth, John Henry Toney, Charlie Lucas, the Gee's Bend quilters and the Catfish Man, to name a few) and from other collections. In addition, an outsider art symposium is planned. Hunter Larsen and Allen are open to collaborating with other institutions in town to expand the show, if interest arises.
The FAC would be the most geographically likely candidate to hop on board. UCCS' Lynn says he's been toying with the idea of an outsider art show for some time, but he worries about contributing to their "demise" in the mainstream.
"I feel like it's giving your cheerleader niece some really good underground music," he says.
Ultimately, it will be Mary Allen, an outsider in her own regard, who will introduce the community to Mose T., and deconstruct the man of mythic proportion. The man once photographed wearing his wife's blouse, too drunk to realize it.
"He wasn't impressed with his own fame," Allen says. "He just knew he was the richest man in his neighborhood.
"Mose was a scoundrel. But the most lovable scoundrel."
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