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Crude Awakenings



Years ago, I was giving a visiting German artist a tour of some local galleries when we happened upon an exhibition of folk art. It was the visionary outsider variety featuring lots of 'crude" but very expressive imagery " the sort of stuff that some might mistake for the efforts of strange or twisted children. The German artist froze in her tracks, eyes bulging in disbelief. When she recovered her composure, she gravely and with great finality intoned: 'Dis ist not aht!" Arnold Schwartzenneger in The Terminator could not have put it more forcefully. While the delivery was her own, her response was hardly unique. Similar dismay was expressed by Americans when the first large institutional show of outsider folk art occurred at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Despite the shock and bewilderment, the show was a critical and popular success. While it's the sort of thing that we may like in New Orleans, visionary outsider art is not universally accepted by any means, in part because it tends to be a regional phenomenon. You won't find much of it emanating from places like Vermont or Oregon because most such artists are working-class Southerners. Many are African American, and most have rural roots.

The story of Mose Tolliver, one of the legendary number enshrined in that Corcoran show, is typical in some ways. Born on an Alabama sharecropping farm in 1925, he moved with his family to Montgomery, Ala., as a teen and eventually supported himself as a gardener and handyman. He was working for a furniture company when a forklift accident crushed his leg and left him unable to walk. The store's owner, disturbed by his former employee's depressed state, took him to an art show and encouraged him to try painting. Tolliver began dabbling with surplus paint, brushes and scrap materials and gradually evolved into a unique self-taught artist known for strange and whimsical beasts and even stranger and more whimsical human subjects.

Tolliver's story fits the general pattern of secular visionaries like his Louisiana peers including David Butler, also injured at work, and Royal Robertson, whose impairment was probably more mental than physical. The religious visionaries, such as New Orleans' own Sister Gertrude Morgan or Georgia's Rev. Howard Finster, became artists as the result of being called by a higher power. Unlike their secular brethren, they were on a mission from God and made sure everyone knew it. Beyond the visionaries, there is also a Southern folk art genre called 'memory painters," typically older folk such as Clementine Hunter, whose charmingly innocent images recalled her earlier life on Melrose Plantation.

Tolliver, however charming he may have been, was not entirely innocent. He used clippings of his own hair to fringe the personal anatomy on his Moose Lady painting, a composition in which that particular part was just about the only remotely anatomically correct element. Huge heads rising like weather balloons over splayed legs and wildly contorted bodies were par for the course, a convoluted level of abstraction that caused some critics to compare him to Picasso.

At times, he also dabbled in history, in works like Low Flying Jap Plane, which to the uninitiated might not look all that different from his fanciful 'tico birds." Over time, women, birds and occasional slices of watermelon emerged as favorite subjects, but his particular talent was most evident in his ability to make images that seemed to arise from the dark, primordial recesses of human consciousness and render them accessible, or even charming. In this, he is related to the other visionaries enshrined on the walls of the gallery. Tolliver died in 2006, but he lives on in his work and in a handsome large-format book, The Folk Art of Mose Tolliver, by Anton Haardt.

Mose Tolliver's painting Birds reflects his uncanny gift for imagery that melds charm and strangeness.
  • Mose Tolliver's painting Birds reflects his uncanny gift for imagery that melds charm and strangeness.

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