Mose T's Art Was an 'Outside' Job Folk artist Mose Tolliver's subjects were nature, people and animals. His medium was house paint. His canvasses were cabinet doors and discarded table tops. His paintings put him at the forefront of the Outsider Art movement.
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Mose T's Art Was an 'Outside' Job

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Mose T's Art Was an 'Outside' Job

Mose T's Art Was an 'Outside' Job

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And finally tonight, we take a moment to remember one of my favorite folk artists, Mose Tolliver, known as Mose T. The self-taught painter helped define the outsider art movement in the 1980s. Tolliver died this week in Montgomery, Alabama. He was thought to be 82 years old. He was the youngest of 13 children born the sharecroppers on a farm in tiny Pike Road, Alabama. Mose T turned to art quite by accident. In the 1960s, while sweeping out a furniture factory in Montgomery, a crate of marble fell and crushed his legs. The injury left him depressed and disabled, with no means to support his 11 children. The factory owner brought him some oil paints and scrap wood to help pass the time. Mose told NPR's Scott Simon that he really didn't want to mess with it at first.

Mr. MOSE TOLLIVER (Artist): Until one day I was sitting on the front porch and I seen a red bird up in a tree and I got my paint and I painted that. I worked on it about four or five weeks. And he came by and he asked me, he said, how you going to know when you get your picture right? I said, when somebody buy.

ELLIOTT: Before long people did start to buy the birds, animals, flowers and trees that he painted on pieces of scrap plyboard and hung from the trees in his front yard. Art gallery owner Marcia Webber spent many hours at Mose's home near downtown Montgomery.

Ms. MARCIA WEBBER (Art Gallery Owner): He befriended a number of individuals who lived in the neighborhood and walked by his house. And they would see these paintings that he had done and often he would trade them for a bag of peas or a bag or corn or he would ask them to go and get something for him. And then he would give them a painting.

ELLIOTT: His preferred medium was the latex paint used on houses. He called it real paint and developed a system for making his pictures.

Ms. WEBBER: He kept some huge gallons of paint. Not that many. Only three colors, maybe four at a time were open on a piece of furniture at the end of his bed. And he would sit on the side of his bed and prop the board that he would paint on on his lap and just busily paint. He would often paint about four or five, maybe six paintings at a time. He first would do what I call baking the cake. He would sort of put broad shapes on the boards and then lay them down on the floor in front of him, and often in the cold weather an open flame gas heater was right there, and he would shift these around with a fireplace poker to try to help facilitate the drying of the pieces. And once those original shapes were dry, then he would take one at a time and begin applying the next layer in what I would call putting on the icing.

ELLIOTT: And he had a signature style of finishing off a painting.

Ms. WEBBER: Oh, definitely. He had usually a black magic marker, occasionally a red one, and he would sign his name M-O-S with a backward S and T. And that really was all he knew how to write.

ELLIOTT: Mose T would finish off his pictures by painting a frame around them and attaching a beer can tab to the back as a makeshift hanger. There was never a shortage of beer can tabs. Mose T gained national attention in 1982 when his work was included in the Black American Folk Art exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. After that his work was included in the collections of some of the nation's top fine art museums. And collectors started showing up at his door. But Mose T remained in Montgomery, painting from his bed or on the front porch. In recent years, collectors started to notice something different about some of his paintings and surmised that his children were doing the painting and he was signing the work.

Ms. WEBBER: Well, there has been a bit of a cottage industry happening on Sayer Street for a number of years, especially after the Corcoran exhibition.

ELLIOTT: Mose T couldn't keep up with the demand for his work and he hated to disappoint a visitor. So he would pay his children to make paintings for him and sign his own name to them. Marcia Webber says she could tell the work wasn't his.

Ms. WEBBER: And I would ask about this, and he would say, oh, they're mine, they're mine, and eventually after a number of discussions he would say, now, listen here, if you buy a book, can't you put your name on it? Well, I paid money for these and I feel like I can put my name on them.

ELLIOTT: Some of Mose T's most famous works include watermelon slices, self portraits of him with walking sticks, an empty bus evocative of the Montgomery bus boycott, and some rather raunchy portraits of women.

Ms. WEBBER: He loved to paint stroop ladies, or moose ladies or oyster girls, and these were - they were - well, rather erotic, and were something that became, you know, they were shown - many of them in the Corcoran Gallery show. A lot of people don't really get it. In fact, my mother thought they were angels one time and I had to explain to her that those were not angels. They were a bit opposite angels.

ELLIOTT: Gallery owner Webber calls Mose T a true original whose work was untouched by outside influence.

Ms. WEBBER: I think it was so fresh. It was so completely unpretentious and his expression is much like a flowing well with just pure water. It was art that really was not influenced in any way by fine art or exposure to fine art. Mose, really he did not read and he didn't get out and visit places, and honestly was not exposed to fine art.

ELLIOTT: Alabama folk artist Mose Tolliver died last week in Montgomery.

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ELLIOTT: To see some of Mose T's paintings and find out what art collectors once paid for his undershorts, go to our Web site, That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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