I n an age when the rules of art had either been abandoned in favor of an anti-formalist attitude or had been institutionalized in academic study, William Tolliver emerged as a brilliant self-taught artist -a Mississippi-born Renaissance man whose creative intelligence combines the study of formal structure with an innate sense of human observation. Far from the marketplace of the New York City art world, Tolliver arose during the mid-1980’s a brilliant regional talent, an individual impelled by a desire to capture the landscapes and peoples of his native deep South. Whether dealing with everyday workers or back-alley jazzmen, he conveys a universal message through sconces of the common human experience.
While plaintive in mood, Tolliver’s works evoke compassion with an underlying sense of expressive emotion. “I could draw on a lot of sad and depressing things from my life, but I’d rather emphasize the positive.” An artist of insight and natural ability, Tolliver is a deliverer of an artist message imbued with unique expressions and spiritual enlistment.
Tolliver was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Although his mother worked in the cotton fields by day, she found time to rear and help educate 14 children. To stimulate their interest in learning, she often challenged William and his older brother to drawing contests. Discovering William’s talent, she borrowed art books from the library that exposed her son to the works of the European masters. His astute observation led him to study subjects from books, black-and-white photographs, nature, comics, and family members who posed as models.
Since the local public schools did not have an art curriculum, Tolliver continued his course of self-study. From inexpensive dime-store watercolor sets purchased with money earned by mowing lawns, Tolliver learned to mix and blend colors by using a paint-by-number kit. Using this system he experimented with mixing color and skin tones and by the age eight was able to create academically correct paintings.
Despite his avid study of color and form, Tolliver began to experience a “feeling of emptiness” toward realistic art. At age 13, he discovered the work of another self-taught artist, Vincent Van Gogh. The work of Van Gogh served as a revelation: “Van Gogh painted purely for the love of it,” Tolliver in The International Review of Art, “I can relate to that. I also liked his use of color, the way the light was reflected in his paintings, the powerful feeling in his work.” He was also inspired by Van Gogh’s ability to paint his local countryside and its rural folk with a power of deep human insight. “Van Gogh painted people digging potatoes and struck a universal chord,” Tolliver explained in Upscale Magazine. Relating to the destitute farmers and laborers of Van Gogh’s Holland, Tolliver found even more significance in the study of his own people living within the Mississippi Delta.
At age 14, Tolliver dropped out of school and left Mississippi to join the Job Corps program in Los Angeles. During his yea-and-a-half stint with Job Corps, he studied carpentry at a government-sponsored trade school and brought his reading skills up to the college level. Assisted by an instructor at the trade school who was also a visual artist, Tolliver received additional instruction and information about the techniques of painting.
From Los Angeles Tolliver moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he served for a time as an assistant to a local sculptor. While there he met a number of other artists whose encouragement and exposure helped him gain a greater appreciate for his own work. The artist eventually returned to Vicksburg, taking a day job in construction and spending his evenings painting.
He married in 1977 and, in 1981 he moved his family to Lafayette, Louisiana, where an oil boom had created employment opportunities in the construction trades. In Lafayette, he worked as a wallpaper hanger and a house painter. Two years later, however, the city’s building industry fell into decline, leaving Tolliver unemployed. Laid off from his job and without income, he set out to relax in his free hours by painting with his daughters paint kit.
Tolliver’s wife, Debrah, confident that her husband’s painting would sell, suggested he show them to a gallery. Tolliver, however, believed his works would not be well received and refused. Defying her husband’s decision, Debrah presented nine Cajun landscape paintings to Bob Crutchfield, owner of Lafayette’s Live Oak Gallery. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Crutchfield pointed out that the works showed great potential and real talent. The nine paintings sold in ten days; requests for more followed.
Tolliver soon began to paint in a new and unique style that has been termed “representational abstract expressionism.” Bringing these new works to Life Oak Gallery, Tolliver presented them to Crutchfield, who, upon realizing that Tolliver had reached a new creative level, stood speechless, unable to find words to expression his elation. In Galerie Royal’s biography of Tolliver, Crutchfield recalled, “I was silent, not because of anything other than complete awe.” Assuming Crutchfield did not like the works, Tolliver began to gather them in his arms. As Crutchfield related to CBB, Tolliver disappointedly told him, “I knew you wouldn’t like them.” Crutchfield immediately assured Tolliver that he found the paintings to be excellent and that he wanted to show them at his gallery. These new paintings sold within 24 hours.
Because of Lafayette’s oil industry, the city brought in out-of-state businesspeople and investors who purchased Tolliver’s works. In the late 1980’s, the artist’s abstract-style paintings were shown at museum exhibitions, including the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the U.S. Senate Building in Washington, D.C.
Critically ranked with such famous African American artists as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, Tolliver soon gained the reputation as one of America’s most renowned contemporary artists.
Able to work in numerous mediums- oil, acrylic, watercolor, oil pastel, and dimensional reliefs- Tolliver is forever exploring new techniques. By his own desire and inquiry, he has, according to Nanette Jolivette in the Lafayette Times, “managed to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences.” In Tolliver’s opinion, the organization of abstract colors is a “mathematical” and deeply analytical process. Using a creative method similar to that of great writers and musicians, Tolliver brings together an astute understanding of formal structure with the inspirational and spiritual nature of the human experience- qualities not often found within the ranks of most academically trained artists.
Life other African American artists such as Mississippi-born novelist Richard Wright and jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, Tolliver traveled a path of self-discovery and independent vision. He is able to grasp the elements of form while expressing an unique creative perspective. Viewing art as an important means of human communication, Tolliver asserted in Upscale, “Nothing in my paintings are for decoration; everything serves a purpose in creating the mood or atmosphere of a painting.” A serious student of such modernist painters as Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Marc Chagall, Tolliver is a prolific artist who spends countless hours painting, preparing, and researching methods and techniques.
Equally important to Tolliver is his concern for thematic content. He stresses that art is a means for documenting one’s history. This outlook has inspired him to capture scenes of rural black southern life in works that have included themes of cotton-pickers, stevedores, children fishing, and women tending the earth by hoe. Describing Tolliver’s observation of working people, Louisiana State University professor of art Joann E. Quillman wrote in Celebration of life and Color, “Particular attention was paid to Tolliver’s subject’s hands. The importance of manual labor, or rather work that hands could do, was emphasized by enlarging them and using them as design elements in themselves. The enlargement of the hands, then the torso, and finally the heads filled the canvases until Tolliver’s people became monuments to celebrate the dignity of honest labor and to celebrate life itself.” In addition, Tolliver’s passion for African American music has resulted in numerous works portraying blues and jazz musicians. His paintings of musical subjects evoke not only the mood and sensibility of the musician, but the atmosphere and the sounds of music itself.
Though he initially created art out of personal desire, Tolliver believes the purpose of art is to communicate with his fellow human beings. “Art has no place in society,” Tolliver contended in the Lafayette Times, “if it doesn’t move anybody but its creator.” This belief, combined with passion and an exploratory creative intelligence, has produced works rich in human experience. Life the great African American storytellers and musicians portrayed in his works, Tolliver possesses a visionary artist talent that has emerged as a gift to American culture.
Tolliver has received numerous awards and recognitions for his contributions in the field of art. He has been featured in major art publications, including The Art Gallery International and the International Review of African American Art. His works is in the permanent collections of the Corcoran Museum, McKissick Museum, Hampton University Museum, New Orleans Museum of Art and the Zigler Museum.
Source: Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 9, Gale Research, 1995
"Art has no place if it doesn"t move anyone other than its creator. -William Tolliver