Excerpt from "Alabama Picasso" By Ben La Roco


Published in Brooklyn Rail  a publication for arts, culture, and politics throughout New York City and beyond 

" In The Anton Haardt Gallery, there were paintings everywhere.There must have been at least another 40 Tollivers in the gallery. There were flower drawings by Sybil Gibson and weird dancing drawings by Thornton Dial. There were paintings by Mose’s daughter, Annie Tolliver, that looked kind of like Mose’s only a little more refined. There were Central American retablos paintings and handmade musical instruments. There were stacks of portraits by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, who put sugar in black mud and painted on wood. In the back  were sculptures by Juanita Rogers made from mud and bone. I’m not sure sculpture is the right word for Rogers’s work. They look like space aliens that got run over and freeze dried and should have died but sit around lumpily on the floor instead. There was a small colored pencil drawing by Dilmas Hall about a shoe that got caught in a hurricane and dragged halfway across the country and wound up on his front lawn. The walls were covered with art and sculptures. Them was one by ‘Son’ Ford Thomas ,who was a blues guitarist who worked in a graveyard and made sculptures that look like parts of dead people. 

‘Son’ Thomas was a part of the generation, now almost gone. These artists mostly didn’t start making art until they were into mid or late life or until they were injured so badly they couldn’t do anything else. Art was a way to survive despite hard times or an expression of a feeling about the world after having been around long enough to have seen part of it. That’s what the blues is about. Blues teaches repetition and variation on very simple rhythms. It’s not the newness of the song, but how you play it that matters. The songs are almost always old. Some blues players wreck the songs intentionally by playing or singing out of key. ‘Son’ House did that. This lessens the mind’s grip on the music and the emotion flows and is freed to enter the world through things instead of through language. I imagine that’s how ‘Son’ Thomas wound up making sculpture from looking at dead people.

 Maybe that’s why Mose Tolliver made paintings and hung them in trees in front of his house after his legs were crushed in an accident at work. Maybe Picasso felt the same thing and that’s why he spent so much time unlearning everything he’d learned, leaving behind the things he invented and destroying what he’d made."