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 William Tolliver  (1951 - 2000)

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Lived/Active: Mississippi/Louisiana      Known for: landscape, abstract figure and portrait painting

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Ad Code: 3
William Tolliver
from Auction House Records.
"Man in Blue, Playing a Guitar"
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from
Artist William Tolliver, born in 1951, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, was the second oldest of fourteen children.  Truly a rags-to-riches story, William, reared in abject poverty, had none of the advantages most people take for granted.  Lacking both education and art supplies, and with little encouragement from his environment, the gifted Tolliver had to make do with what he could teach himself from books at the public library.  Now a veritable master of all media, William Tolliver's successful career bears witness to the fact that talent can and will triumph over the worst odds.

Tolliver is a versatile artist who handles figure studies, portraits, human interest situations, landscapes, and semi-abstracts equally well.  He is at home in every painterly medium and uses a diversity of styles, all of which are polished and bear the unmistakeable stamp of his personality.

His works are reminiscent rather than messege oriented, often reflecting experiences from his Mississippi childhood.  Recurrent themes in Tolliver's art are people working and living---stevedors, farmers, cotton pickers, women embracing their children, and people playing musical instruments.  He portrays his subjects with a pride and dignity that heretofore has been uncommon among modern artists.

William Tolliver has been considered by many to be very likely the next great African American artist in the likeness of Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.  As a self taught artist, it is amazing the he has been able to master whatever he attempts.

Biography from Zigler Museum:
William Tolliver (1951-2000)

William Tolliver's motifs of the land, of simple people at work, or at leisure are but a framework through which he conveys his real subject, which is his joy in working with color, shapes, textures, line and light.  As we view how he manipulates these elements, we are caught up in his emotion of joy and become dazzled with the visual delight before us. 

The Zigler Collection of his work seeks to demonstrate the progression of Tolliver's art from his earliest landscape to his latest figurative semi-abstract work, thereby documenting the development of several styles or techniques using a variety of media. The early landscapes (circa 1983) were of rural Mississippi, Tolliver's boyhood home. These early paintings appeared to be of uninhabited areas.  However, it was not long before small figures were injected to aid in scale and to add life to the countryside.  But landscape was still the dominant element and the figures very insignificant.

With the figures, however, came civilization in the form of dirt roads, paths, and work fields.  Soon Tolliver started giving us close-up views of his people, their work, their social interaction, and leisure time pursuits.  These people were always busy, walking, working, or pursuit a hobby.  Particular attention was paid to their hands. The importance of manual labor, or rather work that the 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 his canvases until Tolliver's people became monuments to celebrate the dignity of honest labor and to celebrate life itself.

Tolliver's first paintings were in the traditional manner. The story was landscape and it was very complete. Even in the early paintings, however, he manipulated color to evoke a mood, a time of day or a season.  His experimentation at this time was with paint application, small brush, big brush, and palette knife.  Because of his excitement while working with color, and the need to find other methods to express the ideas he wished to portray, Tolliver began experimenting with a variety of media and techniques.

Oil, acrylic, watercolor, oil pastel, soft pastel, pencil, woodcuts, sculpture, collage, 3-dimensional reliefs, and multi-media approaches were all explored.  During this period the quality of his work remained high and, in fact, continually improved. At the same time, Tolliver was moving from traditional representation toward aesthetic order.  First, the background areas were broken into planes of color and the figure(s) remained representational, but soon even the positive shapes changed into arbitrary colors, shapes, planes, and light. the shapes and planes no longer had the primary purpose of identification but instead to produce a feeling of satisfaction from an internal balance. Color no longer needed to move forward and backward in space, but instead shimmered on the surface in arrangements that were meant to be seen rather than understood.

What then is the special appeal of Tolliver's work? Is it the portrayal of man becoming larger than himself, or is it the surface beauty of the color and shapes? Most positively, it is the excellent manner in which he combines the needs of our heart with the needs of our mind.

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