By Wesley Walter, Managing editor of content
The art exhibit, “Family Ties,” held in the Center For the Fine Arts Poole Art Gallery, featured paintings and ceramic works by self-taught late 20th and early 21st century folk artists from Alabama and Georgia.
Among the more than 30 works exhibited in the collection were colorful and childlike depictions of American pop and folk iconography created by artists from multiple generations of the Tolliver, Finster and Brown families.
A closing reception for the exhibit was held in the Poole Art Gallery on Aug. 24, giving those involved a chance to speak on the process of putting together the collection as well as the significance of the pieces.
“Family Ties” was a collaboration between folk art collector and UM alumni Rod Hildreth, who provided the works of art displayed at the exhibit, and the UM Department of Art as part of the experiential learning art history course, ART 327: Caring for Art Collections.
The course was taught by art professor Dr. Catherine Walsh in the spring 2022 and spring 2023 semesters. During the spring 2022 semester, students worked to research, catalog, inventory and photograph the artworks in the Hildreth Collection. During the spring 2023 semester, the exhibit was conceptualized with students designing the installation and writing labels for the displayed works of art.
“You’re standing in the middle of a student production right now. Everything from the hardware that is holding up the artworks to the design of the space—students are responsible for that,” Walsh said at the reception, “Among the things we learned about and then applied to this project are art handling skills—so we learned best practices for art handling and also art storage.”
Walsh also spoke on the art cataloguing skills, both old and new, learned by students, saying, “We did a lot of condition reporting, examining artworks and documenting how they look right now as we are experiencing them and how that compares to when we received them or how they look two weeks from now and then more kind of current practices of digital cataloguing, so there were some important digital skills that were also acquired in the process.”
Hildreth, who knew and bought artworks from the featured artists personally, spoke at the reception, explaining the history and significance of the artwork on display. Hildreth also explained the artists’ family lineages for which the show was named.
Featured artists Mose Tolliver, Howard Finster and Jerry Brown all shared their love for art amongst their respective families. They inspired their family members to create artistic works which were displayed in the exhibit as well.
Tolliver, known as Mose T., was a Black artist from near Montgomery who was rendered unable to walk in the 1960s by a load of marble that fell from a forklift.
Hildreth recalled visiting Tolliver in his home, bringing food to the artist which he would eat in bed while painting, as well as beer so he could have metal pop tabs to make hanging devices for his paintings.
Tolliver is famous for his paintings on scrap wood which includes portraits and bright depictions of watermelons and school busses—all of which were present at the exhibit.
Hildreth explained that the school bus painting displayed in the exhibit was the first one by Tolliver that depicted people on the bus and was done after Hildreth asked why Tolliver never included passengers in his paintings.
Explaining the significance and influences of the piece, Hildreth recalled, “He said, ‘Come back and I’ll put some people there.’ He put Blacks in the front and whites in the back. He was from Montgomery, Alabama with the bus boycott, and I said, ‘This looks like a tribute to Rosa Parks,’ and he said, ‘Well, I knew her.’”
Tolliver inspired his children to create similar artistic works. This includes Annie Tolliver who also had artworks displayed in the exhibit, such as “My Three Nieces eating Watermelon” and a depiction of the Statue of Liberty entitled, “Status of Liberty.”
Featured artist Finster worked as a Baptist preacher in Fort Payne, Ala. before deciding he could serve God better as an artist. Finster inspired works by his sons Roy Finster and Michael Finster whose pieces were shown in the exhibit as well.
Artworks by the Finsters shown in the exhibit included colorful portrayals of animals and Americana and Christian iconography painted on wood, often paired with written messages that extoll religious themes, contain poetic reflections or provide context for the works themselves.
These works include depictions of Coca-Cola bottles, angels, Cadillacs, George and Martha Washington and Randy Owen, singer of the Southern rock band Alabama.
The Finsters’ works have garnered widespread attention, with Howard Finster producing album art for “Little Creatures” by The Talking Heads and “Reckoning” by R.E.M. Finster’s work has been displayed at the Library of Congress and Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Jerry Brown, from Hamilton, Ala., came from a long line of potters and was best known for his face jugs and utilitarian pottery. Both styles of pottery were on display at the exhibit as well as ceramic works by Brown’s wife, Sandra Brown, and stepson, Jeff Wilburn.
These works of pottery were double-sided face jugs created collaboratively by Sandra Brown and Wilburn commemorating the presidential election of 2016 with one side depicting Donald Trump’s face and the other side Hillary Clinton’s. The two also created another piece for 2020 with one side showing Trump and the other Joe Biden.
Hildreth explained that his appreciation for folk art is rooted in a deep love of art going back to his time taking art classes at UM. Post-graduation, Hildreth worked as a school guidance counselor hoping to inspire creativity within his students.
Speaking on his experiences as a guidance counselor, Hildreth said, “I tried to see the good in everybody and every creature and especially students and if someone came in, I didn’t try to say because you’re a female you’ve got to be a nurse or a secretary or a schoolteacher and you could be a doctor, lawyer, a restaurant owner, lawyer or whatever you want to be.”
This principle of seeing the worth and creative potential of everyday people is something that Hildreth sees as connected to his fascination with self-taught folk artists. Hildreth said, “I think that became ingrained in me to be fair, to treat people fairly and see the worth in people—and some people might not like some of this and they think I’m crazy and I admit it, but I enjoyed it and liked it.”
Wesley Walter is managing editor for The Alabamian. He is a junior English major and mass communications minor. Wesley boasts a 750 credit score, boyish good looks and soulful eyes that contain a deep indescribable sadness. In his free time, he enjoys travelling, visiting gas stations and thinking about getting into surfing.