First published: Spring 2011
Alabama folk artist John Henry Toney declares his best work to be somewhere ‘between expert and genius’. His subjects are sexy, exuberant and sensual. Toney’s images are non-traditional (community taught). He is a creator of idiosyncratic, self-taught visual imagery. He was born in 1928 and lives in Seale, Alabama, at the edge of a swamp marsh.
Although he loved to draw, Toney stopped when as a young man he was fired from a job because of a drawing he had made of his boss. An unexpected event in 1994 changed everything: John Henry was plowing a field when he saw, turned up in the soil, a turnip with a face on it. Believing that the turnip was a sign from God, he began to draw again. Although self-taught, Toney approaches board, poster-board and cardboard with equal skill. Paint-pens or markers are used with a sure, swift yet untrained hand.
Toney does not seem to have any conventional ideas about what art materials should or should not be. He makes no reference to other artists. Nor is there any predisposition as to what art should look like.
Toney frequently includes personal information in his work. It is not uncommon to see his phone number, the expiration date of his driver’s license and his age written around his drawings. These are important markers in his life which register his personal identity, and bestow individual importance. Often, the personal anecdotes of an artist are as important as the image-making itself.
Love and water are two of the guiding principles of Toney’s art and life. In fact, the late Frank Turner, owner of Mayors Office Folk Art Gallery in Pittsview, Alabama, quotes Toney as saying ‘Love and water are the two most powerful things on earth. You can’t live without love and you can’t live without water’.
What makes him so unique is his acceptance of life and art without judgment. John Henry Toney’s self-identity arises from a world of the senses: the heaving sides of a bull; the sound and smell of urine trailing on the ground and the sounds and warm fragrances of love-making. Man and beast reside in the physical world of survival, lust and desire.