We first met John Henry Toney in 1999, very early in his art career. His simple yet complex drawings of women, animals, architecture and airplanes were intriguing, and the stories behind the pieces and the man himself were just as fascinating. The pieces featured were purchased in 1998 – 2000. John Henry TOney typically lists his age, address and phone number on his pieces. The below is by Frank Turner.
“Mr. John Henry Toney’s last year of school was in the 7th grade at Sand Fort Consolidated School in rural Russell County, Alabama, about 1939. When he was unable to answer questions properly, Professor T. A. Nall would make him draw a picture of what he thought the answer was. John Henry has kept some of those early drawings rolled up in a paper sack for over 50 years. When John Henry was working in the cotton mill, 30 or 40 years ago, he drew a picture of his boss. According to John Henry, the boss fired him because he did not like the picture. With that discouragement, he quit drawing until, in 1994, he plowed up a turnip with a face on it. ” That face in that turnip was a sign to me, ” he says, “and I knew the Lord wanted me to start drawing again.”
John Henry lives on the edge of a large swamp. “There’s a big alligator lives in there, too,” he says, “but he don’t bother me none and I don’t bother him.” His house trailer is an old one, with many of the windows missing. A single small electric heater heats it. His bed is piled high with quilts. He says he doesn’t catch many colds. The trailer leans to one side and the doors are kept shut, when he is outside, by long poles propped against the doors.
A deeply religious man, many of his drawings and paintings are of biblical scenes. On the sale of his work, he muses, “Maybe this will put me up in the church, when they see what I can do.” He signs all his paintings “Mr. John Henry Toney. I am 69 years.”
While lacking much formal education, John Henry nevertheless has formed some rather unique opinions on various matters. Some of his observations:
– “When I was frying size, the women were after me.”
– “If I got paid for my ideas, I would never hafta leave home.”
– “Some doctors are real doctors, but some are just practicing.”
– “If I saw that women, it would make me paw up dirt.”
– “There are two kinds of doctors; one is made in the womb, the other one had enough money to make himself a doctor.”
– “God ain’t nobody to play with.”
– “He was driving like a taxicab driver.”
– “When a man goes in the army, they teach him how to kill and they give him those shots to get him ready. Those overseas shots give them courage and make them mean.”
– On dinosaurs: “I sho’ would like to have one of those things…you could do some ol’ plowing with one. Only thing is, they would have to watch out for those telephone lines.” When someone said they thought all the dinosaurs were dead, he replied, “I think they got some of ’em put up somewhere.”
-courtesy Frank Turner