William was born in Vicksburg, Missisippi in 1951, and although his mother worked in the cotton fields by day, she still managed to rear and educate her fourteen children.
To stimulate their learning his mother often engaged William and his older brother in drawing contests. After recognizing his talent, William's mother began to borrow art books from the local library in order for him to study the traditional European masters.
Mr. Tolliver was a self taught artist -- albeit one who is credited of reading more than 4,000 books on different subjects (mostly art).
By the age of ten, William was studying Chagall, Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso. By the age of fourteen, he was literate in all the technical terms and had evolved from mimicking cubism to incorporating abstract, realism, and impressionism into his own techniques.
Ultimately, WIlliam left Mississippi for the Job Corps program in Los Angleles where he continued his art education with a trade instructor who was also a visual artist. William then moved to Lafayette, Louisiana in 1981 after an oil boom created employment opportunities. The housing boom there eventually declined, leaving him unemployed and painting more regularly.
Tolliver's wife, Debrah, became confident his works could sell. William dismissed her but Mrs. Tolliver brought his work to Lafayette's Live Oak Gallery where nine paintings sold in ten days.
Tolliver worked with a diverse range of mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor, oil pastel and his style would be classified as representational abstract expressionism. The artist was a firm believer in art as a means of communication. "Art has no place in society if it doesn't move anybody but its creator," he once told the Lafayette Times.
William Tolliver died in 2000, having spent the 49 years of his life immortalizing the rural black Southern life through his art.