Russell County native John Henry Toney (1928-2019) was a self-taught folk artist who began painting late in life. He gained notoriety through his connection to the Possum Trot auction house owned by fellow artist Butch Anthony, founder of the Museum of Wonder and the Museum of Wonder Drive-Thru Museum, both in the unincorporated community of Seale.
John Henry Toney John Henry Toney was born in Seale, Russell County, on October 18, 1928, on his family farm. In addition to farming, his father was a bricklayer, and his mother was a midwife. He was one of six brothers. The town was the county seat at the time, and its economy benefitted from the commerce and governmental activity that designation brought. The seat moved to Phenix City in 1935, and Seale’s economy contracted significantly. Toney attended local schools until the seventh grade and then left to help his father on the farm.
Toney spent most of his adult life living in a trailer with no heat or running water on ten acres outside Seale. He worked briefly in a cotton mill but claimed that he was fired for drawing an unflattering portrait of his boss. He then supported himself by plowing fields for neighbors on an old tractor. In 1994, however, his career took a different turn. He was plowing a field for the Anthony family and unearthed a turnip on which he discerned a “face.” He took it home, made a colored-pencil drawing of it, and then brought the drawing to Butch Anthony, who put the drawing up for sale in an antique store in nearby Pittsview. Renowned Alabama chef Scott Peacock purchased the painting, so Toney painted more, choosing subjects that ranged from everyday life to the fantastical.
Created with paint pens or markers on posterboard and cardboard, Toney’s drawings feature animals, exaggerated female forms in fanciful clothing, vehicles, and other subjects. He also often included personal information in the works, such as his birthdate and phone number. The inspirational turnip is now among the exhibits at Anthony’s Museum of Wonder.
John Henry Toney Memorial Toney’s work also became a prominent part of the “Doo-Nanny,” a folk-art and cultural festival that Anthony held on his family’s property from 1996 until 2015 to showcase his own art and that of his friends. He also started making found-wood frames for Toney’s drawings. Toney had his own booth, where festival-goers could watch him create his drawings. When his trailer became uninhabitable by the time Toney was in his early 80s, he was forced to move into an assisted living facility. In 2009, he “escaped” from the facility with his belongings and showed up at Anthony’s house. Anthony let him move into a cabin on his property in which he lived until his death on October 24th, 2019.
Toney’s art is most often categorized as “outsider” or “self-taught” art and is valued by collectors. His works have been sold nationally and internationally by galleries and was always prominently featured at the Doo-Nanny. Many of his works were also displayed at the Museum of Wonder, located in a cabin next to Toney’s on Anthony’s property.
The Museum of Wonder Drive-Thru Museum, constructed of several shipping containers, is located at the intersection of State Highway 431 and County Road 169.