Story and photos by Cara Clark
Mary Jean Crenshaw Weaver’s sobriquet couldn’t possibly be more apropos. As a fourth grader at Cherokee Bend Elementary, a classmate noticed the initials on her tracksuit, M.J. with hollow dots instead of periods, looked more like “MoJo.” The name stuck, and it’s clear the mother, grandmother, wife, artist and adventurer imbues a certain magic into everything she does.
MoJo is the sort of person around whom wonderment seems to materialize. On a hike in North Carolina, for instance, an old gent was on the road and in need of assistance wrangling llamas to a facility for special needs therapy. She jumped right in.
MoJo infuses much of that sense of serendipity into her art, a lifetime interest that she set aside, for a time, but has revisited with alacrity in recent years at her studio in downtown Tuscaloosa. It’s there that she works on commissions for pet portraits, landscapes and anything else that captures her interest.
“It’s a happy place, not a gallery,” MoJo says. “It’s the thing that makes me tick and infuses energy into my life. It makes me want to do all sorts of other things, from traveling to doing things with my family. Painting brings me inward joy.”
Whether she’s working on a landscape or capturing the ineffable aura of a pet’s spirit, MoJo lives in the moment when she’s sketching in charcoal or painting in oil. Accompanied by music to match her mood, MoJo is in her element with palette and brush in a historic building overlooking University Blvd. in downtown Tuscaloosa.
“My husband and I renovated this old building 32 years ago,” says MoJo. “It was an infirmary and an old hotel, and we made loft apartments upstairs with commercial space downstairs. It was a labor of love.”
When one of the tenants moved out six years ago, MoJo and husband Phillip knew the space had potential as a studio. Amid a character-laden atmosphere of exposed brick and hardwood floors, Mojo has created an ambiance of relaxed elegance punctuated with her own creations and a mix of meaningful pieces.
“In this space, there’s a real spiritual aspect,” says MoJo. “I crank up the music when I get here, and six or eight hours will have gone by, and I think it’s been 15 minutes. I’m not thinking of cares of the day or the tyranny of the urgent. And it really works. It’s such a joy, and I have a feeling of gratitude that I have the ability and time and space to do this.”
With children Phillip Jr. and daughter Genny grown, MoJo turned with fresh intensity to her lifelong love of art. Combine that childhood love of the craft with a passion for canines – the “D” edition of her World Book Encyclopedia was literally “dog-eared” on pages with favorite breeds, and you have the makings of a master.
“When I was a child, I had a love for drawing and doodling, and in elementary school, you’re nurtured a lot with creativity and art,” MoJo says. “In high school and college, I was more active in other things and didn’t have time for it, but I loved drawing animals and creating colors.”
With the support of her husband, “an encourager,” Mojo has returned to that love of creativity. It was a serendipitous experience that gave her the momentum she needed. She painted a portrait of Aretha Belle, the marvelous Cockalier (a cocker spaniel-Cavalier King Charles mix) who joined the family in December 2014. On a whim, in 2019 she decided to enter the painting in a show at the Salmagundi Club in New York, a professional and social club created in 1871 by artists and art patrons.
“I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal,” MoJo says. “When they when accepted the entry, I still didn’t think it was a big deal. Then when I won award, I thought it really must not be a big deal.”
When she and her husband and daughter, who lives in New York, went to the show, it was evident that it was, in fact, a serious honor. She is now a member of the prestigious club.
“That really inspired me, and I’ve jumped in more heavily the past couple of years,” MoJo says.
After helping take care of her late parents, Mary and Bruce Crenshaw, the focus on art helped her through grief. Studying with other artists to learn new techniques satisfied her love of travel and exploring new aspects of the craft for MoJo Weaver Fine Art.
“I love painting on any subject, and I’m starting to stretch the boundaries,” she says. “In certain landscapes and scenes, I like to push the boundaries in composition and try to apply the paint more loosely because, to me, that is the hardest thing to do. I like to get out and paint from life. I have bajillions of photos on my phone of landscapes, buildings, outdoors and animals that I want to paint. I like to throw in an abstract every now and then to loosen up.”
The explorer in her loves visiting her daughter in New York and finding places to paint, as well as studying with masters across the country and close to home, including Al Sella, an acclaimed artist and former professor at the University of Alabama.
“I love great traditional art, and I love to seek out museums to study,” MoJo says. “You can put me anywhere, and I’m going to find something to do.”
When COVID shut down travel and her ability to wander, MoJo went online.
“You can get on the Internet and find amazing instructions and things people are doing – even on social media,” she says. “Instagram is a cool spot. I’ve learned new ways of mixing colors – there’s always something to learn, whether it’s scientific or creative.”
She might study different brands of paint, mediums to mix with or changing drying times… it’s all an adventure for MoJo, who is also finding time to work on her grandson’s christening gown.
“I love my commission work and making people happy with pictures of their animals, but I enjoy playing more than anything,” MoJo says. “I have a lot of fun doing things that may end up in a closet.”
One of challenging adventures on MoJo’s list for nearly 10 years is now a cherished memory. This summer, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which she saw through the lens of an artist, embracing the miserable cold and tent living with the enthusiasm of a true traveler, who “loves getting down and dirty with the earth.”
“It was so difficult,” she says. “It was harder than I ever thought it would be, and I had so much fun. I have so many pictures I cannot wait to paint from. The terrain and the landscapes changed every day.”
Some days were a study in grays, while others were swathed in myriad shades of green. No matter the weather or scenery, the experience was one of pure joy – even at the most difficult times – for someone with a wanderlust and deeply ingrained sense of wonder.
“This love of art that was given to me by God – I can’t say if it’s a gift or a talent – but to have a passion that gives joy and carries over to your friends and family and life – what more could you ask for?”