I really don't remember the first time I met Bob Moss. My earliest and most prominent memory of him is when I watched him skitter away into the foggy air of a wintry night in downtown Salt Lake City to catch a bus after a performance. This local folk artist and musician just didn't have the time or inclination for small talk.
Actually, now that I think about it, the first time I met Moss must've been at the home of poet and novelist Dee Wolfe—another dear friend who passed away several years ago. Back in the '80s, fresh out of college, I submitted some poems to Wolfe's Local Scribble zine, and little did I know it would afford entry into the arcane orbit of the Davis County Mafia of Moss, Wolfe and friends like filmmaker/musician Joe Judd, photographer Clint Wardlow, actor/raconteur Curt James and artist/filmmaker David Brothers. They were all making obscure art and weird little videos for songs and stories they'd written, and it was a strange and magical world to someone who had not long before barely ventured out of the comparatively bland suburbs of Salt Lake County.
But Moss was the most eccentric of them all, with long hair, thick glasses, Western shirts from the D.I. (before thrift shopping was hip), artwork utilizing the secret Deseret alphabet, folk songs about weirdos like dinner-theater thespian and convicted murderer "Captain Nemo," and "Movie Man" Al Adamson, director of Satan's Sadists. He was kinda like our local version of Tiny Tim (his trebly voice in similar register) and later on, I would think, Daniel Johnston. To be reductive, Moss was like some kind of hippie nerd. To be accurate, he was a true original.
Once I saw his artwork, I just had to have it. Moss' woodburnings—on boards and gourds and swatches of leather—featured hand-drawn psychedelic designs and cartoonish figures, and decoupaged photographs of pop-culture icons like Elvis and Frank Sinatra. Others depicted obscure folk music icons or mysterious local figures and landmarks like the artist and writer Everett Ruess or Gilgal Gardens. The Mormon-created Deseret alphabet made it all indigenous to Utah, tightly woven into the fabric of all his work.
A number of years after meeting Moss and becoming an ardent follower, I interviewed him on several occasions. It was an insight into his living space and working space, which were usually the same thing. He lived pretty hand-to-mouth in the '90s and early '00s managing his parents' storage business in Clearfield for free rent. Later, he got a small downtown apartment in which his artworks, in various stages of completion, were stacked against each other like books on shelves.
I, like many of Moss' friends and admirers, came to think he should have some wider cult following, like Johnston. He achieved that much locally, with shows at galleries, the Utah Arts Festival and places like the Beehive Tea Room and Blue Plate Diner. After years of releasing albums mostly under Mike Kirkland's Soundco label, He began to attract the attention of people like Los Angeles actor/screenwriter Charles Schneider (Ghost World, Art School Confidential). Underground comic book artists Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) and Rick Altergott (Doofus) created cover art for his two biggest releases, Folknik (2002) and Folknik 2 (2005). His art was exhibited at the Outré Gallery in Sydney, Australia. The gallery also featured some of his art in the 1999 Taboo: The Art of Tiki (Outré Gallery Press). But Moss always insisted that he'd like modest fame, in the form of a few more people coming out to see him play, or a little more money for art supplies.
When he passed away on Dec. 11, 2011, it rippled through Utah's art and music community. The outpouring of affection for him at his remembrance—where friends and family tearfully gathered among a collection of his art, as well as his trademark hat, banjo and an urn containing his ashes—was striking for somebody who was such a recluse. Moss might not have been wealthy, but he was generous in deed and spirit. Every once in a while, he scrawled letters to his friends, often riddled with misspellings and accompanied by a drawing or print, or even a small piece of art for birthdays. His art shows and concerts—as sporadic as they were—touched people because he was genuine. Kirkland is currently preparing to release a two-volume tribute album due in early 2017.
Moss' greatest gift to us was the example of uncompromising dedication to his art. He really didn't ask anything more of life than to continue creating. The amount of work he generated was inspiring, not to mention original. Who else would record an album's worth of Sinatra songs on banjo? Moss' was a singular artistic vision in which all art is folk art and all music is folk music, and he was constantly experimenting. Five years later, I still feel his absence; but thanks to his art and music, I also perceive his presence.