Gene & Rebecca Tobey | Spirits Soar

Spirit Shaman (2007), bronze, 59 x 17 x 34
Spirit Shaman (2007), bronze, 59 x 17 x 34
By Susan Hallsten McGarry

Superior craftsmanship has always been a measure of artworks that are treasured over the centuries. But excellence in execution does not necessarily keep an artwork alive for generations. Two additional elements are also essential. Foremost is personal expression—communicating a meaningful emotion or experience. Second is expanding that statement beyond the individual, inducing viewers to bring their own emotional interpretations to the piece. This indescribable combination raises fine art to a timeless language that resonates across cultures.

Gene and Rebecca Tobey are renowned for blending masterful artistry, personal statement, and universal meaning in their art. And they have accomplished it through a collaboration that is as unique as their work. The commingling of their two minds and two hearts into one voice has resulted in a dynamic, yet balanced union of opposites.

Rebecca synopsized their collaboration in a statement for their 1996 show titled New Beginnings: “One endeavor is never a single effort in and of itself,” she wrote. “It may start out with one person or two, but in the end, it involves many souls, drawing them all along on parallel paths. Each individual contributes to the end product. This is true in our work, our family, our lives…our clients.”

The Tobeys’ artful marriage has resulted in refreshing dichotomies in their oeuvre. Foremost is their extraordinary combination of one-dimensional drawing and painting on three-dimensional “canvases” made of bronze, ceramic, or embossed paper. Their style, which combines representation with abstraction, is at once sophisticated and primal. When seen from afar, their sculptures are sleek silhouettes; when viewed up-close, however, the surfaces are an intriguing maze of distinctive glyphs and symbols. They routinely juxtapose raw textures against refined areas, negative spaces with positive, and earth tones with otherworldly hues. The stories behind each piece, while inspired by factual, personal experiences, are distilled into cryptograms that speak of the wisdom of the ages.

Human aspiration is symbolized in numerous sculptures that the Tobeys have done using flight as a metaphor. It is explored most consistently in their Winged Bear Collection, which includes the bronze keeper of two worlds. Flight is also explored in the Tobeys’ sculptures of birds of prey, including several works created after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Using the powerful form of the eagle, the Tobeys draw upon Native American legends in which the eagle is the master of the sky, carrier of prayers, and consort of the gods.
Child of Peace (2005), bronze, 21 x 7 x 7
Child of Peace (2005), bronze, 21 x 7 x 7

Other works suggest the sound and aerodynamics of wings thrusting against the air. In dancing with the wind, a grounded human torso is joined to wings. “The eagle represents a connection to the Divine,” Rebecca writes, “and our exploration has to do with the question of whether it is a man in costume, or a man-eagle, or the Holy Spirit.”

Man and animal combinations abound in the Tobeys’ work. In particular, the artists have explored the theme of a rider atop an animal, whether a horse, buffalo, or bear. The combination of a rider on horseback has had a variety of meanings throughout art history, but most often it is the marriage of opposing forces, such as mind and heart, or human reason and the intuitive animal passions.

The Tobeys have addressed the rider on horseback theme in both ceramics and bronzes. Their models came from their own horses: When they moved to Tesuque, NM, Gene and Rebecca invested in a horse for each member of their family—seven in total. In addition to riding on family outings, the horses served as lessons in life and in responsibility for the children.

A group of works begun in the new millennium joins the legs and lower torsos of humans with animal attributes. This group of works includes deer dancers, big horn shaman, song of the buffalo, and their only sculpture, song of the deer, which has female attributes. Inspired by encounters with deer on their Texas ranch, the piece expresses the Tobeys’ oneness with the animal kingdom, as well as their unity as artists.

In legend and history, the American bison has symbolized generative powers and abundance, as well as decimation and resurrection. During their early collaboration, the Tobeys created buffalo skull fetishes that hung on the wall. In 1986, they created their first freestanding buffalo sculpture in ceramic, and a year later, they used the concept to create the bronze awakening memories.

The rugged buffalo has never been known for its beauty, even in art. The Tobeys, however, created the great exception. Reducing the animal to its essence, they minimized the head, exaggerated the massive hump, and stylized the hindquarters. In their ceramic sculptures, in order to support the piece, the legs are tapered, yet solid. As the form moved into bronze, they attenuated the legs, giving the creature the agile appearance of a dancer frozen in movement.

Perhaps more than any other animal, the buffalo provided the Tobeys with a canvas of substantial proportions. Their ceramic sculptures typically have highly glazed hindquarters, with the head and torso in a matte finish that is transformed by colorful paintings of mesas and canyons, star-studded night skies, running horses, soaring eagles, and their signature sgraffito wolves and southwestern dragons. The bronzes, which are defined by multiple patinas contrasted with bright, polished areas, use the hump as a place to carve Mayan figures, dancers, and memories of vast buffalo herds.

Bears have represented wilderness and symbolized initiation and the processes of transformation, growth, and renewal to indigenous peoples throughout the world. On the North American continent, Native peoples often refer to the bear as “brother” or “grandfather,” invoking family associations that, in part, take into account the similarities of a standing bear’s anatomy with that of a human. The Tobeys explore that concept in their bear subjects…

Featured in December 2007

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