Rebecca Tobey combines traditional forms in fresh, new ways
By Rosemary Carstens
This story was featured in the August 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art magazine August 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art magazine August 2012 digital download here. Or simply click here to subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
“Art is an expression of a thought process,” says New Mexico-based artist Rebecca Tobey. “When you see art, you get a glimpse into the mind of the person who created it. My art is an expression of the many things that interest me.”
Tobey produces art in multiple mediums but is best known for her ceramic and bronze sculptures—from tabletop pieces to such monumental works as the 8-foot-tall SKY SHAMAN, a soaring eagle sculpture that graces the Booth Western Art Museum’s two-story sculpture court in Cartersville, GA. She began her career working on ceramic sculptures alongside her late husband, Gene. She has now extended that segment of her art into new expressive territory that is all her own. Tobey also creates one-of-a-kind gold and silver jewelry and paints in watercolors on handmade paper embossed with wildlife images that celebrate the beauty of the natural world. Nothing holds back her creative impulses, and the results in each medium include a three-dimensional element. Later this year Tobey will introduce a line of brightly colored glass wall hangings and dinnerware featuring her personal designs.
Like SKY SHAMAN and the figures in many of her other works, Tobey is expanding to her fullest potential, experimenting, and letting her fertile imagination carry her. It’s hard to imagine that her high school art teacher told her she wasn’t good enough to major in art and directed her toward theater instead. With an emphasis on scene design and set construction, she completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater arts at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY, and what she learned there about creating art that “reads well from a distance” and how to work “hands-on” has served as a solid foundation for her fine-art career.
Tobey was born in Michigan and grew up in Tennessee, where she spent a lot of time tromping around in the woods. She and her two siblings enjoyed “a lot more freedom than today’s children,” she says. When she was 7, her parents bought a cabin on a lake where the family spent their summers. There was no television and no telephone. “We read books, had pet snakes, rescued a possum from the lake, learned to be good swimmers, played make-believe in the woods, and pretty much went back to nature in ways most kids even then did not get to do,” she says. Indian mounds on the lake’s island fascinated Tobey and were, perhaps, the catalyst for her deep interest in other cultures. The artist credits those long summers with helping her “forge an incredible imagination, as well as a deep respect for nature.” Today Tobey’s grounded, spiritual connection to the world around her is reflected vividly in her work.
KOKOPELLI, one of several sculptures she’s created of eagles spiraling on wingtip, exemplifies how Tobey’s connection with nature and other cultures plays out in her work. “I’m very observant of bird life wherever I go,” she explains, “and the opportunity to see an American eagle is such a thrill.” After she completed the sculpture’s overall form in oil-based clay, it then sat in her studio waiting for her signature sgraffito. Sgraffito is an Italian word meaning “scratched into the surface,” and it is the origin of the English word graffiti. She wasn’t sure what theme she wanted to incorporate, so she stepped away from the piece for awhile to await inspiration.
Tobey then spent two weekends hiking near Santa Fe and observing pictographs chipped into black basalt boulders. Among these simple Native epitaphs were many versions of Kokopelli, the legendary hunchbacked flute player that appears frequently in Southwestern art, music, and myth. At one location, she saw several animal Kokopellis—hunchbacked possums or jackrabbits playing flutes. Inspiration struck. Tobey returned to her sculpture and drew the hunchbacked flautist onto the surface of the eagle. The kokopelli’s head is incised on the eagle’s head, and the eagle’s upper wing shows the extension of the Kokopelli’s outstretched hand, his fingers etched into the eagle’s wingtips. “Those flashes of inspiration,” she says, “are the moments that make the studio terribly exciting.”
The artist says she especially relishes the long hours her ceramics require. The artist first sculpts a figure in clay and then creates a plaster mold of it. Liquid clay—called slip—is poured into the mold, filling it completely. When the slip has firmed up to a thickness of about inch, the still- liquid clay in the center of the mold is poured out. Tobey usually leaves the clay shell in the mold for a few days until it reaches a leather-hard stage. At that point, she removes the plaster mold, revealing the fresh new sculpture. After the piece dries for a couple of weeks, she applies three coats of matte textural glaze, leaving areas bare for colored clay slips and white crackle glaze. Next, she adds the sgraffito. Final steps include a low-temperature bisque firing, applying clear glazes, and a final high-temperature glaze firing.
Speaking recently about what makes Tobey’s work so highly sought-after, Marty Herman, owner of Exposures International Gallery of Fine Art in Sedona, AZ, says, “Rebecca is passionate about the animal world. Her work often starts with a statement about the dominant personality of an animal and then evolves into magical images in which she evocatively unites human spirit and animal forms. Every piece tells its own story.”
Tobey is often inspired to try out fresh approaches to her work as she wanders the world, both domestically and abroad. Constantly on the lookout for inspiration, she says she looks at everything to find new images she can interpret in her sculptures. During a trip to Paris last summer, she became determined to find a way to make her art more contemporary while continuing to honor history and past cultures.
SPIRIT FLIGHT was one of the first of her new works to explore turning an animal into something beyond its physical characteristics. She sculpted the legendary Plains buffalo, adding to its surface the colorful image of an Indian war bonnet extending back from the animal’s head over a western landscape. The two main symbols blend poignantly to create a three-dimensional metaphor about a historic way of life. Tobey’s ability to cast complex narratives in new light is among her greatest strengths as an artist.
Each of Tobey’s artworks carries a title that means something important to her. “Art touches a chord in the heart or soul of my collectors, and the name of the piece is part of that chord,” she says. Often she uses romantic place names that remind her of her travels. She feels the title is “part of the process of discovery, creating an aura for the piece that transports us back to what inspired it.”
Tobey’s work has become part of public and private collections around the world, and her reputation as a sculptor continues to build. Because she draws inspiration from a variety of cultures, the appeal of her art transcends borders. Her style has been called both sophisticated and primal. At first glance her work is about shape and form—from afar, viewers see graceful silhouettes—but closer examination reveals their complexity in a maze of textures, symbols, figures, and geometric designs.
While family and work are Tobey’s primary foci, she is also devoted to a number of philanthropic movements. When her husband died in 2006, she came face to face with how fleeting life can be and decided to commit more energy to giving back. She established the Gene Tobey Memorial Art Scholarship, which gives three small scholarships to schools that meant a lot to her husband during his lifetime. In addition, each year she donates a sculpture to be auctioned for one of the organizations she supports, and she stays active in community organizations. In 2009 Tobey was selected as the featured artist for Santa Fe’s 14th annual ARTfeast, for which honorees are charged with “encouraging aspiring artists to push their limits and reach new heights.” She carried out that charge by helping students at Capital High School produce ceramic artworks that were sold during the event.
All has not been wine and roses for Tobey. Following her own fight against cancer and the loss of her husband and collaborator, in recent years she has returned to her life stronger than ever. As she describes it, “I feel like that kid in the movie Billy Elliot, the one who said he felt electric when he danced. I, too, feel electric when I get into the studio and begin to work. What an exciting time this is for me!”
Featured in the August 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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