Sunday, January 29, 2012

Toby Sisson: Worcester, Mass.


Please share a little about yourself. Where did you grow up and what were the early influences on your work? Where do you live now?

I grew up in Minneapolis, a progressive city with strong cultural institutions and incredible natural beauty. Over the last few decades, it has become a much more ethnically diverse place as well, fertile ground for a variety of artistic communities. That setting was important to me as I became increasingly aware of my own creative ambitions, shaping my perspective as a person and an artist.

I live in Worcester Massachusetts now, relocating here in 2009 to teach at Clark University. The school is something of an amalgam itself, a liberal arts and research university that promotes interdisciplinary practice. Creative research that connects art and social engagement is an area of scholarship that interests me and Clark actively supports; their commitment to move beyond the usual academic boundaries, along with New England’s mild winters, is what lured me here.
Did you receive any formal art training? If yes, where and what did you major in?

I was a non-traditional student, pursuing my formal education later in life. I attended the very small College of Visual Arts in St. Paul and earned a BFA in painting and drawing in a conservatory environment. I went to the much larger University of Minnesota for an MFA and expanded my studies to include public art and teaching. It was a stark contrast of educational models and no small investment in time and money for an older student, but it was a conscious choice that I believe has served me well.

The Relationship Between Grief
and Celebration
Encaustic Monotype on Paper on Wood
12” x 18”, 2011

What is your media? (Please describe briefly)

I’m currently following two overlapping creative paths; my solo works are studio based and employ a combination of traditional drawing, painting and printmaking materials such as charcoal, graphite, oil, encaustic, pastel and ink on paper or wood. The other path is collaboratively defined and that work can take a variety of forms depending on the goals of the project and expertise of the participants, such as painted murals, documentary videos, staged events, etc. The communal ventures tend to be multi-media, long-term projects that focus on issues of social justice. I mention both tracks, the solo and collaborative, because they have merged in my own thinking of what constitutes a practice and its media, each informing the other.

A Coded Language II
Encaustic, Graphite and Oil on Wood
16” x 32”

Lure of the Unknown
Encaustic, Graphite and Oil on Wood
16” x 32”

What is your current work about? 

In very broad terms, my recent solo work is about time, transformation and hybridity. And though I work in non-objective abstraction, my conceptual interests are rooted in the observable world and its social structures. In my paintings, drawings and prints, I suggest cultural associations by quoting specific mark making traditions; allude to particular states of being through reductive color and form; and craft titles to reference the underlying themes in the work. But I try to balance this intentionality with a degree of spontaneity, creating multi-panel works that can be rearranged and recombined into a new visual syntax. For me, art’s real power lies in its ability to provide an almost magical outcome, the sum that is greater than its parts. And my somewhat didactic temperament is loosened up by an intuitive approach to composition. I am also interested in the dialogues that are provoked by interpretations from people that don’t share my perspective. Art that allows for dissonance and ambiguity is the most intriguing for me. 

The collaborative projects are about art making as a form of agency, creating public actions that engage a variety of people, both artists and non-artists, in aesthetic activities. Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with an immigrant community to set-up a summer art camp for underserved children; partner with an environmental program to add public art to a city park project; and join my painting students to assist a community service organization in revitalizing their property. In each instance, the diligent efforts of my mentors, classmates, colleagues and students made the work possible.

Parallel Lives
Encaustic, Graphite and Oil on Wood
48” x 24”

Inevitably I & II (Trail Series)
Encaustic Monotype on Paper on Wood
6” x 12”

Please include a picture of yourself, perhaps a different one than what's on your website...

Here’s a picture of me in the early 1960’s. A half-century later, I still feel like that girl sitting on the TV – happy to be looking at picture books or drawing. I’m holding a pencil in that funny toddler portrait hanging on the wall, a devotee of unruly mark making from the beginning. 

How do you develop a sense of community with other artists, and how do you support your art colleagues?

I reach out to other art geeks like myself and respond to calls for aid when I feel I can contribute in a meaningful way. Recently, I volunteered to train docents for an annual public art event, and I helped sponsor a couple of artist’s projects listed with an online fund raising site — Additionally, I’m Director of Clark’s academic gallery, providing a venue for artists to show work that may be experimental or conceptually challenging, along with thematic group and solo exhibitions. But personally, I find the most satisfying support comes from individual or small group relationships.

One of my ongoing projects is the study of dialogic critique as a means of enriching the discourse between practicing artists. It’s about creating a structure that can open up the process of critique, making it more productive for the artist. I bring dialogic techniques into the classroom and attempt to build “communities of learning” in collaboration with my students.

Among the Humanities faculty at Clark, we meet regularly and conduct ongoing dialogues about the nature of our work as creative practitioners as well as educators. We really interrogate ideas, pose philosophical questions, and think deeply about what and why we’re doing what we’re doing. We assess our struggles and vulnerabilities, hopefully becoming more capable and compassionate in the process. With my artist friends it’s very informal, we share our thoughts freely across a range of topics. Coming together over food and drink helps too.

The Relationship of Grief and Celebration V
Encaustic Monotype on Paper on Wood
12” x 18”

The Relationship Between Grief and Celebration VI
Encaustic Monotype on Paper on Wood
12” x 18”

Do you have any web links/site/blog etc. you'd like to share that show your work?

My website can be found at It contains about two-dozen images from my studio work along with a brief bio, CV and a few links. I love viewing and occasionally posting comments on blogs, but must admit I’m lousy at keeping one regularly updated (I recently discontinued my long dormant blog). Thankfully, there are lots of really wonderful bloggers, like you, that create an online space to serve artists. I teach a senior seminar for art majors and include a list of art blogs on my syllabus, asking students to check them once a week or so. And I sometimes use posts as dialogue topics or to initiate an assignment.

Do you ever get stuck with your work and how do you remedy this?

Sometimes I do get stuck when working out compositions, but consider it a necessary part of an artistic practice. I recently attended a talk by a very creative thinker, Alan Lightman, a physicist and novelist that spoke about the value of being stuck. He acknowledged that this phenomenon is part of a continuum that actually begins with having a “prepared mind”, which for an artist includes being open to the unexpected as much as understanding your materials and various techniques. Lightman maintains that when you get stuck, “you’re forced to have a shift in perspective, your subconscious mind is catalyzed and you do a lot of very good thinking that you wouldn't have done if you weren't stuck.” This interruption of your pre-determined path can bring resolution to problems you hadn’t recognized before. Breakthroughs depend on obstacles and it’s best to be patient with uncertainty, push past frustration and embrace problems as interesting challenges that ultimately propel you forward.

Garden of Secrets
Encaustic Monotype on Paper on Wood
16” x 28”

Shadow Self
Encaustic Monotype on Paper on Wood
12” x 24”

Do you have particular habits that you think support your art practice?

Like many artists, my practice is a way of life and I’ve cultivated rituals that support me on several levels. I’m mindful about creating an environment for intellectual growth (read, read, read), and to enliven my imagination by being in contact with creative people who work in a variety of disciplines. I never underestimate the power of seeing a great exhibition. Artwork that forces me to question my assumptions can be thrilling and provide enough juice to keep me going for months. One of my favorite “artistic ancestors”, Romare Bearden said "I think the artist has to be something like a whale, swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs."

I do guard my time carefully though, trying to be selective about the professional commitments I make; carving out blocks of studio time to pursue my creative research is a priority. Other things may get thrown out – my blog, unsupportive relationships, and clothing with too many buttons. 

Thank you Toby.
Thank you Lynette, I enjoyed this opportunity to reflect and share.


Nancy Natale said...

What a pleasure to read this post about Toby and to see examples of her new work! I have enjoyed the brief opportunities of getting to know her in person and reading her thoughts about her work and approach to art making enriches that process. "Time, transformation and hybridity" seems to be a broad enough subject to allow a wide range of work but also to frame Toby's approach in a meaningful way. Thank you, Toby and Lynette, for this interview!

Toni Youngblood, aka "Sparky" said...

Fascinating story and rich work.

Toni Youngblood, aka "Sparky" said...

Fascinating story and luscious work.

J.G.Nieuwenhof said...

This was so interesting to read. Beautiful work and wonderful concepts. Thank you.

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

This is beautiful work. Very sophisticated and evocative.

Jodi Colella said...

Beautiful work... a beautiful mind. Thanks for sharing your insights!

LynetteH said...

Thanks Jodi, yes I agree!

Gwendolyn Plunkett said...

Thanks, Lynette and Toby for sharing. Toby's work has been in my "favorite" category since I first saw it a few years ago and this post a great treat to learn more about her conceptual ideas regarding the underpinnings of her visual statements.

Lynne E. Windsor said...

I have just come across your blog and this interview. Many many thanks for such an inspiring piece.