AUTHOR // Kate McGraw, For the Journal
The white buffalo, that sacred beast, has a starry surface on its 25-by-5-by-8-inch ceramic body. On that surface, horses gallop and clouds drift, painted in ceramic glazes.
“Dawn Racers” is the most striking of new pieces by internationally recognized Santa Fe sculptor Rebecca Tobey, who has returned to ceramic work nearly a decade after abandoning the process in deference to her husband Gene’s leukemia driven allergies to the clay dust.
A show of her new work opening today at Ventana Fine Art in the old brick schoolhouse on Canyon Road features both new ceramic pieces and the patinapainted bronzes for which Tobey is justly acclaimed. The show is part of the annual ArtFeast Edible Art Tour sponsored by the Santa Fe Gallery Association to raise money for ArtSmart, a nonprofit art-in-the-schools program. Ventana’s catering partner for the opening reception today is the Guadalupe Café.
Tobey is the honorary artistin-residence for ArtSmart this year, and she will be feted at an annual fundraising dinner and auction Saturday at Encantado Resort.
“Rebecca’s distinctive style and unique artistic signature have made her a vital part of this gallery for years,” Ventana owner Connie Axton said. “We are proud to celebrate Rebecca’s contributions to the art world during this very special event, and to introduce a new wave of people to her dynamic creations.”
Tobey’s return to the style of ceramic works she collaborated on with her late husband marks a major turning point for her. Gene Tobey died in January 2006. “It has been a hard time for me, but I made the decision last summer (2010) to develop some larger, more colorful pieces,” Rebecca Tobey told the Journal. “I love this work. I’ve basically been a painter all my life, and I love the fact that it’s a large, three-dimensional canvas that I can do a large, colorful painting on.”
She acknowledged that when working on the pieces, different from, yet so similar to, the kind of work she did with her late husband, “I feel a connection with Gene. There’s a real sense of his presence, especially in the studio when I’m doing these ceramic pieces. Sometimes I can almost feel his hands on mine,” she said.
‘A romance-novel marriage’
Rebecca Olmstead was working in a gallery that featured Gene Tobey’s rakufired pottery in 1984 when the sculptor walked in. “It was like all the lights were turned off except a spotlight on this man,” she said. The two divorced parents hit it off and married in 1986.
“For 20 years, it was a romance-novel marriage,” Rebecca, now 63, said with a smile. “We’d both been married before, and we appreciated how good it was with each other.”
They blended her two kids and his three and became the Seven Traveling Tobeys, living in the Texas Hill Country, the Texas Gulf Coast and — after the children grew up and went off to college — traveling together to Alaska, Africa and New Zealand. It was a life of high adventure and collaboration. Rebecca started in the studio as a glaze technician for Gene’s ceramic works that were moving from functional housewares to sculptures. She was soon promoted by him to full collaborator in recognition of the contribution her glaze paintings made. Their remaining work, and the work of two of their children, can be found on their joint website, tobey studios.com.
Gene had grown up in Utah, and Rebecca in Tennessee, and both had an affinity for the natural beauty, the wildlife and the legends of the American West. Through the years, they returned to Santa Fe, which Rebecca had adored since she moved here in 1975. Then Gene died, and all the lights went out.
It was a bad time, made worse when Rebecca was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in 2009. But that jolt seemed to have revived her fighting spirit. After aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, the tumor disappeared before the scheduled surgery. “It’s incredible, a wonderful thing,” she said.
Her need to summon the strength to fight her cancer triggered a renewed desire to make ceramic art. Another impetus, she admitted, is that the ceramic sculptures are less expensive than the bronzes for which she was increasingly garnering critical acclaim.
The new works are very different in paintings from her work with Gene, she said. “When we were working together, the images were much more masculine,” she said. “Now I’m doing lots and lots of birds and feathers — it’s fun!”
She paints the sculptures with low-fire slips, or glazes, firing them twice, once at the bisque stage and once in a glaze firing. One of her favorites is a ceramic bear whose surfaces are covered with black-and-white striped koshare dancers from the pueblo dances, called “Mystery of the Dance.”
Another thing Tobey began in the dark years after her husband’s death was her work with Art-Smart, the program that brings artists into Santa Fe schools to teach techniques and practice.
ArtSmart provides art materials, as well as artists to teach and mentor students, and even funds some art scholarships. Marlene Bertin-Peterson, owner of The Peterson-Cody Gallery and ArtSmart president, said she had seen firsthand the ceramic sculptures created by high school students under Tobey’s tutelage at Santa Fe High School and Capital High School.
“In addition to being a nationally recognized, talented, creative artist and sculptor, Rebecca Tobey possesses a warm and sparkling personality,” Bertin-Peterson said. “Her enthusiasm for her craft and her approachability have made a hit with the students she is mentoring.”
Tobey said ArtSmart — and the fact that the gallery association is continuing its efforts to give back to the community despite tough economic times — have moved her. “If you know me, you get that I am not the kind of person who sits on the sidelines,” she said. “When the kids were grow ing up, I was always there as a home-room mother, a PTA member, a Scout leader. I believe in getting involved. I don’t have time for politics, but I do have time to get involved in the community.”
Last fall, she taught first period at Santa Fe High School and third period at Capital High for a span of weeks. “It was marvelous,” she said. “I was apprehensive because it’s been a while — my youngest kid is now 29 — but it was a cool experience to see that the kids were still good kids.” She taught them to make ceramic tiles, on which the students painted and then added another layer of design with incised, sgraffito techniques. “They were intrigued to learn that that’s the origin of our word ‘graffiti,’ ” Tobey said. “I told them, ‘No gang signs, no bad symbols’ and they were cool. We had none of that.”
Capital High School junior Amber Medina worked individually with Tobey on glazing and decoration techniques, she told the sculptor’s publicist. “A major highlight of this was meeting a known artist with firsthand knowledge of the techniques we used,” Medina is quoted as saying for an article on Tobey’s website, RebeccaTobey.com . “The finished product I created left me proud to learn something new.”
The tiles will be on display and available for purchase by silent auction at Saturday’s dinner honoring ArtSmart and Tobey. She also has donated a bronze sculpture to the live auction that will benefit the school program.
Tobey, who created the annually awarded Gene Tobey Memorial Scholarship in commemoration of her late husband, hopes she imparted a little of her go-for-it attitude to the students, as well. She has no regrets about their “live life to the fullest” philosophy. “Places that most people just dream of going, we went to,” she said. “I guess the one big thing I learned is that you don’t know if tomorrow will come, so live today as big as you can, because you can never get it back.” If you go
WHAT: Rebecca Tobey, three-day show of ceramics and bronzes—As part of the ArtFeast Edible Art Tour
The 14th Annual ARTFeast Santa Fe includes a fashion show, gentlemen’s lunch, edible art tour, gourmet dinner, artist’s brunch, home tour and more. Call 603-4643 or see firstname.lastname@example.org .
WHEN: Today through Sunday; reception 5-8 p.m. today.
WHERE: Ventana Fine Art, 400 Canyon Road