Longtime Homer artist R.W. “Toby” Tyler’s new show at Ptarmigan Arts lives up to its name, “Surprises from Toby’s Attic.”
The retrospective show does exactly that: displays works found in Tyler’s attic, from pen-and-ink and watercolor drawings of San Francisco Victorian houses to his series of prints showing the progression of Alaska plants over and within the seasons.
“I had no idea what they would find. Neither did they,” Tyler said of the friends who climbed up into his attic. “It was a whole bunch of odds and ends.”
The real surprise comes in a collection of seven small paintings, all recent works done since December and while Tyler, 88, has been recovering from a stroke he suffered in late 2014. Now living at Friendship Terrace, the assisted living home run by Homer Senior Citizens, the renaissance of Tyler’s art has come about through his own perseverance and the support of Ptarmigan Arts, the Center of Alaskan Coastal Studies and the Homer arts community.
“That was the goal: to get him painting again,” said Debbie Fanatia, former chair of the Ptarmigan Arts Back Room Gallery and the show organizer. “It was such a community effort and everybody was so excited to help. It really was fun to watch and be part of. He’s such a treasure.”
Tyler said he woke up one morning at his home near East End Road feeling confused. He couldn’t see anything and didn’t know where he was. A friend found him later and got him to South Peninsula Hospital. He would spend several months in the hospital recovering enough from his stroke that he could live in assisted living. The stroke affected his left side. He has trouble moving his left foot and leg. As an artist, one challenge has been reduced vision, what’s called “left neglect.”
Wiggling the fingers on his left hand, Tyler illustrates the cognitive defect. He can’t see those fingers, he said. Move a pen across his field of vision, and his brain doesn’t see it until the pen comes in front of his nose. At dinner, aides have to turn his plate so he sees what else he has to eat.
The stroke also affected his fine motor control. Tyler tried to sketch or do watercolor paintings, but that didn’t work. One day he saw a puzzle a friend, John Mouw, had sent off to be made from a 1957 oil painting of Tyler’s, “Grewingk Glacier and Cabin,” of the old Fred Cowgill cabin at the bottom of East Hill Road. That painting was done using the palette knife technique, painting in oils with the small, trowel-like knife instead of a brush.
“He decided he may be able to paint with a palette knife,” Fanatia said of Tyler. “He told me he wanted to start painting with the palette knife, and if he did that, he would have a show.”
Tyler has been a longtime member of Ptarmigan Arts, the artists co-operative started by Sharon McKemie Bauer in 1984. McKemie Bauer sold the gallery to Karen “Jewels” East in 2003, and Ptarmigan Arts is now run by a group of member artists.
If Tyler was going to paint, he couldn’t do it at Friendship Terrace because of the fumes from oil paints. Fanatia talked to another Ptarmigan Arts member, Kathy Drew. Tyler has been a member and supporter of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies for more than 30 years, so Drew approached CACS to see if Tyler could set up a studio there. Outreach and marketing director Melanie Dufour didn’t even hesitate, Fanatia said. They set up a studio in a back room.
“Within a week they had it cleaned out, set him up with a table and everything,” she said.
Drew took Tyler to Homer Art & Frame to shop for supplies. Owner Lynda Reed even gave him some of her paints to get him started. Artist Gary Lyon volunteered to take Tyler to his studio and help him prepare paints. Watching Tyler work with a palette knife inspired him to try the technique himself, Lyon said.
“I thought, heck, that looks like fun. I started doing it behind him. I’ve had some good success with it,” he said.
Like a true artist, Tyler is his own worst critic.
“My painting has not been very good, but at least I’m trying,” he said. “I’m not very happy with them. They’re better than nothing.”
Painting with a palette knife involves understanding the tool.
“It’s not like you have to learn to use it. You just do what it does. I’m not sure why,” Tyler said. “You get it on the paint. You have to slide away, bend it slightly. I love painting with them.”
Lyon said Tyler took off painting with the first session. Friends weren’t sure he would be able to get back into painting and were amazed at what he did.
“He keeps up this monologue, this pitter-patter going on,” Lyon said of watching Tyler paint. “And then he goes silent. He’s in the zone. That 50 years of experience took over.”
Some of Tyler’s new paintings have an interesting section of white space on the left. When asked if that’s intentional, Tyler said, “It might be that. I just don’t realize that.”
Lyon said Tyler recognizes that the left side isn’t painted on,
“He’ll volunteer, ‘I need to work to the left.’ But he doesn’t,” Lyon said.
“I kind of love his new paintings because of that white space. I love the effect, but it’s so illustrative of where he is now. That’s exactly how he sees things,” Fanatia said. “He’s managed to get around it and make it part of what he paints. I don’t know if he’s doing it on purpose or that’s how it turns out.”
Helping Tyler out has also helped him, Lyon said.
“I’m gaining a lot from this whole experience,” he said. “It’s been liberating for me to get out of my narrow walk and do something like that.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Surprises from Toby’s Attic
New and retrospective work by R.W. “Toby” Tyler
Ptarmigan Arts Back Room Gallery
471 E. Pioneer Ave.
On display through March