In homes and businesses throughout Homer and Alaska — and even the Lower 48 — almost everyone has at least one work of art by R.W. “Toby” Tyler. Whether a wildflower painted on a driftwood barrel stave, a scene of Kachemak Bay or a California Victorian home, Tyler’s work is as familiar a sight as a pair of XtraTufs.
Last week in the early morning on Dec. 22, 2016, Tyler, age 89, died at South Peninsula’s Long Term Care facility. Despite a stroke that gave him left neglect — the inability to perceive things on the left side of his vision — Tyler kept on painting and sketching up until the last few months of his life.
“He’s always been here, a pillar of the art community,” said an artist friend, Gary Lyon.
“His loss ripples over so many aspects of the Homer community — the arts community, the education community, the garden club, the land trust,” said Beth Heurer, a friend of his from Ptarmigan Arts. “Boy, he was a treasure, that’s for sure.”
Born Richard Wilson Tyler on July 24, 1927, in Bronxville, N.Y., Tyler moved with his family at age 3 to Sacramento, Calif. He was in seventh grade after his teacher read “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus,” when people started calling him “Toby.”
“I got the nickname immediately,” he said in an interview with the Homer News in 2010. “It’s the dullest, most poorly written book put out.”
After high school, Tyler enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent a year in occupied Japan. He attended Sacramento Junior College and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He got his teaching credentials at San Jose State College.
It was teaching that brought Tyler to Alaska in 1954. He taught grade school in California and hated it. A friend had been in the WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — in Kodiak during World War II and suggested Tyler try Alaska. In 1953 he applied for and got a job teaching in Nikolski on Umnak Island in the Aleutian Islands. He flew to Anchorage, took the bus to Seward and sailed out to the chain on the M/V Expansion. After a year teaching in Nikolski on the way back he stopped in Seldovia and visited Homer. He fell in love with the town and got a job teaching math at the old Homer School. On Diamond Ridge he bought a log cabin on five acres.
He taught until 1961, when he opened his 8×10 studio in the old Homer Post Office building next to the Alaska Wildberry Building. Soon he made more money from art and quit teaching. After the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, Tyler moved back to California. For several years he traveled around California, sketching and painting, returning every summer to Homer to run his gallery. In 1966 he moved to a larger building, the Harrington Cabin, across Pioneer Avenue from the Wildberry. That cabin is now at the Pratt Museum. After closing that studio, he began showing his work at Ptarmigan Arts, and has been a member since 1991.
Tyler lived into his early 80s at his cabin and studio on 20 acres on Paradise Place. An avid gardener and botanist, he was widely regarded as one of the local experts on Alaska wildflowers and plants. Beth Trowbridge, executive director of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, said Tyler helped get the boardwalk and trails built at the Carl Wynn Nature Center on East Skyline Drive and trained people in botany there. Lyon remembered visiting Tyler’s gallery and seeing all the wildflowers planted out front, all with signs identifying them.
“I truly appreciate all of his knowledge,” Trowbridge said. “When I first worked at the Wynn Nature Center, that’s how I learned what I know.”
Tyler’s Paradise Place garden was frequently a highlight of garden tours run by the Homer Garden Club or Kachemak Heritage Land Trust. Tyler was one of the early Homer landowners to put his land into a conservation easement managed by the land trust. A founding member of KHLT and its secretary for 15 years, in 2015 KHLT gave him its Land at Heart award, calling him “a prolific artist, gardener supreme, scourge of invasive species and champion of the natural world.”
Tyler volunteered at CACS, and was one of its first CoastWalk participants. In his late 60s he did a treacherous Kachemak Bay section of beach north of Diamond Creek.
Trowbridge said that up until a stroke slowed him down, Tyler would volunteer for Wynn Nature Center and Peterson Bay work parties. Tyler also made a generous donation to CACS for a down payment on its headquarters building on Smokey Bay Way, although Trowbridge said Tyler tried to keep the donation secret.
“He was just so selfless. He would just do what needed to be done and didn’t want to make a big fuss over everything,” she said.
Unassuming about his philanthropy and volunteer work, Tyler is more publicly known for his art. He showed at most of the Homer galleries, whether in group or solo shows. He worked in a variety of media and painted and drew from the large scale in landscapes to images of the most delicate wildflowers. His prints of native plants through all the seasons became a popular series. Living in Sutter, Calif., he took as his subject the Victorian and historic homes of the area. A prolific artist, visitors to his Paradise Place could see walls covered with his work. When friends helped him do retrospective shows, they discovered even more art in his attic.
Old age slowed Tyler down, but didn’t stop him painting. Last spring he held his final show, “Surprises from Toby’s Attic.” That show included seven paintings he did after his stroke.
“That last show, he loved sitting there in his chair and having people come and talk to him,” said Heurer.
After Tyler moved into Friendship Terrace, an assisted living facility, working with CACS, Tyler’s artist friends helped him get a studio set up there. Lyon and others would pick him up every Wednesday and take him to the studio.
Lyon said at first he wasn’t sure Tyler would get back into painting.
“His hand is shaking. He goes over, dips the pallete knife into the color. The room goes silent and he’s in the zone,” Lyon said. “Wham, bam, he started painting. He did well. The instinct took over.”
Heurer said she was working with Tyler to do a show next spring at Ptarmigan Arts. That show will still happen and will be a memorial show, to be held the First Friday in May.
The weekly studio sessions got to be a challenge for Tyler, so Lyon said he would drive Tyler around town to Bishop’s Beach or Beluga Slough to sketch. Tyler kept drawing up until early November.
“It was a gift from me, a privilege to be part of the end of his life — just to share as another artist and be on equal terms with him and know if one day, if I’m lucky, to be like that,” Lyon said.
“He lived a wonderful life,” Heurer said. “If anybody had a wonderful life, it was Toby.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.