Richard W. “Toby” Tyler
July 24, 1927-Dec. 22, 2016
Alaska artist and Homer icon Richard W. “Toby” Tyler, 89, died at South Peninsula Hospital’s Long Term Care Facility in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2016.
He was born on July 24, 1927, in Bronxville, N.Y., to Henry Teller Tyler and Wilfred Marvin Wilson Tyler. Three years later, his family drove west to Sacramento, Calif., where he attended school and spent summers camping and hiking in the high Sierra Mountains. It was during the seventh grade that he gained the nickname “Toby.”
Interested in drawing from an early age, his first canvas was a large blackboard his parents had given him, on which he spent hours drawing throughout his childhood. He switched to paper when he got tired of erasing his creations.
After high school he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent a year in occupied Japan. Upon his discharge, he attended Sacramento Junior College followed by two years of study at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Calif. After his graduation, he attended San Jose State College to obtain his teaching credentials.
Following several years of teaching in California, his sense of adventure called him to apply for a position to teach in Alaska. Receiving an offer by Western Union telegram in July 1954, he flew to Anchorage, took the bus to Seward, and boarded the M/V Expansion with its load of teachers bound for villages along the Aleutian Chain. Toby’s assigned village, Nikolski, was the last stop.
His next teaching assignment was in Homer, where he found a cabin in which to settle for the next 30-plus years. For the first few years, he spent his summers in Seldovia working at a cannery and on fish tenders in upper Cook Inlet.
In 1957-58 he embarked on a year-long sabbatical that would take him around the world. Starting in Japan, he passed through 39 countries and compiled a detailed diary of his trip before returning to Homer to teach.
By 1959, his interest in local plants began to take over his summers. Fate intervened in his plan to photograph his subjects when he accidentally dropped his camera in the Alagnak River and was forced to resort to drawing and painting wildflowers.
In 1962 he gave up teaching and opened his first summer art gallery and shop in the little log cabin next to the former Alaska Wild Berry Products building. Named the “Eight by Ten” Log Cabin, the cabin is still standing on Pioneer Avenue.
The 1964 earthquake, which cut off most travel to the lower Kenai Peninsula, convinced Toby that he could not afford to stay in Alaska over the long winters and to be content to limit his work to such a small area. He went back to California, purchased a camper truck, and for several years fulfilled a long-held dream of traveling around California and painting as he went. He drove back to Alaska every summer, opened his Pioneer Avenue gallery for the season, and returned to California where he visited friends and lived in his camper. Eventually the nomadic lifestyle wore thin and he landed in Sutter Creek, Calif., where he set up a gallery and conducted business for 18 winters.
In 1984 Toby closed his California gallery and settled down in Homer. He operated the second of his Pioneer Avenue art shops until 1991, at which time he joined Ptarmigan Arts cooperative gallery where he sold his extensive collection of Alaska-themed landscapes, botanical prints and posters, notecards, and original watercolors.
Toby lived a simple lifestyle on his 20-acre home site overlooking Kachemak Bay. Even into his 80s he could be seen riding his bicycle into town. Happily creating his artwork, tending his expansive gardens, and making jams and jellies from berries harvested off his property, he had little use for material things.
His generosity knew no bounds. Toby’s support of local conservation efforts and educational programs through Kachemak Heritage Land Trust and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies ensures that future generations will be able to access and enjoy the fragile ecosystem that he so loved.
As a founding member of Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, he established a conservation easement and life estate for his property. He was an ardent supporter of the arts and in 2014 was honored by Homer Council on the Arts with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Thanks to the staff at Friendship Terrace and South Peninsula Hospital for the kind care and help during Toby’s last two years.
Toby is survived by his brothers, Robert (wife Louise) Tyler of Bend, Ore., and Jim Tyler of San Francisco, Calif.; nephew, Rob Tyler and family of La Crescenta, Calif.; nephew Jeff (great-nephew Jacob) Tyler of Southern, Calif., niece Laurie (and great-niece Raivyn) Davis of Phoenix, Ariz.; and other extended family members. He is also survived by his close circle of Homer friends, who were honored to accompany Toby on his journey.
Memorial donations in Toby’s name can be made to Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, 315 Klondike Avenue, Homer, AK 99603 or the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, PO Box 2225, Homer, AK 99603.
An informal celebration of Toby’s life and legacy will be held in May 2017.