It took The Sopris Sun a while to get an interview with longtime Carbondale artist John Toly – around three years. Polite requests would be kindly rebuffed by the quiet, humble 83-year-old. But then he held a solo art exhibit at Carbondale’s Launchpad which opens Friday, April 15.

There was a near miss two years ago, in the spring of 2020, but his then-scheduled show was canceled due to COVID. Toly did an interview with The Sun in 2011 when he was commissioned (there was no competition that year) to design a poster for the 40th Mountain Fair. It was his second; he had already created one for the fair in the late 70s.

The artist as a young man

We sat in his charming home on Sopris Avenue, surrounded by his artwork and tall exotic plants, on a sunny, sunny March afternoon, with the artist’s sweet dog, Maggie, curled up at his feet. feet. He began to tell his story.

Toly grew up in Rock Springs, WY, where he painted in watercolor “because it was the easiest thing [to do].” He enrolled at the ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles (now in Pasadena), “Where I majored in industrial design, specializing in automotive styling.”

He completed the four-year program in three years and, after a two-year stint in the military, went to work for Chrysler in Detroit. It took about a year “because my drawing styles didn’t match what they were doing,” he explained. He spent a few more years in the city designing kitchen appliances.

When Detroit erupted in riots in the summer of 1967, Toly had had enough. He decided to try his luck in Denver but couldn’t find any design work. He went to visit his family in Wyoming.

Deciding to take “a scenic drive” on the way back to Denver, he stopped for the night in the growing city of Vail. A chance encounter at a bar with “that grizzly old man” turned into a construction job. “I found a place to live and then I stayed that summer. And then I stayed that winter and learned to ski,” he recalls.

Toly also began to paint landscapes in watercolors. He had taken college electives in watercolor painting that “involved landscape painting” and “taught you how to use real professional materials”, but he never thought of it as his calling. He thought he would stay until the end of winter, “then resume my job.”

Instead, he stayed a few more years in Vail. “I was doing construction in the summer and renting skis in the winter and landscape watercolors on the weekends and in between. [seasons].” And he was selling his art. “There was a gallery there, and… they sold [the paintings] right away,” he recalls. “Anything I brought, they would sell.”

Construction work declined in Vail, but there were job opportunities in Aspen. Toly found a maintenance job in a building near what is now the Gondola Plaza and lived in a small A-frame (long gone) across the street. He worked half a day and skied half a day, smiling: “It was perfect; a big moment for me.

Toly had also found what he wanted to do. “You know,” he said, “I never worried about [not working in industrial design], I just went with it. I just knew I would [make painting work].” He added: “I had three or four individual exhibitions [at Aspen’s Gargoyle Gallery] about a year apart. They were all sold out.

Moving to Carbondale

In the summer of 1974, Toly moved into a cabin in Crystal City near Marble. He stayed there for several months, painting the watercolors that constituted his last exhibition at the Gargoyle, but by autumn he was ready to go.

An acquaintance of Crystal helped him get in touch with Wally Debeque, owner of the Dinkel Building at the time, and he got an apartment along 4th Street. He lived there for more than 30 years, tending to the building’s old coal boiler and even hosting an early morning radio show on the KDNK. He also held exhibitions of his art in the apartment.

In 1990, he bought the house on Sopris Avenue, which was originally a church, but then owned by the Thompson family. It took seven years to renovate, but in the end he had a beautiful, bright, and elevated space that he filled with his artwork and plants.

“Our Place”

Toly had a tough time with her art. “There is a big void with the Dinkel building, there are no exhibitions and I cannot sell paintings. I stopped painting for about 15 years. He did a series of jobs, including that of maintenance man at the brand new town hall.

“Little by little, I started to paint again, little by little.” He noted, “This is the first exhibition of my work in a very, very long time,” adding that nearly all of the paintings were done “in the last five years.”

With a total of 36 works, this will be his largest exhibition. “Other shows usually had about 20 plays, but this one has a lot of small ones to grow that number,” he explained. An oil painting of Mount Sopris titled “Ancient Mountain Heart” – said to be the translation of the mountain’s Ute name and only one of two oils in the show – “is about as big as it gets”.

Almost all of the works in the exhibition (33) are watercolor landscapes. Most of them are of his favorite subject: Sopris, in its many moods and colors, and what he described as its “mysterious spiritual quality”. Only one acrylic is from the 2008 Mountain Fair and is the only one to represent characters. “I’m not good with people,” he admitted.

Toly is a passionate (and talented) photographer. He takes pictures wherever he is “over here”. Over time, from the photographs, a subject evolves. “I’m looking for an atmosphere and a sense of place” that will make a good painting.

On the technical side, he prefers Asian-style brushes. “They don’t hold a fine tip…but give you more of a random brush stroke rather than a nice, perfectly formed tip. When you put it down, you get that perfect pyramid with a sharp stroke on the paper.

Toly named the show “Our Place,” which, looking at the works, it certainly is. There will be a reception at Launchpad from 6-8 p.m. on April 15. The exhibition will continue until May 20.


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