Phoebe Toland and Dick Notkin - Artists Share a Life

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The artists shown with work in their studios in Vaughn. Photos: Richard Miller, KP News

Artists Dick Notkin and Phoebe Toland moved to the Key Peninsula five years ago from Helena, Montana. They sat down one afternoon last month to talk about their work and about what it is like for two busy artists to share a life.

“We really understand the artistic need to create and so we are very supportive, and we aren’t jealous of each other’s studio time. And we understand that if your passion is to be an artist, it is a full-time job,” Notkin said.

The couple first crossed paths when Toland was in graduate school at the University of Montana and Notkin was teaching, but they were in different departments and were barely aware of each other. It wasn’t until years later that they were re-introduced by a mutual friend. “I didn’t even recognize him,” said Toland.

They moved here largely to be closer to Toland’s sister, sculptor Tip Toland, and her husband. “Tip’s career was taking off, and we realized that if we didn’t move closer, we wouldn’t see them very often,” Toland said. They were also ready to leave the brutal winters and summers that increasingly brought the threat of forest fires.

They found a house that fit their requirements: It had to have enough studio space for both of them and be a walkable distance from Tip. The brown shag carpet throughout, they think, kept the place on the market for a few years, but that was easily removed. They converted the multi-car garage and lower floor of the house into studio spaces. "If an artist can’t say what they feel in their art, then what the hell is the point?”

The two have much in common. Both knew they would be artists from early childhood. They were raised in urban areas but have spent adulthood in rural locations. Their art is deeply influenced by the world that surrounds them. And, Notkin said, “We are both left-handed Scorpios.”

But as they talked about their work, the differences became apparent. Toland is primarily a painter and printmaker, and also creates wood and paper sculptures that sometimes hearken back to her combined graduate degree in painting and theater arts. Her images are often abstract. Notkin works in clay. His work is tightly controlled and detailed, with a high degree of craftsmanship.

“All my work is so intuitive. I have no idea what it will become until that last moment. Dick needs to know right off the bat what he will be completing,” Toland said.

Toland came from a creative family. Her father was a writer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and then wrote books and plays; her mother was talented in needlecraft and quilting. “My sister Tip was gifted in terms of drawing people, but I was more interested in design, more abstract pictures. We had our own very separate means of expression,” she said.

After undergraduate work at the Rochester Institute of Technology and graduate school in Montana, Toland returned to the east coast where she worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for several years. “It was there that I fell in love with paper,” she said. She turns paper into both sculptures and multidimensional collages that incorporate woodblock prints. “You have to like the whole process — if you don’t like all the steps you probably won’t do it because it is all so labor intensive,” she said.

“Although I am an abstract artist, all my work has a thematic basis,” she said. Toland tends to work in series, and is currently focused on gardens. “The pieces are a way of expressing my love of gardens and gardening but they also stand in for the earth and feeling of concern and apprehension of climate change.” Toland acknowledges a sense of crowdedness, a bit of foreboding apparent in much of her recent work, especially in the last few years. Her other works were influenced by the development taking place where she lived in Helena. Another installation was inspired by her father and Notkin’s, who both died in the same year.

Notkin, though he has lived in expansive spaces all of his adult life, said his work is not affected by where his studio is located. From the time he was a student his work has expressed his feelings about war, technology and the environment. “I work out of a political landscape. If an artist can’t say what they feel in their art, then what the hell is the point?” he said. His father, of Jewish descent, fought in WWII, and though he was proud to have fought against Hitler, he also described that time as the worst in his life. Notkin came of age in the years of the Vietnam War. Friends served, and of those who survived, he said, most came back damaged. “I think my opposition to war continues to be justified,” he said.

Notkin knew from the time he was in kindergarten that he wanted to be an artist. He went to the Kansas City Art Institute to study painting, but after he was introduced to clay in a sculpture class, he knew he had found his medium. He loved the detail he saw in the extensive ceramics collection at the Kansas City Art Museum and in the pieces he saw at home as he grew up — his father was an immigration lawyer and his many Chinese clients gave him artwork as gifts.

Notkin is perhaps best known for his unglazed ceramic teapots inspired by16th century Chinese Yixing wares. He is a master and innovator in the slip-casting technique, which uses molds and liquid clay, allowing him to work in series, adding highly detailed images that make each pot unique. He has created more than 350 pots, most of which are in private and public collections.

Notkin’s tiles serve as another avenue for expressing his alarm. He creates each from clay, using finely detailed images such as skulls, dice, buildings, ears and barbed wire. “Each original tile takes about four days, depending on the detail,” he said. Then he creates a press mold that allows him to create copies. He now has hundreds of tile molds to draw from. Some tiles are glazed in color. Others are fired in sawdust, which causes the value of the tile to vary from light to dark. The tiles are then sorted and stored by color and value to be used to create murals. Two well-known murals, both using hundreds of tiles, are a portrait of George W. Bush titled “All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness” and “The Gift,” an image of the Hiroshima bomb.

Notkin’s work has been shown all over the world and is in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He has received many awards for his work and was featured in a PBS Craft in America Landscape documentary.

Both Notkin and Toland continue to work full tilt. Notkin’s father once asked how he was planning for retirement. He replied, “I don’t have any extra money to put away. And besides, what will I do? Pick up some hobby like maybe ceramic art?”