By Katie Scarvey, Salisbury Post
You wouldn't be surprised to find the paintings and sculpture of artist Robert Toth at the Fine Frame Gallery in downtown Salisbury. After all, the Fine Frame Gallery is well known for supporting the work of talented local artists.
But you might be surprised to discover that the vintage tile covering the bathroom of Bruce and Jackie Wilson's shop also happens to be designed by Toth, who was a prolific designer for Congoleum Industries for seven years.
Toth has worked as a professional artist for some 40 years, creating work in a wide variety of media, from painting to sculpture to...floor coverings.
A retrospective collection of Toth's amazing body of work, including pieces from the 1960s to the present, is currently on display at Waterworks Visual Arts Center.
Beautifully luminous impressionist landscapes share the same exhibition space with early minimalist paintings and sculptures celebrating the classic automobile designs of the 1950s. Several of the handsome foundry cast bronzes for which Toth has become well-known are also on exhibit, as is a whimsical sculpture -- "Toynado" created with tiny plastic toys. There are even samples of Toth's linoleum designs.
A 1963 painting on display is a self-portrait of sorts, although that's not immediately apparent.
Toth points to a shadow in the painting, which morphs into the artist's profile when one shifts perspective. The painting was a premonition, he says, symbolic of his desire to move on to other horizons. He did, eventually, move south: first to Island heights, New Jersey from Newark and later to Salisbury from Island heights.
Salisbury has given the New Jersey native plenty of subject matter. Toth is well known for his Historic Salisbury series, including the old Cheerwine factory, O.O. Rufty's, the Plaza, the Bell Tower and the Train Station.
One is struck by Toth's versatility as an artist.
"Diversity is what my work is all about,"he says.
And while diversity has been Toth's natural bent, it's also been a big part of his commercial success as an artist.
"If one thing is slow, I'll fall back on another," he says.
An artist's life
For Toth, work -- or play, since the two words are synonymous for him -- is life.
The creative path that Toth has traveled has been unconventional. You won't find many artists who paint landscapes, still lifes and portraits as well as create jewelry, desk accessories, landscape sculpture, bronze portrait busts, chess sets -- and even movie props.
Toth goes where his imagination beckons and where opportunity leads him.
He's been criticized, he says, by other artists who tell him that he needs to channel his boundless energy into one kind of art. But a narrow focus would be impossible for Toth -- for the simple reason that he's interested in so many different things.
Toth feels fortunate to have grown up in an artistic family.
His father was a skilled carpenter who bequeathed "hereditary knowledge" to him, he says.
Most of the credit for igniting his creativity, Toth says, goes to his mother, who was a painter.
"I was brought up with the smell of oil paints in my house," he says.
Like the mother of one of his heroes, Thomas Edison, Toth's own mother understood him and encouraged his innate gifts.
" 'My mother was the making of me,' " he says, quoting Edison.
"I believe that. The mother is the one who gives the battery charge of life.
"She gave me clay and said, 'Make your own toys.' She had the Montessori mentality."
But the path to success wasn't always an easy one. Toth struggled with learning disabilities as a boy.
"I didn't do well in school," he says. "I was not good at academic work. I had attention deficit, but I've turned all that around."
Toth believes that all children are born with creative gifts that need to be nurtured and encouraged. The creative journey that he began as a child continues every day for him.
He's never bored. As he says, "creativity sees opportunity." He has been able to retain a childlike enthusiasm for his art that keeps him motivated and excited.
"I have learned that if you are not fascinated by the subject, it's not going to happen," he says.
Art should expand the viewer's consciousness, he believes. Toth sees it as his mission to expand creative awareness, to stimulate, to provoke thought, to allow viewers of his art to see the commonplace in a whole new way.
Taking care of business
Unlike some artists, Toth is very attuned to the marketing of his work. He is not content to toil away in a garret and sell a piece here and there.
He works indefatigably at at his art, certainly. But he also works at getting his creations to an audience.
To that end, he has developed a very sophisticated Web site called The Realm of Art (www.roberttoth.com) that generates a lot of business from around the country and even the world.
"The Web is the future," Toth says. "I've been doing it eight years now. You take it more seriously when you start making money at it."
Toth has had an impressive list of clients, from writer Anne Rice -- who discovered him on the Internet -- to baseball star Reggie Jackson to the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery.
His wife, Lee, whom Toth met in art school, understands her husband's creative compulsion. He spends almost every waking minute of the day on his art, she says.
"He gets up and goes into it and that's it," she says. Sometimes he'll even fall asleep working on a project, she says.
A long career
Toth graduated from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art in Newark, New Jersey, in 1966, where he majored in fine art. He also studied at the Cape School in Provincetown with famed impressionist Henry Hensche.
Toth's seven-year stint as a designer for Congoleum was his last real job, he says. He then converted an old church in historic Island heights, N.J., into a studio.
Since then, he's done many different things in the realm of art.
He's worked as an art restorer, given art lessons, both painting and sculpture, produced close to 100 instructional television programs, worked as a framer and sold art supplies.
And he's certainly not ready to put down the paintbrushes yet. He's got more plans than ever, and as you talk to him about his art, you can practically feel the creativity thrumming in him.
The following quote from T.S. Eliot articulates his creative philosophy: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
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