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Volume 37 Issue 13 • July 19 - 25, 2007 now in our 37th season

Figures Dancing Out of Stone

by Suzanne Daub

For 25 years, the stunning alabaster forms created by Willi Tobias have been a part of summers on Nantucket.  First represented by South Wharf Gallery in 1982, she then established her own gallery on Old South Wharf, where she can be found today, coaxing figures out of stone.

Willie Tobias credits serendipity, luck, and the influence of a caring mentor for the course her life has taken, for her career as a well-known and respected sculptor. 

When she moved from the East Coast to Phoenix, Arizona in the 1960s, she discovered there was not a lot of opportunity there for independent interior designers.  “To bide my time, I took some art classes,” Tobias explained.  After the first semester, her art teacher, Frank Fitzgerald, told her that he wanted her to take his sculpture class.  Not at all drawn to this very physical art, Tobias at first refused.  “But he twisted my arm and I took the class and I fell in love with stone.”  This teacher is the mentor who changed her life.

During the two-year course of study, Tobias worked with a variety of mediums:  clay, resin, metal.  When the assignment was made to create a “subtractive” piece, the students were given a choice between wood and stone.  How did she make the choice?  “The stoneyard was closest to my home,” Tobias smiled. 

“I lugged home a 50-pound boulder, brought it to school, and said ‘Now what do I do, Mr. Fitzgerald?’  He said ‘look at it and see if you see anything in it.’”  For three days, Tobias studied the stone.  Then she saw it...the face of a monk.  As she released it from the stone, she made a decision that continues to be seen in her work her today.  “Because I didn’t want to do ears I gave him a rough mantle, and that became my trademark: rough texture agains the polished surfaces.”

“Taking the sculpture class changed my life,” Tobias said.  “I saw that this was something I could really do...I’ve learned to never say ‘never.’  I didn’t know I could do this until I met my mentor...To meet someone who influences the course of your life, that’s rare and precious.”

Alabaster is the material that this artist uses to express her creativity.  It has a warmth and character not found in other stones.  Choosing which stones to use, according to Tobias, is the easy part.   She climbs through the stoneyard, spritzing stones with water to look for just the right color and graining.  “I’m dealing with something from nature...something that was part of a mountain...and turning it into something beautiful.  But the beauty is in the raw material...All the beautiful colors are locked in the stone...it’s my joy to release them.”

Tobias doesn’t do any preparatory drawing when she begins a piece:  “I just dive into it.”  She uses an air-driven chisel to carve away pieces of stone, leaving a craggy picture.  Periodically she steps away and peers at it till she sees something in the stone, “a vision of who or what is in there.”  Then she works to release what she sees.  Her alabaster sculptures are fluid and lyrical — they capture movement and a feelings of freedom.  Her pieces have a strength and a warmth that makes a viewer want to stroke them.  Some, when placed in a bright window, glow with the light.  “I love classical music and ballet...I’ve developed a musical rhythm in the pieces, a figure dancing out of the stone.”

Many of her sculptures are female forms, but she also creates flowing abstracts.  Occasionally she changes course while sculpting a piece.  When she sees more abstraction in a piece she thought would be figurative.  This can result in a breathtaking piece, like her sculpture of a woman that, when turned on its pedestal, becomes an abstract creation evocative of the ocean.

“The creative process is thrilling. I feel lucky to be engaged in it.”

Each summer when she opens her Nantucket gallery, Tobias brings one or two rough sculptures with her to finish on-island.  She loves to do this finish work outside.  “Working outside on a half-completed image gives the people who come by and watch an idea of how a piece is created...it introduces them to three-dimensional art.”  Even her clients and collectors love to watch her creative process.  “Many times I sell a piece in progress in its raw state.  Then the client will come by every few days to see how their piece is evolving.”

There are some very special pieces that Tobias keeps at home, pieces she’ll never sell, but for the most part she’s learned to let go of her work.  “Every year people ask ‘how can you part with this?’  I tell them that in my Nantucket gallery I get to meet the ‘adoptive parents’ with whom my piece will live.”

Tobias exhibits up and down the East Coast, and has a “dust filled working studio” in her home in New Jersey where she does the heavy duty work and the mounting, but every summer Willi Tobias can be found on Old South Wharf in her Nantucket gallery.

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