It took a while for The Sopris Sun to get an interview with longtime Carbondale artist John Toly — roughly three years. Polite requests would be gently rebuffed by the quiet, humble 83-year-old. But then he worked with Carbondale Arts to line up a solo art exhibition at the Launchpad in Carbondale that opens Friday, April 15.
There was a near-miss two years ago, in the spring of 2020, but his show scheduled then was canceled because of COVID. Toly did an interview with The Sun, in 2011, when he was commissioned (there was no contest 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(er) man
We sat in his delightful Sopris Avenue home, surrounded by his artwork and large exotic plants, on a bright sunny afternoon in March, with the artist’s sweet dog, Maggie, curled up at his feet. He began to tell his story.
Toly grew up in Rock Springs, WY, where he had painted with watercolors “because that was the easiest thing [to do].” He enrolled in 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 army, went to work for Chrysler in Detroit. That lasted about a year “because my styles of drawing didn’t fit what they were doing,” he explained. He spent a couple 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 was finding no design work. He went to visit his family in Wyoming.
Deciding to take “a scenic route” on the way back to Denver, he stopped for the night in the growing town of Vail. A chance bar encounter there with “this grizzly old guy” turned into a construction job. “I got a place to live and then I stayed that summer. And then, I stayed that winter and learned to ski,” he recalled.
Toly also began to paint watercolor landscapes. He had taken some college elective classes in watercolor painting that “involved landscape painting” and “taught you to use real professional materials,” but he had never thought of it as his calling. He thought he’d stay until the end of winter, “then get back into my profession.”
Instead, he stayed a couple more years in Vail. “I was doing construction in the summer and ski rental in the winter and watercolors of landscapes 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 recalled. “Everything I brought in they’d sell.”
Construction work waned in Vail, but there were employment opportunities in Aspen. Toly found a maintenance job at a building by what is now the Gondola Plaza and lived in a little A-frame (long gone) across the street. He worked half a day and skied half a day, smiling, “It was perfect; a great time 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 sort of knew that I would [make painting work].” He added, “I had three or four one-man shows [at Aspen’s Gargoyle Gallery] about a year apart. They were all sellouts.”
Move 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 comprised his final show at the Gargoyle, but by autumn he was ready to leave.
An acquaintance in Crystal helped him get in touch with Wally Debeque, owner of the Dinkel Building at the time, and he took an apartment along 4th Street. He lived there more than 30 years, tending the building’s old coal-fired boiler and even hosting an early morning radio show on the infant KDNK. He also staged some shows of his art in the apartment.
In 1990, he bought the house on Sopris Avenue, which originally had been a church, but by then was owned by the Thompson family. Renovating it took seven years, but in the end he had a magnificent, bright and lofty space which he has filled with his artwork and plants.
Toly hit a rough patch with his art. “There’s a big gap from the Dinkel Building, having no shows and I couldn’t sell paintings. I stopped painting for about 15 years.” He did a series of jobs, including being a maintenance man at the brand-new Town Hall.
“Gradually I got back to painting again, little by little.” He noted, “This is the first showing of my work for a long, long time,” adding that nearly all of the paintings were done “in the last five years.”
With a total of 36 works, it will be his largest show. “The other shows usually had about 20 pieces, but this one has a lot of small ones to make that number big,” he explained. An oil painting of Mount Sopris titled “Ancient Mountain Heart” — believed to be the translation of the Ute name for the mountain and only one of two oils in the show — “is about as big as they get.”
Nearly all of the works in the show (33) are watercolor landscapes. The greatest number of them are of his favorite subject: Sopris, in its many moods and colors, and what he described as its “mysterious spiritual quality.” A single acrylic is of the 2008 Mountain Fair and is the only one to depict figures. “I’m not good at people,” he admitted.
Toly is an avid (and talented) photographer. He snaps shots wherever he is “around here.” Over time, using the photographs, a subject evolves. “I’m looking for mood and a sense of place” that will make a good painting.
As for technique, he prefers Asian-style brushes. “They don’t hold a fine point … but give you more of a random brush stroke rather than a nice perfectly shaped point. When you put it down you get this perfect pyramid of a point stroke on the paper.”
Toly has named the show “Our Place,” which, viewing the works, it certainly is. There will be a reception at the Launchpad from 6 to 8 pm on April 15. The exhibition will remain up until May 20.