Toby Lunn. Photography by Barry Williams.
I first met Toby Lunn at the Bahamas International Film Festival (BIFF) lounge while in search of press passes for the 9th annual Bahamas International Film Festival. We were both waiting and we got into a casual conversation. He spoke of art and artists in the Bahamas and how it was so difficult for them to survive. He also mentioned that he had tried something different this year and had done a short film to bring awareness of the plight of the artist; a film that he had submitted to BIFF. I later contacted him on facebook, sending him a note that I wanted to interview him for a feature in the upcoming issue of the. A few days later, I was sitting in Galleria Theatre waiting for the premiere of “Brigidy Bram”. I had not anticipated such a film. It was informative, but, as I watched the story unfold, it seemed to cut deep into my emotions.
After the film festival wrapped up in Nassau, Toby took off to Eleuthera on ‘the Eleuthera Tour and Events’. We didn’t catch up until almost two weeks later. We met at his home studio on the heel of his 20/20 showing at Popop Studios. Toby talked about his art, his struggles and his life and I got to see the man and the artist expressing pure emotion.
Toby’s path to becoming an Abstract Artist
“If you say to someone I’m an artist, you had better be ready to deal with whatever. They ask you, ‘Why are you wasting money? Why are you wasting your education. Why don’t you become a doctor like your dad?’ Like becoming an artist is like…a bad thing. I don’t think it’s even a choice.”
Toby started studying painting at the College of the Bahamas (COB) in 1989 and says he was ‘temperamental’. “At COB I was introduced to art through Stan Burnside. Stan Burnside (my first art teacher) gave me some advice, ‘As you mature, you learn how to control that (temperament) somewhat. You learn how to channel it, when to step back, when to push forward. I think that is the lifelong journey’.
Meeting Stan Burnside at COB showed me that you could be sophisticated and make a mark. So after COB, I went to the Maryland Institute of College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland for three years. I graduated in 1994 with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in painting. That was an eye opener too, because America is very different from the Bahamas. Just the race relations, the climate was so different. It was such a shock; it was a culture shock to me. You know Baltimore is a hard place. For me it was like these guys in the USA have a whole other set of issues. The reason why I bring race into it is because I come from a mix race family. I look like a white boy, so in the Bahamas my friend tells me ‘I look like a white boy with a tan (laughter)’.
Nu Woman: When did you get into abstract art?
Toby: At COB I did a lot of portraiture with Stan because I was emulating him.He is a very spiritual man (a lot of commentary in his very mythical figures), but by the time I got to art school (I was like 22/23), I just had to let go of something. So around 23/24, I had a shift. I was exposed to the abstract expressionist. I just like the way they approach image making. Wow! The content, it’s almost like the rhythm of the painting became the content, not so much the figure in the painting. The elements of the painting became the subject matter. It’s real simple.
NW: How has that been for you? How has your art been received? Do you believe that you are taken seriously as an artist, your work?
Toby: Yes and no meaning those who are in the art world (i.e. painters themselves or even collectors, the people who are informed) respect and appreciate, but the masses…..
Artist at home. Photo by Barry Williams.
On BIFF and ‘Brigidy Bram’
NW: So tell me about your experience at BIFF?
Toby: I love films especially independent films. So the film festival to me is like an outlet into the independent world of cinema. To me film is where you want to reach a lot of people. Film is the medium to do that.
Toby talked about where the idea first sparked to combine artist and film in his head.
“What happen is that I saw a short film about an artist, about 7 years ago. I won’t mention the name, but it was very DULL. I was like wow! That’s a very boring way to portray an artist. And so I kept this idea to get involved in something to do with art and film and every year I participated in the film festival as much as I could.
How the film developed
I love those ‘Indie films’ especially the sad ones (giggles). Yeah, I love films with emotion and then last year, I met a girl who was a filmmaker, who had done an excellent film about these artists in South Africa and she was really cute… She is a really, really strong artist/filmmaker herself. So we did this film with Kendal Hanna who is an old Bahamian artist and another one of my mentors.
Kendal Hanna is 76 and he has been an abstract expressionist painter, long before people started looking at him. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, had shock treatment to the brain, and had a major bout with alcoholism and self-medication. Kendal and I are pretty good friends and actually collaborated and did a show together in 2009. That was an interesting synergy because he is 35 years older than me, but we just have a language that we both can understand. It’s challenging working with other people, but we pulled it off. Anyway, when I linked up with this filmmaker; I think we just pitched it to each other to do a film on Kendal Hanna, and she was like let’s do it!
So we were in the trench, we were dating at the time so that made it very involved. I think it was a really honest, heartfelt portrayal of Kendal Hanna. ‘Brigidy Bram’ premiered this year at BIFF. ‘Brigidy Bram’ is one of Kendal’s statements. We call it ‘Kendalism’. We are still trying to get finishing funds to make it into a feature film.
NW: What was it like working with Kendal?
Toby: Kendal went through some periods where he was in the doldrums. Working with Kendal was challenging, like me he is an abstract artist and has his own way of expressing. He does not compromise and that’s where he and I connected; but at the same time I’d show up to the studio with him and I’d say, ‘Kendal you ready to work’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ and then he wouldn’t be ready and then the next day, I would do the same thing. It’s hard to explain that from an academic, textbook point of view. It’s like how do you get things done? Basically, the creative process does not stop. I can’t work 9 to 5 because my brain does not work that way, I work in bursts! I could get up 1a.m. and work for 3 hours or work for 4 weeks straight where you don’t see me and then I take a break.
Artist in home studio. Photo. Barry Williams.
NW: How did the film do in the line-up of films at BIFF?
Toby: I was elated for myself, Kendal and Laura Gamse (she is also the co-director) to have this film be in the Bahamas International Film Festival, as we got an honourable mention. We basically got beat out by this big budget independent film.
‘Brigidy Bram’ is heart… Jackson Burnside says, “You can learn about technique, design, structure… All of these sorts of formal elements, but you can’t really teach ‘heart’.”
NW: What did you take away from the film festival experience?
Toby: (1). How collarborating on a film is very different than being in a studio, it’s a collective effort. For me it was an amazing experience because I learnt so much… in watching other films, and about how we inform each other.
(2.) Learning what I can do better in making ‘Brigidy Bram’. Again I respond to the films with heart. I hear some of the other filmmakers talking about all this technical facts and I just let it go. There is an educator Ken Robinson and he is talking about how school kills creativity. He is saying that school can squander creativity out of children. I’m not saying it does do it, I’m saying that it can do it .What if a kid comes in and says I want to do this purple drawing? And they say no you can’t do it because of so and so. How do you discover anything new if you are constantly being told you are wrong?
Abstract painting by Toby Lunn. Photo. Barry Williams.
NW: What have you learnt from the whole filmmaking experience?
Toby: I’ve learnt that the creative process can transcend mediums. I considered myself a painter, and now I realize if you are going to categorize it, I’m a filmmaker now, although it was a totally collaborative effort, as I could not have done it without Laura Gamse.
I’m learning that I also love people, and I love learning from people. I’m learning to not even put parameters on what I think is creative. Particulary in the Bahamas where some think that if you paint sailboats, you should continue to paint sailboats, so people would know who you are…
I went to a show in Washington, D.C and saw some Picasso drawings. I think that Picasso is one of the hardest artists of all times, just raw emotion and skill. You see some of his early drawings and you can’t believe some of these rendings. If I look at the history of art then I understand a lot of these guys experimented with all kinds of forms. They never said… ‘Oh I paint boats I can’t deviate’… I understand in some ways it’s a marketing strategy, like building a brand, my hat off to you if you can build yourself only by building red squares.
On his show 20/20 at Popopstudios
Toby describes the show as conversation over a 20 year period between John Cox and himself.
“It was basically 20 years ago when John Cox and I did our first show. We did our first show in 1992 at the now non-existent Bahamian Art Gallery off Bay Street. And you will see in the 20/20 showing I showed some of the earlier works that I did in 1992. John and I are different beasts, different characters; I thrive on emotion. I wish it was not that way because sometimes it’s to my detriment, but I’m learning.
Even now I’m in the process of hanging this show with John Cox, I’m still on edge. I’m like ‘Oh, my God’… You just have to take it. Not only do you spend hours, days, weeks, months even years in the studio, but you put the work up and then you have to deal. It’s almost like you are a gladiator in the Coliseum, and you are in the ring, and then you are ready, and then the crowds come in and then the fight begins!
Lunn in home studio. Photo. Barry Williams.
*Life is a gladiator sport. You have to condition your body, mind and spirit on a daily basis.*
On the internet and technology and how it changed the ‘game’
The internet and technology totally changed the game. I’m fully endorsing technology, it’s a language that we cannot do without today, it’s now a part of our language. Within minutes I can look anything up, and have a document, visual or in depth knowledge of it. However, it can also be a hindrance, there are so many apps, what do I do with them all? Sometimes I feel like an idiot because I don’t have the newest software… That sh*# cost money….. A great tool, but if you get a camera today, the way that advertising works, by the time I figure out how to use it, it’s kind of outdated. “Technology is to be used, but it’s not to replace being human.” It’s funny because it sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but I love all languages.
About getting older
Someone said that I have that luxury of working on my own time. For now I do, but I’m forty and I’m suffering for it. I’ll be honest with you, as of next year, God’s willing, I’m looking to balance it even more because I liked having a day job. When I worked with Jackson and Pam Burnside I liked that structure, because having too much time can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse.
What he has learnt.
All my life informs my art.
**Growing up I was not comfortable in my skin at all. I always wanted to be other. As I travelled and as I got older, I became more comfortable in my skin, and just wanted to be myself. So people ask me now, who are you?
I am a human being and I mix with all.
What I’m learning. I am not an exception. I am just a human being. You meet other people, who you can totally relate to, and then I start to realize that I’m not different, that’s very comforting. I find that by being open you get to the nitty-gritty right away instead of ‘sugar-coating’ and you see who understands and who doesn’t, because a lot of people are in the dark when it comes to other people.
The reason why I mentioned all of that is because all of that informs my art. I’m starting to value my work now; before that, I was like ‘No I’m not worthy’. Where does that come from? I’m not worthy. It bugs me that anyone thinks that. Even when I think about it in spiritual terms, like I’m not worthy to receive thee. Well who the hell is? Why am I letting that person say that, or that doctrine? Who wrote that doctrine?
There are so many artists that are way better than me. It’s not being the greatest; it’s being true to your profession.
I believe in the soul’s journey and it’s not up to us
I read this book this summer, “What is an angel doing here?” It talks about a spiritual journey. What we have experienced in dealing with loss. I had a friend (Felix) of mix race from Montreal who killed himself, he couldn’t cope, he said ”man I don’t know where I fit”. He was 35. That book though, it talks about when you are going through something, that there are always angels around. But more importantly, I celebrate for my ancestors; for all that I have, and have been given. I used to be like man I am leaving Nassau, I am going to blend right in, and now I don’t feel that, I feel as if I want to be a part of this mix, to fight the fight. You ready? You sure you want to fight me? You ready? You might win, but boy I gonna gouge you with lyrics and love!
We went off on a bit of a tangent talking about some personal experiences, and again Toby was quite open. He spoke about a recent relationship that had ended, but talked about the fact that they remained friends and that it was difficult for him to deal because there were still so much emotion involved. “I am not a mean person, even though I may be hurt, I won’t deliberately try to hurt you, it’s a spiritual thing. It’s like creating more negative Karma. The reason why I talk so much about these personal experiences is because all of it informs my art”.
©2013 Nu Woman Magazine. All rights reserved.
This article was published in Nu Woman’s January 2013 issue.