Thresholds and borderlines

Above: a detail from “Through Dangers Untold” by Jocelyn Toffic

Jocelyn Toffic’s art takes her from the Seacoast to Iceland and beyond
by Dylan Metrano

Dover’s Jocelyn Toffic comes from a family of artists. Her striking, imaginative work has recently been seen at Buoy Gallery in Kittery, Maine, and the Gallery at 100 Market in Portsmouth. For the past five years, she’s co-curated the annual aRtPM Challenge group exhibition at Buoy (which is still on display), which showcases hundreds of art pieces created each February. Equally adept at painting, drawing, and mixed media, Toffic is one of the Seacoast’s more prolific artists. She’s traveled to Iceland twice in the last year for intense artist residencies, the first of which yielded a staggering 476 works on paper in one month. Some of that work is currently on display at Block 6, the restaurant at 3S Artspace. We talked with Toffic about the Seacoast’s artistic past, present, and future, as well as her time in Iceland.

Why do you paint?
I paint because I feel better having done it. When I was 18 or so I worked as an artist assistant for Scott Davis in Waldoboro, Maine, which mostly meant I was just hanging out in his studio, smoking his cigarettes and drinking his coffee and listening to his stories. I think I cut some plywood crows once. He paid me $15 an hour and, to this day, I’m not sure if it was because he felt bad for me (I was borderline homeless at the time) or if he just wanted the company. He had moved to Maine from New York City many years before, and on some level, I think we both felt like refugees of a sort. He told me he stopped making art for a period of time once, and it made him physically ill. I remember thinking, “God, I’ll never be a real artist because I’m just not that tortured by it.” But in simpler terms, I know what he’s talking about now. Everything in my life, including myself, becomes a little more unmanageable if I’m not making art.

What initially inspired you to begin painting?
I grew up in a creative home. My mother was a painter, although her undergrad (degree) … is in ceramics. And her sister and father both went to Parsons. Being creative was highly encouraged, and I don’t think I ever really considered anything else.

How do you feel while creating art? Do you get frustrated? Is it easy?
Different mediums draw different emotional responses for me. Drawing, for example, is like taking a nice leisurely walk. It’s always lovely, it’s always redeemable. Painting is not like that. Painting is like wrestling with a wild boar. Sometimes you’re on top, and sometimes you get slaughtered. It can be very frustrating. Sometimes I cry.

What was the impetus behind creating the aRtPM Challenge?
The aRtPM Challenge was started as a direct response to the RPM Challenge (to record an album in the month of February). I just felt left out, and Al Mead has a gallery, and no one stopped us.

How has it evolved over time?
The challenge itself has evolved very little over time. I think the first year we started with four pieces in the month of February, and we cut it down to one. The idea being that (artists) will bring us one good piece instead of four mediocre pieces. It’s worked out great, and I love seeing people’s progress over the years. Many participants come back every year.

Where would you like it to go from here?
Al and I have this so streamlined at this point, there really is nothing more I wish for the challenge. It’s perfect as is.

Tell me about your studio/work space. Do you have a regular creative routine? What is your process like?
My studio is in my house. No, I do not have a creative routine. Sometimes I wish I did. I feel vaguely guilty a lot of the time, but then I remember what Winslow Homer said about his routine. He said he never sat down to paint unless it felt right. He could go weeks, months even, without picking up a paintbrush. Yes, I use Winslow Homer to justify my bad behaviors. But then I think of Henry Miller and how diligent that guy was, in spite of his lice and prostitutes and drinking problems. I spend whole days going back and forth like this instead of painting. It’s ridiculous.

Do you listen to music or podcasts while you create? If so, how does that inform the work?
I listen to music when I remember to put it on. I think it does help productivity, but I usually just put it on my Pandora station, which is Shakira. Although, one time, for the aRtPM Challenge actually, I was painting this huge 7-by-9-foot piece that was very sort of sad. It’s called “The Flight of Sorrows,” but I just listened to the “Deadwood” soundtrack on repeat for the whole month of February. I find the sound of Ian McShane swearing to be really soothing. Plus it’s the best show ever put on television (“Breaking Bad” is for idiots).

Do you feel like you are a part of an artistic community on the Seacoast?
I wish I felt like a part of an artistic community here on the Seacoast. Honestly I don’t. I grew up in Portsmouth. My mother had a studio in the Button Factory when I was a child. I remember I could stick my fingers between the brown gook between the floorboards and pull out actual buttons, the kind from antique ladies’ boots. I think she had a community of artists. But the Button Factory is different now. It’s really expensive, for one. And there is a serious deficit of young artists over there. I can name one. I’m even too old now, but great artistic communities are driven by the passion of the young, and should be tempered a bit with a few old timers. I feel like that building is occupied with a lot of people who have been there too long doing next to nothing, or nothing interesting. With precious few exceptions, it’s mostly mediocre art made by rich lawyers’ wives to sell to rich lawyers’ wives. Portsmouth, in general, gives me a dull ache in the chest. All of its magic is gone, all of its genuine beauty has been repaved and repainted, all of its genuine people, the kids, the artists, the homeless, are gone. It’s like the reverse of that ’60s French film, “The King of Hearts.” It’s very sad. I live in Dover now. It has less glamour, but at least it’s genuine.

In what directions would you like to see the community go?
The Rollinsford mills have a bit more complexity to them. I’d like to see their studio prices come way down and just fill every available studio there with all the young artists and musicians, and some really great experienced artists (which they already have several of). I think that’s the key to building a viable community. Lately I’ve been very curious about Maine; I suspect Biddeford is the future. Engine is a fantastic gallery that’s doing everything right, and I’m really excited to see what happens there. I recently joined the Autus Collective based out of Biddeford. It was started by four really talented young women, and I’m thrilled to be working with them. They are all really passionate and exuberant, and it’s such a breath of fresh air.

Which contemporary artists do you most admire, or who inspires you now?
Right now, I’m painting a lot of fat naked people. I just love the shape of them. I have a 16-piece grid of “Fatties” hanging at Block 6, the restaurant at 3S Artspace, right now. So I’ve been looking at a lot of Jenny Saville; she walks that line between beautiful and grotesque so masterfully. I’ve always been in awe of her.

How is it that you’ve found yourself painting in Iceland twice now?
I remember standing outside the Press Room one night, years ago now, talking to Rose Umerlik. She had just gotten back from an artist residency and she told me I should definitely start doing them. I remember saying, “I can’t, I have a kid.” I’ve been lucky in my life that this is one of only very, very few moments where I have felt limited by my single motherhood. It’s a shitty, shitty feeling, and this, if we’re going to get to the core of my existence, is really what informs most of my actions. I am just trying to have a nice life that I like, and that accommodates well and is never limited by my child. Not because I don’t want to feel limited, but because I don’t want her to feel like she ever limited me. Single mothers often believe they can’t do things, simply because it hasn’t been done before in their immediate experience. My mother’s generation was the first to actually be divorced single mothers, and I think that generation really struggled, and really suffered, because it was all new. Every day was just hand-to-mouth survival. My mother drove a truck for 15 years because they gave her and me and my brother health insurance. She hated it. But she was a trailblazer. And now my generation can build on her experience and improve it. So I started researching residencies, and learned it was really only the U.S. residencies that prohibited children. Everywhere else in the world welcomes them.
I chose Iceland because I’ve always wanted to go there. I generally prefer solitude and Iceland has a very solitary landscape, and I love winter, and I love the challenge to my internal fortitude being on what feels like the threshold of another world that just drops off into nothing. Or everything.
It will always be terrifying on some level, picking up and going to do a residency in foreign country for a month with a child and two suitcases full of art supplies. Maybe my job will be there when I get home, and maybe not. But the benefits will always far outweigh the risks. My advice to young artists is: learn to wait tables, learn to bartend. You lose one of those jobs, who gives a shit? You can always just go get another one. As cliché’ as it is, I think it’s more important to do the things you love — then everything falls into place. And even if it doesn’t, you’re still doing the things you love.

What was that experience like? How did Iceland affect your practices and your artwork? You’ve been extremely prolific during your residencies. How did you manage to make so much work?
My first residency in Iceland was on the Eastern Fjörds at HEIMA. It was an amazing experience and I went with the intent of proliferation above all else. I did 476 works on paper in one month. It was constant diligence, something I struggle with. It was an exercise that I hoped would teach me to be motivated daily. It didn’t work; I am inherently and, possibly, incurably lazy, but it was still a beautiful experience and one my daughter will never forget. I mean there were seals living in the fjord right outside our window for crying out loud. Blizzards for days. It was insane. And there was a pizza shop down the street in Dieter Roth’s old house.
My second residency was at Hafnarborg Museum in Hafnarfjördur, just outside of Reykjavik. It was much more urban and I didn’t really like being away from the nature of Iceland as much. But it was still a wonderful experience. I was and am continuing to expand on a piece I did in 2010 for the aRtPM Challenge. The name of it keeps changing; right now I’m calling it ‘Through Dangers Untold.” It’s a 4 foot by 7 foot-high piece with a lot going on, including an octopus battling a unicorn. It wasn’t intentional at the time, but the piece has a very narrative tapestry like feel that ties in beautifully with elements of Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas. This series will take me through the next two years or so. I hope to return to the Eastern Fjords next summer to complete it.
On my last visit to Iceland I was honored to have one of my tiny penis pieces from “The Collector” series added to the permanent collection of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is a pretty amazing museum that is like Dover’s Woodman Institute (but for) animal dicks.

Are you pursuing any other future residency opportunities? Where in the world would you like to go to paint, given the opportunity?
I’m hoping to go back to Iceland at least once more, but then maybe I’ll go someplace warm, like Thailand.

What do you like about showing your work in nontraditional places? What is the ideal setting for your work?
I love showing work in nontraditional places. I resent the reality that fine art is for rich people. It’s a source of near constant annoyance at the art industry as a whole. I love showing at Adelle’s (Coffeehouse in Dover) and The Press Room (in Portsmouth). Art should be for the working classes as well. My grandfather recently died, and he has this great 4-by-4-foot piece called “The Rank and File.” It’s among his very best and is certainly the most emotional. No one wants it in their house, though, because it’s too intense. It’s very dark, yellow, ochres, and oranges and it’s just a bunch of angry faces yelling. It’s about some labor strike in New York City in the ’60s. It’s not pretty, but it is saying important things, and it’s saying them to the working class.

What’s next?
I don’t really know what’s next. Right now I’m stuck in Ukranian Egg Decorating Hell. Easter was two days ago, and my kitchen is still occupied by this. They’ll be cool when they’re done, but it’s an insanely time-consuming process that involves candles and beeswax and incantations. It’s nuts.
After that I should probably finish up this fat naked people project. It’s kind of turned into a color study, now that I’ve gotten the form down. This series will be almost like Escher tessellations, but with fat women. I’m hoping Amelia will show them at Folk Gallery (in Kittery, Maine), but I haven’t asked her yet.
Then I have a backlog of ideas. I really like the idea of submitting a ton of outrageously impossible show proposals to 3S, then have them all rejected, then have a show of all my rejected proposals. Don’t tell (3S founder Chris) Greiner.
I also want to do a series of paintings called “In My Grandfather’s House,” of my daughter and other family members in his house with his paintings in the background, kind of (David) Hockney style. My grandmother just died as well. Our family history is fairly complicated on that side, so this would be a farewell, and also a purging of old ghosts. Then, ideally, I would show my series with his paintings. He was a very talented man, but like my mother, put that aside to care for his family. He was a graphic designer, so he did have a certain life in art, but it was still a sacrifice.
I also want to make a graphic novel with a young, single-mother superhero modeled on my 24-year-old friend Emma, who has two adorable Mexican babies, and is tough as nails.
But, sometimes, I want to open a breakfast restaurant and stop making art for a while. Or just become an accountant. I love simple math and columns that add up and are either right or wrong. Those columns wouldn’t talk back, they wouldn’t tell me I’m a genius one second and in the next breath tell me I am a complete idiot. Sounds nice. Sometimes.

Jocelyn-Toffic-I-Hope-It-Will-Be-Wara detail from "I Hope It Will Be War" by Jocelyn Toffic