Artist Toby Davis took this year to explore new styles and reinvent his oil paintings
Chaos. That’s the word artist Toby Davis uses to describe this year. Particularly, the spring, when COVID-19 hit, canceling his art shows and drying up sales.
But the Boise-based artist took the time brought about by quarantine to rethink his style of art. For years, he’s created oil paintings that all have a similar style. Vibrant paintings of city blocks in New York City, Seattle, Chicago, or his home town of Boise. Or beautiful landscapes of Idaho’s mountains and lakes, or wherever he’s traveled lately.
This year gave him time to expand the boundaries of his work, to more abstract pieces. Works that he calls, “Beautiful Chaos,” a name that fits the challenges and changes in perspective that this year has brought for so many people.
It’s “a celebration of the unpredictable and unexpected,” Davis says. “The human brain is always trying to predict the future. We plan ahead and think we know what we’ll be doing tomorrow and the next day. We like things that make sense and fit into our future expectations. But nature does not always align with our plans, and the world’s unexpected surprises sometime create the beautiful aspects of life.”
We had a chance to catch up with Davis to hear more about what’s inspiring his work these days, and how he got his start as an artist.
Artistic Fuel: What are your earliest memories of creating art?
As a kid, I remember all the usual things, doodling on notebook paper, coloring books, paint by number, etc. Art projects were always enjoyed. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I painted my first oil painting. I still have it. It’s a little 11×14 landscape of a photo I took while hiking in an Oregon forest. I was working in an all-consuming job and decided I needed some hobby for a diversion. I bought a little kit in a hobby store and just figured it out. It took me about three years to paint it. I would just paint in a little square at a time, when I had time to do it.
A|F: When did you realize that you had a knack for it?
Over time, I would occasionally enter my paintings into amateur competitions (usually local or state fairs) and they were almost always well received. I think once you find something you really enjoy doing and get positive feedback for doing, you’re almost always going to be hooked to keep doing it. Eventually, I went back to school and earned a degree in fine art at Boise State University.
A|F:Where do you most find inspiration for your work?
A lot of my work has been painting cityscapes, and some landscapes, and I find inspiration everywhere. I love architecture, culture, and nature. — I think you can find something beautiful in almost every location if you stop and take it in. I like to just hit the city with my camera and just start taking photos of anything and everything I find beautiful or interesting.
A|F: Your ‘Beautiful Chaos’ oil paintings are different than any of your previous work. What prompted the change?
Well, I’ve wanted to explore some other things for a while, but just didn’t have time. Last year, I had a show or event just about every other month. When you apply to be a part of a show, you have to send in past work, and if you get selected, that’s the type of work they’re expecting — so you make more. It gets to be a little like a hamster wheel. And if you’re doing this for a living and you’re getting sales, it gets hard to just stop and risk doing something completely different.
When the pandemic hit, all the events were eventually cancelled, and sales have significantly dropped. And frankly, I needed something completely new to stay inspired and energized. April was rough, and my usual painting mostly just stopped as everything turned to chaos.
I often like to compare selling art to fishing. When you fish for a living, and the fishing dries up, you can’t solve your problem by rowing into shore and waiting. You have to change up your techniques, and keep rowing further out to find the fish, and that’s basically what I’m doing.
“Beautiful Chaos” will be on exhibit at Capital Contemporary Gallery in Boise through September. Keep up with Toby Davis — and buy his work — at tobydavisart.com or in his Etsy store.
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.