her sculptural enamel paintings, which all but explode off the brick
walls at Palms Bistro Bar in Milwaukeeís Third Ward, Phyllis Toburen
is always evolving. Her drive to break through to whatís next in her
creative life invigorates her work with a spirit of transformation.
want to do anything that isnít honest, spontaneous; it mirrors who I
am," Toburen says. "I donít want to do anything thatís
been done before."
Her pursuit of
the original has driven Toburenís career, both as a fashion designer
and now as an internationally acclaimed artist.
She never took
an art class in high school, and studied history at UW-Milwaukee in
the late 1960s. Although she loves history, she says the urge to
express herself creatively led her to go on to study fiber arts.
to follow your gift. You donít have a choice if you want to be
happy," she says.
Toburen was just
two credits short of a degree at Mount Mary College when she packed up
her original knitwear in a bag, headed to Chicago and sold her first
work. She started out doing trunk shows in Milwaukee and built up her
business until she had a following and, at one point, 35 employees.
Her last show
was at the home of country music stars Waylon Jennings and Jessi
Colter in Nashville, at Colterís invitation. Colter had been a fan
of Toburenís work since the mid-1980s, when she saw a photo of a
dress worn by WISN-TV personality Liz Ayers at the re-opening of the
Riverside Theater. The red dress, created by Toburen, was embellished
with 10,000 pearls.
She modified the
dress for Colter, who wore it at the first Farm Aid concert. Later,
Toburen sold an original design to country legend June Carter Cash as
occasionally painted on the fabrics she used in her fashion designs,
Toburen says, she didnít take her first painting class until 1995,
when she enrolled in a course at Milwaukeeís War Memorial.
paintings were of faces, which I thought was the hardest thing in the
world to do," she says.
One of those
faces was her own, but she didnít realize it until her instructor
pointed out the resemblance. That self-portrait was reproduced on the
back cover of "New Art International," distributed worldwide
by Barnes & Noble, along with 10 pages of her work featured in the
interior of the publication.
considers her second painting instructor, Kyle Zubatsky of the Tall
Tree Gallery in Thiensville, to be her mentor. When Toburen began
throwing paint at a canvas in Zubatskyís class, Zubatsky introduced
her to the other students as an "abstract expressionist."
transitioned from a fiber artist, my first paintings had fiber under
them," Toburen says. "Then they started cracking. They were
very organic, and from that they started rising on their own to become
rising," as Toburen calls it, is what makes her pieces unique. At
her home studio in Mequon, she begins by choosing the classic rock
music that she considers intimately connected to her process. The next
step is mixing her own pigments, which can take up to 12 hours. There
is no preconceived idea of the final piece, she says. "The music
is my muse. I just work with the music and let it flow." Her
process requires the application of layer upon layer of acrylics.
pieces take four to six months to cure, and sometimes they take three
to four years before I get them to what I feel to be right, because Iím
a perfectionist," she says.
When she is
satisfied that the painting has balance and can be appreciated from
every angle, she applies a clear UV coating. That final step makes the
painting begin to crack and take on a life of its own. Sometimes, the
center of the work rises up like a flower unfolding its petals, or the
cracking produces organic forms that resemble creatures from the sea,
or ancient tooled leather. The coating protects the paintings from
damage, and can make them look like ceramic tile or glass. She says
the paintings will continue to crack and change slowly as they age,
constantly revealing the layers underneath.
the process, and debuted the work at a 2004 Gallery Night in a Third
Ward space she had found just three weeks prior to the event.
At one point in
the evening, Toburen experienced a bit of dťjŗ vu. She says she
realized she was just steps away from what now is the Milwaukee Public
Market. At one time, the market had been the site of her grandfatherís
business. Both of her grandfathers, she says, had thriving
distribution companies that began decades ago in the Third Ward.
Since that 2004
debut, Toburenís work has been sought out by serious collectors and
honored at juried shows and in art publications globally. She recently
was accepted into the prestigious National Association of Women
Artists, which counts Mary Cassatt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and
Judy Chicago among its inductees.
latest project is producing close-up photographs of her paintings,
which reveal even more dimension to the work.
always trying to do something different and thatís very, very
important to me," Toburen says. "I want my art to be
something different for everybody, because you want (viewers) to
access their own personal experiences, and I want there to be a lot of
space for somebody to interpret it."