Tip Toland is a widely respected (and widely collected) ceramic sculptor who creates life-sized or larger portraits, many with some autobiographical elements. She is drawn to the uniqueness of human personality and expression. Her work draws you into a world quite unlike that of most creative artists.
I’m strongly reminded of Roman Republican period marble busts when I look at Tip’s work, particularly her portrait busts. During that earlier era, sculptors represented men of the period in an “uncompromisingly realistic manner that accentuated their individual features and the effects of age” (as a placard beside this 1st century B.C.E. Roman head of a man in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection states).
Similarly, Tip’s subjects resonate with uncompromising realism – not just in facial or anatomical features, but down to the quality of their skin. You see Tip’s subjects as people, as individuals who have lived and suffered and withstood all that life has thrown at them. And the wrinkles, moles, signs of aging are testament to their human beauty.
JW: I detect a strong interest on your part in portraying people with unique physical and mental characteristics. Are you interested in this because the subject matter is challenging to replicate – or are you making statements about which physical or mental characteristics are worthy of capturing in artistic expression? Or is there something else driving you toward sculpting the types of people you portray?
TT: I ‘m interested in peculiar faces… which have history embedded in them. People from the margins often. These are the folks I can identify with.
JW: How much of your work is autobiographical?
TT: I’d say 90% of the work I make is autobiographical. A lot are direct self portraits. But I choose characters which most can portray an aspect of myself.
JW: Your subject matter also seems designed to evoke strong emotional responses from viewers. I heard you say you don’t (or rarely) start out intending to shock or make viewers uncomfortable. But clearly there’s a theme of producing work that does trigger some discomfort. Why do you think that’s such a persistent element of your sculptural work?
TT: I have heard this too from multiple sources. Yet I honestly don’t try to make off-putting work. However I do want to confront the viewer to see the humanity in all of the characters and don’t try to pretty it up.
JW: You talk about your sculptures as if they have individual personalities – even individual characters – that speak to you as you’re working on them. Can you tell me how influential those “personalities” are in defining the ultimate look of your sculpture?
TT: When I work on my figures, even tho I have a strong idea of who they are and what they mean to me before starting, they often morph into more and more their own characters during the time it takes to bring them about.
Many of their characteristics are not finalized before starting out, like: the hair style and color, eye color, complexion, clothing etc. Those decisions can change a lot and often come from the characters themselves as they develop. “Wallflower” let me know in no uncertain terms that she was not going to wear green shoes…
JW: Do you work from live models?
TT: I almost always use live models and also photos from those models. On occasion I can only find photographs to work with, so I have to fill in information which is missing.
JW: Where do you find inspiration? Do you sketch out your work or do a lot of preparation for each piece?
TT: I used to draw extensively. Then they became thumb nail sketches now I just sometimes write down the image which can come from Meditating or day dreaming.
JW: Is the video on your website (Sculpting a Clay Head) typical of your creative process?
TT: The video of Sculpting a head in Clay is a very step by step way of working. which is how I work. I know the process so it doesn’t take me so long at least initially. When I work from a model the time comes in when I really need to get a likeness. Then the process slows way down to miniscule changes which can take what seems like forever.
For those seeking a more in depth video of Tip’s work, I highly recommend the following piece entitled “Empathy in Clay.”
More examples of Tip’s work are also posted on her website.