By Janet Jarrell/Quinte Arts Council
Robert Tokley was born in Bannockburn, Ont. in the back seat of his parents’ Pontiac. As a toddler, he put that same car into gear, fell out of it and ran over himself. His childhood growing up in the small old mining town of Madoc, Ont., is riddled with adventures, accidents and near death mishaps that are almost unbelievable – until you talk to his mother. Every time Tokley found himself recuperating, he turned to art; his recovery time was spent drawing and painting.
Tokley can tell you about his many adventures, and from each one of them come new excitement, inspiration and a renewed desire to create. After high school, his adventures led him west to Alberta where he spent time working in the oil fields. “While working in the oil sands, I entered a logo contest for the company I was working for and took second place, ultimately changing my views on my ability to convey and express my talent in art,” says Tokley.
Then he was injured on the job. He found himself out of work, out of money and homeless, living out of his car and subject to the violence, drugs and alcohol that accompanies life on the streets. “I got back into art, donating a painting of an Adirondack chair for a charity auction. Then a 12′x12′ mural for a non-profit organization who provided housing and support for men with addictions,” says Tokley. Eventually he headed home to Ontario, and spent his recovery time painting.
Art was not only therapy for Tokley, it was also an affirmation. With no formal training, this self-taught artist was quickly well received. His exposure to the landscapes of small, historic towns nestled amidst rolling hills from Ontario to the mountains and rugged terrain of Alberta bring a natural element to his canvas – and like the great Canadian landscape that changes with the seasons, he believes his art, too, is a living, breathing, and changing thing.
Tokley’s work is influenced by the Canadian Group of Seven artist Tom Thomson and more recently the Scottish contemporary artist Peter Doig. Not unlike his influencers, Tokley paints wild Canadian landscapes with a brave, abstract and reckless edge. He is bold, pushes boundaries and is not afraid to create his own unique process. He began by thinning his oil paint in individual cups and pouring the liquid onto a flat laying canvas. The thinned oils dry quickly trapping paint in pockets for texture, he then uses the brush for the details. Change for an artist can be risky, says Tokley, but it is also very satisfying. He notes, “being self-taught is a gift in a sense that I am not held down by any specific notions or ideas of how I should be creating.”
Tokley’s work is gaining the attention of art collectors both local and famous. He enjoys “painting pictures for folks who have been influential in one way or another.” His work hangs in restaurants, businesses and private collections. Kevin Hearn, of the Barenaked Ladies, commissioned a scene from his cottage and Tokley is currently completing a painting for Chris Jerricho of World Wrestling Entertainment fame.
He balances his compositions between reality and fantasy, with an intensity that draws you right into the painting. Robert is known to play his favourite rock music while he works, often writing the titles of the songs he was inspired by on the back of the canvas. There is no denying that he layers passion into each piece.
Tokley’s work is currently on display at Export Grill in downtown Belleville.
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Umbrella magazine, delivered to QAC members’ mailboxes shortly. This limited edition will also be available in select locations.