Exploring the Gray Area

Providence artist Toby Sisson discusses James Baldwin, painting as language, and the alchemy between maker and materials.

Looking deeper is mandatory with the artwork of Toby Sisson. Her painting, prints, and drawings span abstraction’s capacity for metaphor. Black, white, and gray collide in patches, loops, and other elusive forms. Crafted variably on wood and paper with ink, oil, graphite, beeswax, and charcoal, these raw, pure images exude ineffable depth. Her signature could be a dagger, teardrop, or wound—“I look at it as a stand-in for all kinds of things,” Sisson says. The mark recurs in her work like “automatic writing.”

It’s no accident that Sisson’s visual art seems as if it were written rather than wrought. She anchored both her 2015 solo exhibition, . . . and other poems, and her artist statement with insights from lauded writer and social critic James Baldwin: “The artistic image is not intended to represent the thing itself, but, rather, the reality of the force the thing contains.”

Toby Sisson, Providence Rhode Island artist, Grown Inward like a root

Toby Sisson, grow inward like a root I, 2017, encaustic monotype on paper mounted on wood, 12 x 9 in.. Photo courtesy of the artist

In their achromatic poetic grace, Sisson’s images reflect a spectrum of psychological and social forces. Her use of black and white speaks by turns to her biracial heritage, to America’s ongoing racial inequity, and to more elemental ideas of melding and pulling apart, opposition, and coalescence. She’s particularly invested in agency, and the interplay between a given material’s natural inclinations and her own will. “You can exert a lot of control…you can master these materials,” Sisson says, “but at the same time there’s a lot of opportunities for them to exert their own personalities.”

Right now Sisson is on sabbatical from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is immersed in her Providence, Rhode Island, studio with a series of collages. She says the chaos in the world is permeating her current project, and she considers her work “an opportunity to explore these existential questions that we’re perhaps all asking.” But she sees this uncertain moment as a catalyst for something greater.

Toby Sisson, Totems # 1-4 (installation view), 2015, encaustic and graphite on wood, 30 x 30 in. each. Photo courtesy of the artist

She recently saw Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro at Providence’s Cable Car Cinema, and reflected on its sampled interview footage in which Baldwin asserts, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.”

“I’m still taking cues from Baldwin,” Sisson says. “I’m just using different tools. He used language. But I think that painting is a language as well. . . So I’m optimistic. I don’t see this as a challenge in the negative sense. I see these questions as a challenge in the very best sense of the word.”

Toby Sisson – Artist
Providence, Rhode Island
Top photo The Darkest Hour, Chant, Cadence (installation view), 2014, Encaustic and graphite on wood, Dimensions: 24” x 12” each | Photo courtesy the artist
Janet ReynoldsExploring the Gray Area

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