After seeing a segment on the news about how the hunched posture associated with cellphone use can cause lasting damage to the spine, Toni Lane started painting.
“Everyone’s on cellphones,” Toni says. “You go to restaurants and you see people at the table and nobody’s paying attention to anybody, so I want to do something on that. Do something with that. Because everybody’s not paying attention. Something’s wrong, and I thought that was very interesting.”
The painting—strong black ink lines on paper—depicts two children, gleefully holding cellphones. It’s a scene all too familiar to those of us who get palpitations when reaching into a coat pocket and not feeling a cellphone wedged neatly between gloves and keys. And that’s Toni’s goal: to render an image that evokes not only wonder about the painted children, but also about the impact of our own cellphone use. “I try to think of ways to bring it here in an artistic manner,” Toni says.
It’s not surprising, then, that Toni’s work is often influenced by current events and those around her. News is a major source of inspiration, but her goal is less to depict specific events than to give viewers a way into thinking about the topic at hand—to show multiple perspectives, or highlight an underlying phenomenon.
Toni, a Washington DC native and artist at Art Enables—a studio in the northeast of D.C. whose mission is to provide resources and support for those with disabilities—has been surrounded by art her whole life. Her father and grandmother were artists, and from a young age her mother encouraged her artistic inclinations. She’s spent time making art in San Francisco and France and has a degree in photography, but is comfortable in just about any medium she can find.
“I’ll work in any medium, anything that strikes me at the moment,” Toni says, listing drawings and paintings she’s done with pastels, oils, acrylics, watercolors, inks—not to mention photography, sculpture, and mixed media projects. “I’m always doing art. My apartment is my studio.”
If there’s one thing that remains consistent across Toni’s painting, it’s the strength of her brushstrokes and the way the bold lines complement sensitive subject matters. When I ask who her artistic influences are, Toni cites Picasso, Matisse and Jacob Lawrence, noting that although she’s not generally a fan of pop art she also greatly admires Andy Warhol for his ability to take household objects—for example, a can of Campbell’s soup—and turn them into art. In each case, it’s the combination of aesthetics and willingness to engage with social reality that Toni finds so appealing.
“I think I was born painting,” she says.
Developing Art from Life
When I ask Toni to show me around the studio, she takes me to a drawer with some recently completed pieces. The drawing on top, done with pastel on paper, is of a female soldier with blond hair, a serious expression, and two metal prosthetic legs.
“When I first saw women amputees, I was like, whoa, whoa,” Toni said. “You know, because you’re used to seeing the guys. They were talking about coming back from Iraq and they showed this one girl in Texas, with this long ponytail, and she had no legs. Gorgeous girl, you’d never know, and then the camera panned down and showed it.”
Although this drawing was inspired by a real event, the woman in the picture is not necessarily intended to be the woman Toni first saw. “I just paint people,” Toni says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific person. I’m trying to get the mood in it, not so much as the definition of a person. It’s just about the feeling.”
Not all of Toni’s work is political, though. She next shows me a drawing of a girl getting her hair fixed (“things you never forget,” she says) and a black ink drawing of a woman that she’s just completed. She also describes a painting she’s currently working on that was inspired by an upsetting interaction with a friend.
“Someone close to me stole something, and I do this one painting called ‘Face It.’ There’s a thief among us, and I have figures, but what that person is stealing is my heart, and you have to look at it to see that the thief is taking a part of my heart,” Toni says.
Toni’s work focuses on the things around her—from war, homelessness, race, class, and gender to family, happiness, love, and childhood. “I paint life in general,” Toni says. “I like to kind of close my eyes and let the pen do its thing. I think about society, political things going on … So much has happened just this last year. So many things have happened, and art has to be a part of it.”
She pauses, but then adds, “And a lot of it comes from my imagination. A lot of imagination. I like to paint what’s beautiful—things, beautiful to look at.”
That’s the strength of Toni’s work: It captures everything from political events to daily activities in a manner that is compelling and thought provoking.
After moving back to D.C. from France, where she lived for a number of years, Toni had trouble finding an artistic outlet for self-expression. “Coming back, not only to America but to my hometown … Look, D.C. is not the best art place to be. France has art everywhere. And California, San Francisco, everywhere you walk you see art,” she says. “I’ve never had to find art. Art has always found me. And then when I came back here I couldn’t find it, and art wasn’t finding me.”
Toni first learned about Art Enables a year ago through a caseworker at Green Door, a local mental health clinic, who knew she was an artist and recommended the studio. “She knows that I’m an artist and said maybe it’d be a nice place that I could go, which is cool because I’m born and raised an artist,” Toni says. “This was a good place for me to come, especially since I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”
Art Enables also provides Toni with a place to interact with other artists in a way that she might not otherwise. “I like being around artists. That’s why I like being here. It’s a real good environment, and then it makes me come to grips with myself and the issues that I have.”
Painting as a Profession
Perhaps one of the biggest recent changes for Toni is that for the first time she is painting for the explicit purpose of selling. “I’d never drawn or painted for people to buy. I’d painted for the art of painting,” Toni says.
When I ask her if this changes the way she approaches her art, her answer is simple: not really. “Here I’m painting like my job is—and it is a job—to paint what people will buy. So I don’t think all the time people will buy my issues, so I don’t dwell on my issues when I paint. Understand? What people would want to put on their wall or office. But I try to stay as close to my feelings as possible.”
Recently, Toni’s been making art that explores the relationship between race and police action. She’s exploring changing perceptions of childhood, and has been documenting homelessness, particularly as it pertains to women, noting that as somebody who lives in an urban environment, it’s an issue she sees frequently around her.
“You know, I don’t paint art just for the wall. I don’t know how to do that.”