TONI LYONS PHILLIPS
ARTICLE BY APRIL CLARK HONAKER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
The influence of north Louisiana’s lush landscapes hasn’t been lost on Atlanta artist Toni Lyons Phillips. Originally from the Monroe-West Monroe area, Toni grew up fishing near Russell Sage and exploring Bayou Desiard. Then, as a teenager and young adult, she often skied on the Ouachita River. Later, while living in a condo on the river, she would spend her mornings sketching and drawing the world around her and the things carried and collected by the river.
Toni has now lived in Atlanta for twelve years with the love of her life and young son, but the wild, vibrant woods and waterways of Louisiana have made a lasting impression. According to Toni, the memories of her life in Louisiana continue to inspire her work. “Those observations during that time are the basis of my work. They’re kind of blurry and obscure, and I couple them with more distinct observations from today, but they are so important,” she said.
Reliving those memories through her work has the unique power to carry Toni back in time. Being in the studio and painting make her feel excited and full of life. She said it’s like “being back as a child chasing the adventure and discovering nature all over again and falling in love as if for the first time.”
For Toni, her attachment to the past is important to her. It’s something she maintains not only in her art, but also in other parts of her life. And it’s a part of her inspired largely by her dad, a man known to others as “Groovy.” She described him as the type of person you might see on American Pickers, and when she was growing up, he was always building things and putting things together that most people would never dream of putting together. He liked to take found objects and remnants of demo projects and turn them into something altogether different. According to Toni, he built floors out of wine crates, made ceilings out of Skoal cans, and would adorn the top of a brick column with a drill bit.
Today, his whole place is basically made of demoed and interesting materials, and Toni’s home is proof of his influence as well. Her house is not filled with new things. Instead, she said, “My home is decorated with cool and quirky vintage pieces.” Over the years, Toni has collected things from estate sales and other places, including antiques and some mid-century and artsy eclectic treasures. “My home is enriched with artful objects that make me smile when I walk past them,” she said.
One of her eclectic treasures that has a direct connection to her art is a red, vintage marquee letter. It’s an “X” and usually hangs beside the door of her studio, but it’s not just a decoration, the letter has another purpose as well. “I hang it on my studio door only when I am in the flow to let people know ‘do not disturb,’” she said. In ways like this, Toni’s dad’s influence comes out in her life and her creative process, but he is not the only parent to influence her as an artist.
Toni’s mom has a love of creative writing. In fact, she and Toni have been collaborating on a book of children’s short stories that Toni is illustrating. Like Toni’s dad, her mom started encouraging her creativity at an early age. She told Toni that even at age 3 or 4 she would sit and draw impressively detailed renditions of things in her environment, and her mom attributes Toni’s expressiveness of painting in part to the art of music as she played violin and piano throughout her youth.
Toni’s natural talent combined with a strong support system led her to choose art after high school. At the time, she was working as a dental assistant for Troy Bostick, DDS, and was contemplating the idea of becoming a dental hygienist. When she wasn’t busy, she would sit in the back and build roses out of dental wax. She had always known she loved art and making things. “That’s what I enjoyed,” she said. “That was my happy place.” But choosing to pursue it in school and as a career wasn’t easy. Fortunately, with a little encouragement from her mom, she was able to follow her heart.
Toni earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in art education from Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, Louisiana, and after teaching art at Grace Episcopal School and gifted and talented art in other schools throughout Ouachita Parish, she decided to go back and earn her Master of Fine Arts in drawing and painting from Louisiana Tech. “Drawing inspiration from my students is what made me want to go back,” she said.
In graduate school at Louisiana Tech, Toni became well-versed as an artist and learned from some extraordinary mentors, including Kevin Kennedy, Robert Berguson, Peter Jones, and Ed Pinkston. But she said the most pivotal moment in her career as an artist occurred in one of Ed Pinkston’s drawing courses. According to Toni, the course was designed with a matrix approach, which meant the student married him or herself to a single subject for the duration of the course and created many different permutations of that subject. Toni chose a pear as her subject, and her works started with depictions of a single pair and branched out from there: near pear versus far pear, pears on a stage, the group, the bathers, and a pear in a chair. She depicted pears in every way she could think of. She continued this way, slowly humanizing the pears, until one day she came into class for critique, and Mr. Pinkston gave her the thumbs up, but said, “I want you to take them to the next level.”
They talked about the pears, and Toni disclosed that some of them were beginning to rot. In response, Pinkston suggested that she throw them out the window, so she did, and afterward, she went out and looked at them, all smashed on the ground, and she started to draw and paint what she saw. “That was a life-changing experience,” she said. “Anything and everything I saw from that moment on had the potential to be something else. He gave me magic.” According to Toni and an email she received from Pinkston, the lesson he taught her can be traced back to the Bauhaus, a German art school active in the 1920s and early 1930s. “I’m elated as an artist that he taught me that way,” she said, “that I was able to have that lesson.”
Everything Toni has created since then has been influenced by that lesson. In many ways, it has changed the way she looks at life and the world. “I see in such an abstract way,” she said. “I see everything in an abstract way, and I’m glad I’m that way. It’s just a wonderful thing.” For Toni, being an artist affects every other part of her life. “It helps me accomplish things in a more insightful way,” she said. It allows her to truly enjoy looking at things, and she finds herself instinctively noticing the way light behaves and how colors interact. She also finds herself appreciating beauty, even in ordinary things.
When it comes to actually painting what she sees, Toni said it grows out of an inner passion. “I love the freedom I get to do what I want,” she said. “I get to choose what I put on the canvas, and it’s such an identity. It’s who I am and bleeds over into everything I do. I love that about myself.” Inspiration comes often from memories of living in Louisiana, but it also comes from her travels, from things she sees in her new environment, and from the feeling she gets when looking at them or remembering. After being in Atlanta for the last twelve years, Toni has discovered a few new places, such as Deaton Creek in Braselton, Georgia, that spark her creativity the way Louisiana’s rivers and bayous have. She said it’s like Louisiana and Georgia have meshed in her mind and in her paintings. Although she misses the lushness of Louisiana, she said Georgia is lush too—just in a different way.
The work Toni creates from her interactions with these places occupies a liminal space between representation and abstraction. Viewers may recognize colors or shapes they’ve seen in nature or find the images reminiscent of places they know, but Toni uses “an abstract vocabulary inspired by gestural line and organic forms” to create this effect. Lately, her work has been leaning more toward abstraction than it has in the past, and she feels she’s growing more confident as an artist.
She loves the following quote by fellow artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” Toni believes it’s not uncommon for young artists to lack confidence or be scared of failure, but she said, “If you don’t have failures, you can’t have success.” She believes that she’s slowly growing out of some of her fear and that confidence has played a big role in how she feels. “I feel like I’m just now coming into my own,” she said, “and that’s been wonderful for me.”
According to Toni, “Art is not for the faint of heart.” It takes courage and persistence. “The ugly paintings I create are just as important for my development as the beautiful ones,” she said. “And what goes on between my ears is just as important as what goes on the canvas.” She makes it a point to be kind to herself while silencing her inner critic, and these practices help nurture her confidence. “As much as it is essential to create the artwork, it is important to trust myself and the creative process and enjoy my art journey,” she said.
Despite feeling confident, Toni still has difficult days sometimes and experiences the occasional “artist block.” When that happens, she moves the blank canvas or painting that is making her feel blocked to a busy part of the house and places some mark-making tools and paint next to it. With that setup, she said, “It is very hard for me to walk past the canvas or painting too many times without making marks. This gets me back in my groove and will remedy my artist block and get me back in the studio creating again.” Even when she’s busy with other things and can’t be in her studio for 8 hours a day, she tries to do some kind of mark making. “Any mark is better than no mark at all,” she said.
Each time Toni starts a new piece, she challenges herself. She describes herself as a competitive person, but in the sense that she is always trying to outdo herself. “I want to be the best that I can be,” she said. “I don’t like a piece to leave my studio unless I feel like it’s worthy of leaving my studio—that it’s a piece of me and something I really want to put out in the world.” Toni is also a goal setter. She writes her goals every year and said, “What I’ve found is that when I write these goals out, I accomplish them.” A Master Series Residency she recently completed with artist Steve Aimone in North Carolina was one of her goals for the year, and it was great for her growth as an artist and to get her out of her comfort zone. “I never want to be what Philip Guston referred to as ‘wax museum,’” she said. “I want to continue to keep growing, evolving, maturing and connecting to new ideas.”
Over time, she’s come to realize that painting is not necessarily about creating something beautiful or perfect. It’s about connection. “I have an emotion when I’m creating,” she said, “and I’d like the viewer to have some kind of reaction or response—even if they don’t like it, even if abstraction is not their cup of tea. But maybe they will see my feelings, my voice, my vision or my expression and it will become an artful abject in their home, and they will walk past it and smile.” Toni considers herself an optimistic woman and a woman of faith, and she’d like to believe that these aspects of herself shine through in her work. She feels blessed to have been given a creative mind, a unique way of seeing the world, and family who have encouraged her along the way. She believes it’s a privilege to be an artist. “It’s been a gift my whole life,” she said, “and I hope that I’ve used it the way I should have used it because it’s been the biggest gift.”