Strong women empower local artist

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Little Silver artist Cynthia Toffey uses important, but sometimes little known women from history as her inspiration for her paintings.


n a bright, skylit studio in her Little Silver home, Cynthia Toffey paints images of powerful women — women who have made a difference, and women who are powerful role models for her daughters and powerful inspiration for an artist.

She finds them in library collections, such as the Great Women of the Past books. She looks for a photograph or an artist’s rendering of the woman that shows her character and essence so that she can include that image in her mixed-media, layered paintings.

Toffey’s inspiration has been little-known women such as Lisa Meitner (1878-1968), a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist who, Toffey said, had to escape the Nazis twice.

"The portrait of her face has so much character," she explained. "I was attracted to a twinkle in her eye and the intelligence in her face."

Another remarkable woman that Toffey has captured in her biographical series is Alice Eastwood (1859-1953).

"She was a fantastic botanist and collected flowers all over the West," Toffey said.

Toffey read that Eastwood’s office building was damaged during an earthquake in San Francisco early in the last century but that she climbed up the side of the building to get her best selection of specimens while flames were shooting out of the building.

That impressed Toffey, a purposeful woman who will also take risks for her art and who is always seeking to grow as an artist.

Toffey has also painted the likenesses of better-known figures such as Harriet Tubman, the biblical figures Judith and Esther, and artist Mary Cassatt.

"It’s very encouraging to know that no matter what century you look at, there are great women," she said.

Strong women and empowerment have always been themes in Toffey’s life and art. She minored in women’s studies at Sonoma State University in California. And at California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, she had a teacher who encouraged her female students to put themselves forward.

"I took a class with Mimi Shapiro. She taught us how to stand out in a crowd," Toffey said. "There was a lot of anger (in the 1970s), but hers was a healthy class. There is so much that she taught us that I’m just becoming aware of."

Toffey also had wonderful female role models as a child.

"I grew up with a lot of great women," she said. "I lived on Nut Hill, close to the Berkeley campus. It was a wonderful place. Many free thinkers lived on our street. Every so often someone would win the Nobel Prize."

Toffey’s mother and grandmother were both artists who attended Berkeley. Toffey’s mother taught her through example that it is possible to have a family and still practice art. Toffey said her mother often spent all day in her studio. She would emerge, exhausted, sometime in the afternoon. Then she would sit down and have tea, often with her daughter. After that, she would do her housework or run her errands, Toffey said.

Toffey said she and her mother, Nancy Genn, are good friends, but her grandmother, Ruth Whitehouse, was really her best friend until she four years ago.

"She was very supportive and very dignified, and she had such interesting friends," Toffey said. "Dinner parties were so much fun. She would have people like city planners for dinner, so the conversation would be about how to make cities better. So many people who were pro-active; so many good role models for women."

Like her mother, Toffey is a hard worker. She works in her studio every day, all day and sometimes goes back into her studio at night.

Toffey kept a studio in New York City for 10 years but now works at home.

"I love working at home. I can go and work on something as soon as I have an idea," she explained. "I am in the business of art. I can’t just paint when I feel like it. I make my living by art. But being successful doesn’t mean that you’ve sold out. I still have to be fulfilled as an artist."

Toffey said she has always tried to be different from her mother as an artist.

"My mother does a lot of layers," Toffey said. "I’ve always done a lot of layering too, but of textures."

A turning point for Toffey came in the summer of 1991. She and her husband, Kyle, were coming home on a plane from California. She was explaining to him her ideas for a new style using three layers that reflected the earth, people and spirituality. Toffey drew a small picture of what she envisioned.

"I was able to do a painting based on that sketch," she said.

Toffey called that painting "Abbot," which was the name of a friend who had died of AIDS. In this piece, she incorporated her childhood fascination for construction equipment as the first layer. To Toffey, a Dumpster or truck doors symbolize the earth.

"I love them for their textured surfaces," she said. "They signify the earth to me, solid and nurturing."

The middle ground is the person around whom she has focused the painting, and thinly washed on top of the figure is a candy wrapper or some kind of food wrapper.

"The wrappers relate to the woman I’ve painted. For instance, in the Mary Cassatt painting, I used a Philadelphia cream cheese wrapper because Cassatt was from Allegheny, Pa.," Toffey explained. "And in my Judith Leyster painting, I used the wrapper from a cigar called Dutch Masters, because Leyster was Dutch and a master of painting."

Before that summer, Toffey was doing abstracts using candy wrappers. She said she doesn’t like candy and hasn’t eaten sugar for 10 years, but she collects candy wrappers from all over the world.

"I see candy wrappers as being very big, like you’re an ant on top of one," she said. "Crumpled candy wrappers have been a source of my images since I went to Cal Arts in 1974."

Toffey began focusing on women around the same time that she had that conversation with her husband on the plane trip from California.

"I really felt kind of limited at one point," she said. "By focusing on the women I’m painting, I feel really connected to them."

Toffey uses oil on top of acrylic with a lot of pencil lines. She is working on a large angel, about 55 by 72 inches, for the show at the prestigious Monmouth Reform Temple show in April.

"It’s a big canvas. I don’t know how I’m going to get it there," she said.

Toffey has been married for 19 years to a computer engineer and has two daughters, ages 16 and 12.

Her focus is not only on empowering her daughters and women but on empowerment in general.

Like a true artist, Toffey is intuitive and open-hearted.

"I don’t think personal freedom or growth has to be gender-related. It’s about everyone and anyone," she said. "If they become free, then I become free."