“I grew up on the mean streets of Wilmington Island,” sculptor Matt Toole said with a full-throated laugh as we talked about his formative years.
Toole, now 49, could ride his BMX over the entire island, which was less populated and more wooded in those days. He lived close to a public dock and a horse stable. He built forts and played in the river.
He was always making things, but he didn’t think of himself as an artist.
“Sports, girls and socializing – that was my world in high school,” Toole said.
And then he went to Georgia Southern University. Toole’s sister, who recognized his creativity before he did, suggested that he study art, and he was soon inspired by professor Pat Steadman and others.
Toole subsequently lived in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Baltimore and Scotland, but he was drawn back to Savannah. He taught at both Georgia Southern and the Savannah College of Art and Design before returning full-time to making things.
Toole Sculpture Works is based in a large building at the old Roberds Dairy – the “dairy-area” as he calls it.
“It’s just me, so I’m quarantined for the most part anyway,” Toole said of his days in the studio.
“It is a therapeutic place in a lot of ways,” Toole said. “I’m volatile at times and the environment keeps me cool.”
Toole recently completed a couple of commissions in his “family reliquary series.”
One client asked Toole to create a sort of cauldron and planter using materials from a family farm.
Leslie Lovell, owner of Roots Up Gallery where Toole has work on, also commissioned a sculpture with objects from her grandfather’s farm in North Carolina.
“She just handed me the stuff,” Toole said. “She just kind of gave it to me and let me go.”
“The artistic side of Toole Sculpture Works is ever present,” Toole said. He had a critically praised show last year at Chatham County's Resource Conservation Education Center, and he will team up with painter Melinda Borysevicz to lead a week of workshops at The Mountain Retreat & Learning Center in Highlands, N.C., in August.
But Toole has also made a shift to more commercial work.
“In February of last year, I made zero money for the entire month,” Toole said. It was a critical moment in his career. His response was to decide that “2019 was going to be the year of yes.”
Toole started accepting new projects and exploring new avenues.
“My work has continued and shifted to more designer than sculptor. That is simply based on economics and needing to make a living,” Toole said.
So a typical day might now include welding a grate, fixing a stairway, making metal doors or manufacturing lights. Toole even has a “side hustle” selling skin care products.
“It’s not sexy, that’s not the cool stuff that an artist wants to talk about,” Toole said. “It comes with a lot of self reflection, doubt, ego, crushing of the ego.”
“Creating revenue streams for myself so I can continue to be creative, that’s the purpose,” Toole said.
“I’ve used this slower time to spend more time at home,” Toole said. He noted that one small upside to these difficult times is that some of us can’t keep moving at our usual frantic pace.
Despite the current economic woes facing artists, Toole remains upbeat about the role and prospects for area artists.
“Savannah’s creative community is growing and just producing enlightened and kind of – what s the word I want to use? – a community that cares about each other,” he said.
“Look at right now, at how the arts are so important – journals, movies, sidewalk chalk art,” Toole said.
“I think the arts is the number one thing that helps us make the intangible tangible, that makes us human.”
Bill Dawers writes City Talk in Savannah Morning News and blogs at hissing lawns (www.hissinglawns.com). Email email@example.com.