Articles from the October 1997 Unification News


Cynthia Toffey’s Empowered Women

by Susan Fegley Osmond

New Jersey artist Cynthia Genn Toffey has, over the past few years, produced a series of paintings on inspiring women in history.

The project grew out of her effort to find positive reading material for her two daughters, now ages seven and eleven. "It made me really think about the women I wanted to look up to and be like," she recalls. Born in Berkeley, California in 1953, Toffey had two remarkable role models in her grandmother and mother, both artists.

"I’m interested in inspiring myself, my children and my friends into making a positive difference in the world," she explains. "When we see people who accomplished so much with so much less than we have, we can see how precious one life is."

Subjects she has chosen for her colorful, semi-abstract meditations include the biblical figures Judith and Esther, Harriet Tubman (Toffey’s longtime favorite) and seventeenth-century artist Artemesia Gentileschi.

Toffey’s recent paintings consist of three layers of images, all rendered in translucent color washes. These symbolize three realms she is attracted to and wishes to synthesize: the nurturing world of ideas, emotions and the spirit. On the bottom layer she often depicts the hinged back-doors of large trucks or dumpsters-a subject she focused on in earlier paintings. Throughways to other worlds or possibilities, the doors-with their interestingly textured surfaces-signify the earth to Toffey.

For the second layer, Toffey usually appropriates an image of her human subject from a photograph or a work of art she admires. Her desire is to project the essence of the person’s character. This focus on the inner fire of her heroines is conveyed cogently through color: washes of brilliant yellow or dappled orange permeate Harriet Tubman (1994), Judith (1993) and many other paintings. The result is a lucency reminiscent of stained glass windows in sunlight. (This approach to color may have been influenced by her ten years as a glassblower in New York before she returned full-time to painting.)

On the third layer, Toffey paints abstracted images of crumpled candy wrappers, a subject she has loved-for the sensuous interaction of texture, color and line amid folds-since she was an art student. Now painted as thinly as clouds, the mysteriously all-enfolding wrappers suggest the realm of spirituality.

Toffey finds role models in women who had a variety of life experiences. She has discovered, in fact, that the experience of being a wife and mother has made her a better artist. "If the purpose of life is joy," she says, "then you’ve got to have joy on all levels, and it only feeds your work. When I was in college I thought that if I did nothing but paint in the studio all day, I would be a great artist. But now I realize that because I’ve lived my life to the full, it’s only made my work much deeper."

Last autumn Toffey organized a show at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, of works by artists in the Akinlan Art Alliance, of which she is a founding member. This is a group of twelve artists from six countries who feel akin in their view of the purpose of art (though their styles vary significantly) and want to help form a place for such a view to "land" or take root. Turning from the universal confusion and moral collapse of today’s society and how it has been reinforced by many artists, the group espouses a different aim: "An artist is a person who has developed a special ability to see the Divine beauty, value and love of the universe and manifest this for others to appreciate," says the group’s statement of purpose.

In April, Toffey’s work will appear in two group shows in Japan. She is also organizing another show (which may travel) at the University of Bridgeport, of works by the three generations of women artists in her own family.

Reflecting on her series on empowered women, Toffey remarks: "I went to college 20 years ago at a time when the value of women was very important to me. But I believe the time is past for complaining. It’s good to identify problems, but we have to build on our strengths now-as women, and as people who can help create a number of international alliances. We have to build on our strengths and celebrate our differences, and at the same time understand one another better."

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