Friday, May 24, 2024 May 24, 2024
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How Sculptor George Tobolowsky Got ‘The Calling’

Until he was in his 50s, he was just a businessman with a hobby.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

On a recent trip to the Tyler Museum of Art, to lecture at the opening of his latest show, Dallas sculptor George Tobolowsky drives south on Central Expressway and fiddles with the radio. He drives a lowered Chevrolet pickup. The bed is gouged and dented in 100 places. When he parks it in front of his sleek, white townhouse, one might expect a repairman inside. The interior of the truck resembles a vandalized storage shed. Strewn across the rear floorboard are work shoes, loose papers, a fluorescent safety vest, gloves, tie-down straps, a hard hat, and dust masks. The ride reflects a lifetime of hauling heavy things.

Barely out of Dallas, Tobolowsky looks for an exit ramp. “I need to get out and walk around,” he says. “My back hurts.” His left leg is propped against the armrest on the door. “Last week I kicked a piece of steel,” he says. “Should’ve known better.” If the art world were a rodeo, sculptors would be the bull riders of the bunch; pain is tied to the pleasure. To make his pieces, many of which weigh 1,000 pounds or more, Tobolowsky has battled sciatica, gashes, and burns. “I’ve got a friend who’s a woodworker. He accidently cut off the tips of his fingers. He tries to convince us that they’re growing back.”

Since his first solo show at the Gerald Peters Gallery in 2006 at the age of 56, Tobolowsky has moved steadily toward the front row of the Texas art world—this time as a maker of art.

He already had a patron’s seat. Tobolowsky is currently serving on the board of SMU’s Meadows Museum and has served on the boards of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Dallas Contemporary, and he is a co-founder of the Texas Sculpture Association and the Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston. Tobolowsky gravitates toward the boards’ building committees. For six years, he was on the board for construction at Greenhill School.

“I love designing and working with architects,” he says. “I’m interested in things being sized right and in making sure they work.”

That interest doesn’t necessarily explain his sculptures or why he was compelled to make them, to make the relatively late transition from patron to artist. Except that now, George Tobolowsky’s life feels as though it is sized right.

Tobolowsky is the great-grandson of Russian émigrés. He wears a Stalinist mustache that requires his companions to study his eyes to determine his mood. His children have begged him to shave it off, to see what’s underneath. He has thus far resisted their petitions. The Army succeeded in removing it, but the streamlining lasted only for the duration of basic training. His wife, Julie, has never seen him without it.

photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Tobolowsky’s father was president of a textile company. Tobolowsky assumed he would follow his dad into business. He went to Hillcrest High School and studied accounting and sculpture at SMU. He graduated from SMU Law School. He likes to say that he took a sculpture class at Meadows to meet girls. He got a few dates, but the relationship that stuck, the one that continues to animate his life and work, was with James Surls, arguably the most successful living Texas-born sculptor. Surls’ work has been displayed at MOMA, the Smithsonian, and the Guggenheim. In 2009, the New York City Parks Public Art Program displayed five of Surls’ pieces in the median on Park Avenue.

“When we met, he was teaching and working in bronze,” Tobolowsky says of Surls. “He was a wild-looking guy. You didn’t see anyone like him at the business school.” Perhaps more than anyone else, Surls nurtured Tobolowsky’s transformation from businessman to artist.

“I suppose destiny took George into the business world,” Surls says. Tobolowsky started his career as an accountant at Arthur Young in Dallas. He later worked in the legal and tax departments at the Zale Corporation, which was started by his wife’s family. Tobolowsky owned and operated various franchise businesses with partners, including tanning salons and Dunkin’ Donuts shops. At one point, Tobolowsky ran 75 Blockbuster stores. And then, in 1995, he built a sculpture studio on his ranch in Mountain Springs, an hour north of Dallas. He told himself he was building it for his friends.

The Mountain Springs studio, constructed from reclaimed bridge beams and stone found on the property, served as a clubhouse for Tobolowsky’s artist buddies until Thanksgiving 2004, when it occurred to Tobolowsky that perhaps the studio was for him. “I looked around and saw other people using my materials and my tools, and I thought, ‘I should do this,’ ” he says. He’d built a few pieces here and there, but not enough to express a sensibility, a singular point of view. Until that Thanksgiving, there had never been any urgency.

“All artists hear the voice,” Surls says. “Maybe it comes from a deity. Maybe it comes from inside. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the voice lands them on a seesaw of sorts, perfectly balanced. If they say yes to the voice, they get to cross into the realm of belief. In a religious sense, it’s called ‘getting the calling.’ ”

Starting that Thanksgiving, Tobolowsky and his welding assistant, Joe Miller, worked fast. Tobolowsky gathered found objects: discards from machine shops, salvage from oil fields, and worn-out parts from trucks and tractors. Sometimes the objects had markings on the surfaces: measurements, batch numbers, or dates. His favorite pieces had the words “bad” or “scrap” painted or etched on the sides, damnations of industrial uselessness.

He cleaned the pieces. He painted them or left the paint alone. He cut some in half or into irregular shapes. He started putting them together. He took photographs of partially built pieces, and then went home and sketched their conclusions directly onto the photographs. He built. He tore down. He rebuilt. When he finally had a collection, he called his art world connections.

Early on, Tobolowsky exhibited in Waco, Dallas, and Houston. By 2007, the late Ted Pillsbury, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, was a fan. In a lecture commemorating the Texas Sculpture Association’s 25th anniversary, Pillsbury ended his slide show with images of Tobolowsky’s work. “Tobolowsky is largely self-taught,” Pillsbury said. “In the last five to 10 years [he has] created a formidable body of work, and his work is growing in its sophistication and its recognition.”