Painter, cultural activist, fisherman, mentor to many. Born on June 2, 1946, in Washington, D.C.; died on Feb. 9, 2014, in St. Catharines, Ont., of cancer, aged 67.
It’s a long journey from the banks of the Mississippi River in Clinton, Iowa, to the clear waters of the Upper Grand River near Fergus, Ont. It took Tobey a lifetime to complete that journey, and what a lifetime it was.
He grew up in Clinton and spent many hours as a boy fishing and tramping along the banks of the Big Muddy with his brother, Tracey, and ended his days fishing the Grand, Nith and Niagara rivers of Ontario.
In between, he met many challenges head-on and humbly acknowledged his numerous successes. But when he was fishing, that was when he was most content and happy.
He loved to laugh and joke, dine and party with friends and family, and had a delightful sense of the absurd, as in the time he adopted “the Bun” a worn, stuffed pink bunny as his de facto fishing partner.
But Tobe, as he was known to those close to him, was also a prolific and internationally respected painter whose works in oils and acrylics are in numerous private and public gallery collections. The subjects of his art ranged from lyrical landscapes to the abstract, and hard-hitting social and environmentally themed works, all reflecting his characteristic verve and audacity.
He and Carolyn Wren, an accomplished artist and his partner for the last 23 years, built a wonderful studio and gardens behind their home in St. Catharines. As was usual for Tobe, he threw himself into the task with gusto and also designed an elaborate and beloved fishpond, populated with koi and exotic goldfish.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in the late 1960s and distinguished himself as a top-notch marksman on the rifle range. But when the Vietnam War escalated, his conscience told him to opt out and he slipped into Canada in 1969 with the help of a war resisters’ organization. Having drawn and painted from an early age and with a fine arts degree from the University of Iowa in hand, he secured a teaching position at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ont.
It was there that his career and creative life blossomed when he became involved in the artists’ rights group, CARFAC Ontario (Canadian Artists’ Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens). He met painter/poet/activist Dennis Tourbin, also an avid fisherman; David Bierk, another transplanted American painter; and painter/musician John B. Boyle, all of whom became close friends and compatriots.
Tobe went on to establish and direct artist-run centres in Kingston, Peterborough and St. Catharines, where he finally settled, all the while turning out vibrant and sometimes controversial paintings. These included his New American Century Project, composed of portraits of hundreds of Canadian military and Afghan casualties of the Afghanistan war. This important exhibition toured galleries in Ontario and Quebec from 2010 to 2012.
In later years he endured serious medical issues that would lay most people low, but he powered through with a strength and uncomplaining perseverance that was a testament to his character. Tobey was one of the most creative, generous, caring and open-minded people one could ever meet, and is deeply missed.
Peter Wing is Tobey’s friend and fishing partner.