Interview with Toby Penney

Can you talk a bit about your background and where you’re from?

I grew up in rural Tennessee. My childhood was full of intense contrasts. My early education was at a private church of Christ school. This experience solidified my choice to not include religion in my life. Attending an expensive private school was uncomfortable and I very much felt like I didn’t have a place there. Home was much different in that it was very far away from where the other children that we knew lived and it was inconsistent in comfort. We heated our home with a fireplace and water came from an electric pump well. That meant that when household funds were particularly low, water came from the spring. My parents separated when I was too young to remember the event and my sister was even younger. It was mostly my mother, sister, and me growing up. I don’t remember feeling like this was a bad situation, just reality. My dad lived within driving distance and we saw him randomly. He had other families over the years.


I Attending college was an overall positive experience. I appreciate all paths to education but believe that pursuing what interests you wholeheartedly is a route to success. College was not necessarily my best route. Travel has made the biggest impression on me over the years. Road trips as a kid and travel abroad as an adult have had an equal result. I always feel energized and want more.

As Elements Wash Together, mixed media on reclaimed fabric, 238 x 256 cm

Can you tell us a bit about your practice?


My practice is just that. It is an effort to learn and grow daily. I feel that when I quit learning, I will most likely cease living. As a rule, I work with what I have. That means that I make my work with what is available, often cast off and under-appreciated items. I identify with these items and believe that they can be appreciated in new ways. Reclaimed fabric is a favorite item to employ. Old clothing and home textiles carry an energy that I seek to infuse into my paintings and more. I appreciate the history and weight of past use that these fabrics hold. My intention is to appreciate the cast off items for what they have to offer instead of what is generally expected of them. It seems in our current climate people discard too much that has potential, including relationships and other people.

Would you say you had a traditional or untraditional route into the arts?


I took a zigzag route in arts education but have always maintained an art practice. After high school, I took painting and drawing classes at University. That was not considered a good career choice by family so I studied English and history, with the intention of heading to law school later. I never made it to law school. In fact, I left school without a degree. Many years later I attended a different University to complete a degree with a focus in sculpture. I initially left school to pursue painting full time. It was the right choice for me but definitely came with challenges. Over the years I was fortunate enough to be offered internships and guest artist positions with established artists and studios. I studied various medium this way, including gilding, glass casting & blowing, and printmaking. While my path in arts education and practice may not have been particularly well planned, it does seem to be traditional in the respect that I received guidance & mentorship from working artists. This was invaluable to my development professionally. Artists I feel particularly indebted to include: Judith O’rourke and Harvey Littleton.

The Walls We Build, mixed media with reclaimed fabric and fibres on canvas, 101.5 x 137 cm 

What do you appreciate about the art world?

At this time it is  not very easy to appreciate a lot about the art world. I appreciate how technology brings us closer to viewing art from artists and places that we would not likely see without it. However, the art world remains aloof and accessible by a select few. Privilege has always had free access to culture while the common person has to pursue art with a vengeance. This answer is not likely to come as a surprise as historically the largest portion of the populations has to spend more time surviving than expressing themselves.

What processes have you developed in your years as an artist?

This question is challenging to answer as my process continually develops and changes. I see remaining flexible and open to ideas as a long-term benefit to my practice. In general I work to adhere to archival production methods at the same time keeping the physical practice of creation fresh and exploratory. Working with reclaimed and recycled elements and objects contributes a spontaneity that helps me elude predictability.

Arguing Over Sorbet, mixed media with reclaimed fabric and fibres on raw canvas over panel, 116 x 66 cm

What do you listen to when you work?

Soundtrack to My Life Changes daily depending upon where I am and who is with me. Very often it includes audio books on Greek mythology or ancient civilisations as that is what my daughter, who is in the studio with me every day, is interested in and studies a lot. I am a homeschool mom. Part of my job as her education facilitator is to open up avenues for her to pursue her passions. In this process, I often give up my personal preferences for her to access the information she is craving. Because we work this way, we both can accomplish personal goals each day. My studio is a place where she is free to learn and explore alongside me.

What would you say has been your top experience in your art career?

I do not have a single highlight of my career that tops them all. I feel fortunate that my career is going strong. It changes and grows as I change and grow. I get to travel often, spend time with my family, and I make things every day. While I could likely make more money in another career, I love what I do and that counts for so much.


A few favourite things that have happened over the last several include receiving a Fellowship artist residency in France at Chateau Orquevaux, two years in 2017 & 2018.  I just spent the fall of 2019 in Australia with exhibits there. One in Tasmania and Melbourne, and was a guest artist at Macbeth Creative Studios. I travel often meeting and connecting with other artists. Ultimately I am hoping that I keep on going for at least another 30 plus or more years, I have no intention of slowing down so I hope I don’t have a career topper yet.

The Weight of a Moment, mixed media with reclaimed fabric and fibres on canvas, 112 X 137 cm

What is your dream project?

My dream project is a project I am working on now. Last year I established Roaming Studio to combine creating and travel for myself and other artists. Currently we have residency projects active in Kentucky & Tennessee with other U.S. locations underway. Our plan is to have a residency option in Europe with in another year and a half.

What do you feel is integral to the work of an artist?

Expression, practice, and intention are integral to the work of artists. Expression and communication are what connect us through a human experience. Practice is our effort to expand our abilities to communicate our ideas and intentions effectively. Intention is how we activate our efforts to establish connections and make them work. The human experience is what we all have in common. It is what artists work to highlight, the fact that people have more in common than not.

What is the best piece of artistic advice you’ve been given?

The best art advice I have received is practice and explore. Make something every day because you cannot improve what isn’t there. Ideas created each other and they need to be expressed, developed, and crafted. The best art career advice I have ever received was, ‘have a thick skin and don’t take no personally’. The next most memorable advice given was, ‘stop preparing and take action. Make better as you learn better’.

You can see more of Toby's artwork on her website.


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