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Complementary compliments: Photographer, painter finally sharing exhibit

Eileen JoyceMcKay and Toll
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Longtime arts advocates David McKay and Lew Toll have run in the same circles for the past 20 years.

Fifteen years ago, they were next-door neighbors on Clay Street in Nevada City. And McKay transforms Toll’s oil paintings into limited editions and provides slides of Toll’s works to enclose with art show applications.

With all this history between them, however, they’ve never had a show together.



That is, until the next two weekends, when they’ll be in the fifth annual Western Nevada County Studio Tour, which showcases more than 70 artists.

Toll returns to his old neighborhood to display his oil paintings alongside McKay’s photography at McKay’s home studio at 343 Clay St.




It was a natural for the two artists to finally exhibit together. Both consider their works complementary.

McKay noted, “Lew’s real free with what he does; he likes to experiment.”

Toll said their works possess similarities in colors, light and composition. “I appreciate David’s eye for seeing things,” he said.

Nineteen years ago, Toll was the Nevada County Art Council’s co-director and co-founded the nonprofit organization’s Art Beat Gallery in downtown Grass Valley. During Toll’s tenure at the council, the Sierra Festival of the Arts (which just celebrated its 21st year in May) was created.

A year later, Toll opened Aldebaran Cafe, the first art gallery and cafe in downtown Grass Valley. For four years, Toll encouraged artists to display their works and musicians to perform there.

The artist temporarily left Nevada County to earn a master’s in fine arts in painting and drawing, and to teach at Washington State University before moving back here in 1990.

“I’ve been teaching ever since at all levels, from preschoolers to adults,” said Toll, who has led classes at area venues, including the Neighborhood Center of the Arts and Horizon Home Studies.

He also owned the successful Monet’s Garden in Grass Valley for three years, where instructors taught several disciplines for all levels and ages. Toll closed it two years ago because it took away from his painting time.

Since he closed Monet’s Garden, Toll’s art career has taken another direction – more painting, less teaching.

“I’m painting every day, it’s like brand new. I’m really excited. I’m nervous and I’m anxious,” he said. “I know new things are opening up to me. Maybe I’m being delusional, but response from my art critic friends has been positive.”

He also sees his work differently.

“I’m starting to get it, the whole idea of paying more attention to detail, to be more demanding of myself and my abilities,” Toll explained. “I used to be a lazy painter. Now I don’t let myself off the hook so easily. I paint because I’m a painter. I haven’t been a painter before; I’ve been a full-time house husband and part-time wage earner.”

Up until now, Toll, 57, was more concerned with paying bills than gaining exposure for his works.

With his youngest son a high school senior, Toll’s goals have gradually shifted: He wants to become a better painter and enter more national shows.

He has occasional shows in this area, including at the Center for the Arts (where he was a founding board member) and works displayed at the Holbrooke Hotel.

But he requires more of himself.

“I’m just beginning where my work is hopefully reaching a higher level and I can enter into more prominent shows. I don’t have to continue to paper my studio walls with rejection slips,” Toll said. “The idea is, I’m going full-on. Whether I make it or not is irrelevant; the process has become the primary focus.”

Envisioning his golden years, Toll hopes he is “propped up in a wheelchair, at an easel, drooling and painting.”

From creating works to framing them, he has prepared for this studio tour for about a year.

“I didn’t do the studio tour before this year. I paint in my garage sandwiched between skis and lawn mowers,” said Toll, who was asked by McKay last year if he’d like to share studio space in the next tour.

Toll didn’t mind spending a year preparing for the tour.

“That’s the idea – I want to get my works out, reach others who aren’t familiar with my paintings,” Toll said. “I’m anxious to get the response of people who don’t know me. I’m looking forward to it.”

McKay has easily spent more than 60 workdays preparing for his fourth studio tour.

That’s in between serving as Nevada City mayor, running his commercial photography business, silkscreening, restoring old or damaged photographs, working on fine art photography and teaching photography at Sierra College.

He considers the hours preparing for the tour well-spent.

A couple hundred viewers showed up at McKay’s studio during last year’s tour, two days long instead of this year’s four.

“Right now, the studio tour is one of the few venues for getting our work seen in a direct manner in Nevada County,” said McKay, who can name just a handful of galleries in western Nevada County: Gallery II, Julie Baker Fine Art, E.J. Gold Fine Art and 5th Ave. Gallery.

He also mentioned alternate gallery spaces Upstairs Gallery, The Flying Hare and Center for the Arts, but pointed out they’re more of a showplace for one or two artists exhibiting at a time. To McKay, the studio tour has several advantages over galleries.

“When I put my work in a gallery, I’m like a spider in a web. The tour is more proactive, with us taking the time to promote and advertise our studio,” McKay said. “It’s one on one; my sales are better at studio tours. The viewer gets to meet the artist, hear the stories. It’s much more abstract when you see stuff in a gallery.”

He should know.

Since 1976, he has displayed his fine art photographs in galleries throughout California. Photographs range from traditional black-and-white and color to the avant garde. He does his own color work using giclee prints, and works on black-and-white negatives in his traditional darkroom.

He calls himself an environmental photographer, but not in the classic sense.

“In whatever environment I’m in, I take it on,” McKay said. “If I’m in San Francisco’s Chinatown, I’m meeting the people, talking to them, photographing the different amalgams. If I’m at Yosemite, if I’m going to shoot Half Dome at all, I’m only going to do it if I can find the unusual. I really like to get to know whatever elements there are. I don’t want to be a casual observer.”

He wants images to stop viewers in their tracks.

“I don’t want to be just another person photographing a wild wolf. What can I do that’s different, what can I do to bring together another thought? That’s my driving force; I’m my hardest critic,” he said. “I don’t settle for ‘That’s just a pretty picture of a sunset;’ I want my photographs to make people think.”

His biggest challenge is to showcase a body of work encompassing more than 35 years of photography.

“A lot of negatives and slides have been seen just by me. I have to carry them through to print,” said McKay, whose goal is to drop commercial work and focus on his fine art.

McKay has promoted the arts – both by himself and through arts organizations – for almost three decades, even taking his peers’ works with him to Bay Area galleries.

“I constantly do whatever I can do to get art out,” he said. He was one of the first Nevada County Arts Council members (he also served as president of the board), a Friends of Sierra Rock Art member and a former member of Gallery II, Nevada County Photographers Guild and the defunct Artists Guild Gallery.

McKay, a member of the Nevada City City Council for 2 1/2 years, says he’s compelled to champion the arts.

“I want to build on the success of our county promoting this area as a travel destination like Mendocino, not just for being a historical gold mining town but for the prolific art created here,” he said.

“This county is so talented in all the disciplines; we’re so rich. The amount of income the arts generates for people who come up here provides a huge amount of income for the county,” McKay continued. “It’s one of the best well-kept secrets. The studios on the tour are just a small part of what this county offers in the arts.”

KNOW & GO

WHAT: Fifth annual Western Nevada County Studio Tour

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the next two Saturdays and Sundays (Oct. 12-13 and Oct. 19-20)

WHERE: 61 studios and venues from Alta Sierra to North San Juan

ADMISSION: Studio Tour Directory is $10 and provides an image of each artist’s work, a map and directions to each studio. Directories are at Julie Baker Fine Art gallery, the Nevada County Arts Council office, Odyssey Books, BriarPatch, Wildwood Travel, Gallery II, Nevada City Picture Framing, Mostly Clay and the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center.

INFORMATION: 271-5955 or e-mail


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