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For late figure skating great Toller Cranston, art was 'terrifying obsession'

The painting "A Married Couple," by Toller Cranston is shown in a handout photo. Once Cranston left the ice behind, he focused his restless creative ingenuity on art. And it became a "terrifying obsession" for the figure-skating great, who died on the weekend.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Keith Walker
January 29, 2015 - 7:00 AM

TORONTO - Once Toller Cranston left the ice behind, he focused his restless creative ingenuity on art — an all-consuming enterprise that he wryly referred to as his "terrifying obsession."

The floridly innovative figure-skating great died at his home in Mexico on the weekend of an apparent heart attack at age 65.

Even while marching to uncommon acclaim as a figure skater, he attended art school and conducted a career in art.

Once he retired, Cranston funnelled all his boundless energy into painting. He painted with such prolific intensity that his output is now most often characterized by its staggering volume.

"Terrifying Obsession" was the name Cranston suggested for an exhibition of his work, which was being prepped for a cross-Canadian museum tour prior to his death, according to longtime agent Christopher Talbot.

And Cranston, always at odds with the figure-skating establishment, would have derived great validation from finally being accepted by art's old guard.

"I think his fondest wish would have been to have a show at a real, proper establishment art gallery," said Canadian fashion pillar Jeanne Beker, one of Cranston's closest friends, in a telephone interview from Paris on Wednesday.

"That was his dream: to have something at the Art Gallery of Ontario or somewhere, some retrospective, something. He felt he deserved to be there.

"He always felt that the world saw him as a skater first and an artist second. And it really drove him crazy."

Talbot, who sometimes communicated with Cranston on a daily basis about his work, agreed.

"In his mind — and it's maybe only in his mind — he never achieved the status he should have had as a figure skater. And he really wanted that as a visual artist," said Talbot, president and founder of Art Evolution Gallery, in a telephone interview from California.

If Cranston never lived to see that recognition, it certainly wasn't for lack of effort.

He retired from skating in 1997, more than a half-decade after his move to a sprawling compound in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. During the later stages of his skating career — and especially afterwards — Cranston was consumed by art.

Friends recall an almost exclusionary drive. As Talbot tells it, Cranston was a "fish out of water" any time he was dragged from his work.

"'Terrifying obsession' really encapsulated Toller's role as an artist," Talbot said.

"He was just tenacious. He drove himself relentlessly. ... He couldn't stop."

Cranston's Mexican home — or his "little Shangri-La," as Beker calls it — became an overstuffed testament to his passion, even after he sold off a major part of his collection while still living in Toronto.

A characteristically idiosyncratic sanctuary, Cranston's walled-in property was blanketed by a lush, professionally maintained garden. Inside, it was overgrown with artwork — by Cranston and by others, especially local Mexican artists whose work he acquired voraciously.

"Every square inch of his house," marvelled Talbot. "If you look at a wall, you can't tell what colour it is because there's that much art on it."

Beker recalls marvelling as Cranston bought works in an almost "hedonistic" fashion, collecting local artisans' painted bowls and dishes and glass art, which he'd hang from the ceiling.

"If he saw something he liked he'd want to buy not one but 10 or 20," she recalled.

"I often felt that I was in the middle of a Toller Cranston painting when I was sitting there in his garden or one of his rooms. They would envelope you that way."

In Cranston's estimation, his artistic style evolved little over a lifetime spent furiously creating — simply because it started off so clearly defined.

As Cranston explains in an interview on the Art Evolution website, his colourful compositions grew from an interest in Eastern influences that he established at an unusually young age (specifically, he references Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkestan).

"The inclination, the subject matter, the concepts, the sense of colour, the people, the worlds, the imagery — miraculously — was in evidence when I was six years of age," Cranston said.

"Every painting (I've done from) when I was six until now when I'm 58, seems to come from that very same world."

If nothing else, then, his work was distinctive. And his proponents argue that should count for something.

"No one was painting like that," said Michelle Kirkegaard, Canadian art adviser and owner of the Adele Campbell Gallery, a Whistler, B.C., space that has hosted exhibitions of Cranston's work.

"Anyone that has seen a painting, without seeing the signature, could say: 'That's a Toller Cranston.' And I think that's a sign of a very disciplined, mature and creative individual."

The Cranston signature style had no shortage of devotees, people who spent thousands of dollars to acquire his work.

Cranston's hunger for the validation of the art establishment, however, wouldn't be sated in his lifetime.

"In the echelons of the art world, the top level of which would be official recognition — he wasn't part of that world. He was loved by the people who collected his work," said celebrated Toronto artist Charles Pachter in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"There's a certain type of people that fits the milieu of the official art museums," he added. "Toller wasn't one of those people."

He knew Cranston. The Canada Day they spent together and among friends in 1978 was immortalized in Pachter's painting "Six Figures in a Landscape."

Pachter describes Cranston's work as "kind of like Disney on acid — like the Wicked Queen from 'Snow White.'"

"He was outlandish, outrageous, creative, funny, droll," Pachter remembered. "He was a character. He was a true original."

More of Cranston's work is sure to emerge with the eventual excavation of his cluttered residence in Mexico.

Even when he was alive, it wasn't easy to maintain a reliable record of his work.

"As soon as he put his signature on a painting, it was out of his life. It was like it didn't exist," explained Talbot.

"He'd paint some masterpiece, something fabulous, a $30,000 to $40,000 painting, and he wouldn't even know where the damn thing was. ... This is a six-foot-by-six-foot painting that you knocked yourself out on for two months and you don't even know where it is? The level of dysfunction was spectacular, but it's just the kind of guy he was."

Cranston's apparently unstoppable work ethic, his seclusion, and his habitual disorganization may have contributed to hyperbolic estimates of his artistic output.

And that, his friends say, is in its own way fitting.

"I have seen inaccurate figures printed that he did over 70,000 works of art," said Pachter with a laugh.

"No artist could do that many. Maybe 7,000, but 70,000? It's ridiculous.

"It is an exaggeration," he added. "But in many ways, Toller's whole life was an exaggeration."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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