Published June 11. 2013 4:00AM
Most folks, wandering the banks of a river, might spy a piece of driftwood or an odd-shaped rock - and most folks would then say, "Hey! There's a piece of driftwood! There's an odd-shaped rock!"
And that would be that.
The folk artist Roy Tookes, though, would find in those same pieces the suggestions of entire, vibrant worlds. With bright color schemes and a vivid, natural-world imagination, Tookes transforms - as though with a magic wand - the characteristics of respective found objects into all manners of creatures.
At the current exhibition in the Three Rivers Community College Gallery in Norwich, for example, several of Tookes' vividly painted rocks are grouped thematically: cats, bumblebees, penguins, owls, frogs, ladybugs - even a section of SpongeBobs. There's a distinct similarity in the rocks from each subgroup, but closer inspection of individual works reveals subtle distinctions that suggest personalities for each "creature."
"Sometimes it's easy because I can see the shape of the rock, and it immediately reminds me of something," says Tookes, who is the head custodian at Three Rivers. "Other times, I just like the rock, even though I don't know what I have. What will this be? I have to live with it, and eventually it comes to me."
Tookes also was delighted to discover some of the rocks he selected contained structural faults and were actually split. Rather than cast them aside, he put the flaws to work. Once the viewer removes the top half of the rock, he or she sees multiple "takes" of the same subject.
Tookes spends a lot of his weekends exploring the Thames, Yantic and Shetucket rivers, looking for interesting items that might stir his creative imagination. A Shreveport, La., native who started painting at the age of 6, Tookes grew up loving the works of Leonardo da Vinci. Over time, he experimented in realist and abstract painting and drawing, wood burning, and turning found objects into art.
After moving to Connecticut years ago, Tookes found the job at Three Rivers. Outgoing, gentle and friendly, Tookes made instant friends with faculty and staff at the college and would frequently bring objects of his art to individuals at the school as gifts and mementos.
In fact, though Tookes loves the creative purity of inspiration, he can also enter into a period where he'll explore a motif based on someone's suggestion.
He wasn't, for example, a particularly big fan of SpongeBob, but after a professor asked Tookes to make a rock image like the iconic cartoon character, Tookes found himself turning out several pieces. "(The professor) said, 'Please, you have to do one for me.' I said, 'I guess so' - and then I did a lot of them."
It was that sort of interaction that led to Tookes meeting Sandra Jeknavorian, an associate professor of art at the college.
"I've known Roy since 2004, when I started at Three Rivers," Jeknavorian says, "and I've always known him as a fellow artist. He always chats with me about what he's working on and brings in examples of his work."
Jeknarovian in 2009 suggested the first Tookes show at the college. Since that exhibit, Tookes has spent a lot more time working with painted rocks, and his efforts convinced Jeknavorian it was time for a new exhibition.
Besides the rock pieces, there are also abstract and realistic canvases rendered in distinctive brushstrokes of acrylic/oil mixtures, as well as driftwood pieces whose painted figures and backgrounds convey a narrative.
"My favorite pieces of Roy's are the painted driftwood," Jeknavorian says. "He finds the driftwood locally and lets what he sees in the shape dictate what the piece will become. It's similar to how he approaches his painted rocks; he lets nature take the lead."
Many of his canvases and images are realistic in style, and a particularly striking work is a wood-burned portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. The depiction of the slain civil rights leader was a commission, and Tookes says his finished piece surprised the patron.
"They said they wanted something special," Tookes says, "and I was thinking about it. I'd never seen a woodburning of Martin Luther King, so I decided to try it."