We had the good fortune of connecting with Toni DeBiasi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Toni, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I’ve taken a lot of risks to get where I am. The first was probably just being artistic and creative in the first place: nobody in my family is even remotely artistic, but I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. My family supported me in my art, especially my mother, but nobody really understood me. Kids at school all thought I was weird. My teachers thought I was invisible and hated that I spent so much of my class time drawing. My mom wanted me to wear bright colors and be a much more outgoing person than I was: I wanted to wear jeans and t-shirts and be an artist. I struggled in middle and high school; I’ve never been very good at doing what I’m told to do, which didn’t sit well with all of my teachers and principals, so I got thrown out in my junior year and had to finish at an alternative high school – which was the best public school I attended. After I graduated, I didn’t go to college right away; I wanted to go to art school, but it never seemed like a realistic dream – nobody in my family had been to college, and though I had won a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, it didn’t come close to covering the whole cost, and I couldn’t afford the rest. So I did what was expected of me, for once: I went out and got a job. At the bank where my mother worked. I did well there, and over time, I settled in, and for the 7 or 8 years. But then one day, I walked into work, and I saw my entire life laid out before me: forty more years of sitting in that cubicle. And I thought, “I can’t do this.” So I went to college. And gave up the nine-to-five job. It was hard: my family thought I was crazy. I ended up getting divorced, and giving up my house and my comfortable income. The classes were tough: I had lost most of my study skills and all, since it had been so long since high school; the art classes might even have been the worst, because my professors made me defend my artistic choices, especially since the classes leaned less towards realistic art and more towards conceptual art. But I had to do it. I knew I couldn’t go back. So I went on. I studied, and worked, and made art. I starved and scrimped and took out loans. I spent two years at a community college and then applied to several different illustration programs; one of my choices was SJSU, which would be the toughest to get into. The deal was, you came in as a fine art student; at some point – usually after you’d been there two years or more – you would apply for the illustration program. You only got two chances at the portfolio review and and if you didn’t make it in the first two tries, that was it: you never got into the program. But then my first semester, one of my professors said I should apply in the spring that year; even though nobody did that and it was unheard of to take that risk your first year. But I made it. That was terrifying. I just kept taking risks, though. When my professors wanted me to focus on animation, I fought to be an illustrator. When I got out and then illustration market moved more towards digital art because it was faster and cheaper than actual painting. I tried to find a way to do the traditional mediums that were the only art I ever wanted to do. My husband and I took a chance moving to Tucson and I took a job teaching art; but after about two years of it, I had the same moment of clarity: this is not the life for me. This is not who I am. So I quit, and started making art to sell. And here I am.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My art is surreal and strange. I love nothing more than to take what would be a still life image and twist it, add something extra, and in my case it’s often eyes. I’ve painted still life images of cheese that contain an eyeball, cats playing with eyeballs and sporting tattoos, religious paintings that replace people with fruit, etc. My journey to this point in my life has been a series of choices, risks, and change. I gave up a corporate job that I hated to go to college ten years after most people, giving up a marriage and a comfortable life to being a very poor college student with no stability, to chase my lifelong dream of being an illustrator. I’ve worked a lot of art related jobs over the years to support myself and my art. From detail artist at an art restoration company to graphic designer, art teacher, and glass carver. Only for a few years here and a few years there, mostly because I dislike working for other people, Currently I am only working for myself and concentrating on making my own art. I am proud of the fact that my art makes people look twice. At first they think, oh that’s a painting of the Virgin Mary reading to baby Jesus, then they have to look again because I’ve actually replaced the baby Jesus with a pear. People either love my art or they hate it and I’m fine with either one because no matter what, it got a reaction and that’s what art is really all about isn’t it? I don’t believe that any creative has an easy time of it, it’s a constant struggle to survive as an artist, to thrive, since we’re always trying to make ends meet. Running an business as a creative is hard and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not, having to balance making art with the many, many business aspects of making money at it is exhausting! I hate that I have to spend so much time on the business stuff when all I want to do is draw and paint. I want my art to make people think, to entertain them, to give them a gut reaction, and more than anything I want them to need to look twice.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Obviously the first stop is downtown. So many small eclectic stores and restaurants. My hope would be that the visit would fall on a Fourth Avenue Street fair weekend because it’s definitely something to experience! The Sonoran Desert Museum is also a favorite, followed by dinner at Thunder Canyon Brewery for their craft beers and great food. Being relatively new to the area we’re still exploring and discovering all the great hiking places, restaurants, and other things unique to the Sonoran desert and Tucson.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are several people that have contributed to my journey as an artist. First of course my mother because she always encouraged me and made sure I had art supplies. My husband has been so amazingly supportive of who I am and what I do. He was often my model during my college years as well as the years I put in as an editorial illustrator who couldn’t afford to hire anyone. He allowed me to turn him into so many characters for my images over the years. He’s posed as a panhandler, a corrupt minister, a Krampus — the list goes on and on. For that and everything else I can’t thank him enough! I’ve received valuable mentorship from other artists, some who were my professors in college, like Barron Storey and Courtney Granner, to other artists I’ve met over the years who shared information and helped me keep my head up when things were not going as planned. I really feel that here in Tucson I have found some of my tribe in the creatives I’ve met here, especially in the Oddity community with others who, like me, have a slightly different focus than the mainstream artists.