Truman Toland, 1922-2011

Truman Toland

My grandpa, Truman Toland, died yesterday, at the age of 89. Healthy and self-sufficient to (almost) the very end, he was a great artist and a great guy.

One of my earliest memories of him was from a family vacation in North Carolina. It was early in the morning and he had come across a tangle of black string that had washed up on the beach (if you’ve been to the Atlantic coast, you will recognize this piece of string). He decided that his project for the day would be to untangle it, and that’s what he did.

He was a Yale-educated classical painter who made his living advertising for Ballantyne in the 60s and 70s, or “slingin’ booze” as he would refer to it. He was as irreverent as a person could possibly be, with the lone exception of the great value he placed on personal responsibility.

In retirement, he was part of a successful urban tree-planting initiative, and would regularly volunteer at the Museum of Natural History & Science in Cincinnati, where one of the jobs he took on was manually (with a scalpel) creating the skin texture for the dinosaur exhibit.

When I recently visited him, one of the things that came up was his amazement at the technology we have today. He’d become old and tired and a bit of an Eyore, and he asked “Why’d I spend all those years learning how to paint photo-realistically? When now, anyone can just pull a cell phone out of his pocket and ‘click!'

“What was the point?”

The sun was going down on Topsail Island when Grandpa Truman, as I called him back then, successfully picked out the last knot and, taking a small stick in one hand, neatly wound the former tangle around the stick, creating a perfect little spool, which he set aside.

The feat was every bit as amazing as it was boring to a Nintendo kid like me. I wondered what on earth he planned to do with it now that he had finished.

“Go find me another one,” he said, and smiled.

We are all going to miss him a lot.

Take a look at his sketchbooks, and you’ll get a sense of the incredible patience and care with which he did things (not to mention skill). It seems that for a lot of my generation, myself included, this is gone.

posted Thursday, October 13, 2011