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Jerrod Tobias: "Seeds of Symbiosis"

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Every artist is an activist whether or not they choose to identify themselves as one. It is not a choice that a maker of cultural constructs can make, but a reality of the designation itself. Local artist Jerrod Tobias has been finding his own ways to grapple with these terms over the last few years. His most recent exhibition, "Seeds of Symbiosis," currently on view at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, extends past conceptual and visual vehicles to their institutional conclusions, but continues to poke and prod at the conservative sensibilities of the art world in an effectively subversive manner. Without offending, misleading, or attacking, Tobias' working class drawings find their way into the core of audiences attention, whereupon they depict Occupy imagery and a particularly Earth First mentality. Tobias believes that his "process of combining the traditions of drawing, painting, and printmaking are in an attempt to develop a visual language that encompasses preservation and progress."

In Tobias' own words, "Through a variety of drawing and painting processes, I strive to reveal rhythms and patterns found in nature… These ‘seeds of symbiosis’ seek to preserve the wisdom of the past while searching for economic and agricultural sustainability in the present."

If that doesn't spell out an artist with a mission, nothing will. This mission is one out of the necessity, vanity, and compassion simultaneously. The artist must make money from his work to survive, he chooses to do this through the creation of beautiful objects that teach and educate, and the story they tell is one of environmental awareness needed to sustain the quality of life he wishes for his children.

The three point arc was made much clearer in "Seeds of Symbiosis" than in past bodies of Tobias' work. The self-reflexivity of Tobias' work and words humanizes his pieces, allowing the viewer to feel more comfortable with them. These are not academic paintings or confoundedly conceptually manifestos, but small, simple manifestos, like parables used to spread common wisdom through a population. In many ways, Tobias seems to view the artist as the "canary in the coal mine" of society, similar to folk singers like Joni Mitchell, with the responsibility to warn of paving parking lots in a world that is rushing toward a glut in sustainability.

The overall theme within "Seeds and Symbiosis" is the interconnectedness of man with nature, in both small and large ways, and the need to reclaim that relationship to nature more fully. This can be seen in natural objects like flowers being transformed into repeating geometric patterns, like "Metamorphosis," an image of a child blowing the seeds of a dandelion into the wind. These geometric patterns can also be found in Tobias' somewhat Transcendentalist old wise man, "Willie Hoagland," a man who appears throughout most of Tobias' work. These patterns are also very specific in that they are tessellations, implying a mathematic order or even a pre-determined pattern to the nature and characters he creates. Not only are these geometric patterns interlocking shapes, but they are contain patterned colors, undoubtedly with specific meaning to Tobias as well. These patterns overlap cultures, and with the inclusion of color almost turn Tobias' paintings into tiled mosaics or stained glass windows, both of which have rich histories of being used to tell stories to the masses who walked on and by them each day. Other characters include the Ghandi-esque man with a starred crown, humans riding animals, and individual animals with geometric designs, including a jackalope.

Another large piece of "Seeds of Symbiosis" is a wall of miniatures, a signature of Tobias' exhibitions. These pieces exemplify passages in his artist statement, for instance, "Drawing is the foundation of (Tobias') creative process. It offers (him) an immediate channel to record ideas and experiences." This is evident in the many quick study figure drawings done of individuals and crowds, reminiscent of pages in Rembrandt's notebooks, like any artist obsessed with the figure.

However, these crowd images take on their activist tone when they are accented by a few images of armored police and people holding up "99%" picketing signs, turning those crowds into a disenfranchised conglomeration of attitudes, politics, and behaviors. Through all of the messages in Tobias' work, no matter what the viewer's personal political stance may be, there is a keen focus and respect given to the individual and humanity as a whole. Tobias' almost shamanistic voice as an artist is meant to guide us toward a holistic understanding of our place within nature in his understanding, and he parallels this through contemporary politics and folklore.

Tobias' work not only takes form in this exhibition, but also in a growing number of public projects, taking the form of a series of wheat-pasted murals on sometimes abandoned, or seemingly abandoned walls throughout downtown Fort Wayne and the South side. Again, in Tobias' words, "Fine Art and street art can be experienced through that same public interface" (advertising). Both Tobias' price point and tireless production, as well as his translation of work into public art, convey his strongly held sentiment that art is for the people. The question yet to be answered is when these seeds will be nurtured by the people.

"Jerrod Tobias: Seeds of Symbiosis"
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
Up through May 12, 2013
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