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A Place for Inspiration
Sculptor Toby Mendez breathes new life into his famous father’s art studio
By Jeanne Blackburn and photos by Turner Photography Studio
He’s been a part of what was formerly Pleasant Valley Studio since he was in high school, but after his father’s passing last January, Toby Mendez decided to stay here in Knoxville and continue to work where he’d always found inspiration. He also has big plans for its future.
“I’ve always had a space out here, in the basement where it is now,” Mendez says of his home/studio that was once the domain of his father, the CIA agent and artist Tony Mendez. The elder Mendez was immortalized in the 2012 spy movie Argo (in which Ben Affleck played Tony) and enjoyed a career as a painter of impressionistic landscapes and outdoor scenes.
The father obviously was—and remains—a large influence on Toby, as was his mother, so he didn’t really have a prayer of being anything other than an artist of some kind. That was fine with him because art is where his interest and considerable talent has always been. His first medium was wood, but then he started carving marble. “Mom made me move it out of the house because it made too much dust,” he says with a smile.
Karen Mendez was a self-taught decorator whose example of color placement was an inspiration to him. Sadly, his mother passed away in 1986 when Toby was in college.
During high school he was chosen to participate in a program for artistically gifted and talented students at Goucher College in Towson before earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago. After he finished college, space was added to Pleasant Valley, which housed his father’s art studio, to include Toby’s sculpture studio and the gallery. His stepmother, Jonna, had her photo studio at Pleasant Valley.
After graduation, he began doing shows, which led to accepting private commissions and applying for public projects, as well. Two of his better-known installations include the Thurgood Marshall statue at BWI Marshall Airport and the likenesses of six Baltimore Orioles legends that have graced Oriole Park at Camden Yards since 2012.
Having two artists for parents, did he ever get any advice from them? “Mom and dad both talked to me about being dedicated,” he remembers, but they never pushed him, per se. “That would have been a turn-off,” he says. But there is one phrase that he remembers his father impressing upon him: “Put the time in” on whatever you do.
“Dad didn’t want this place to go to strangers”
His father’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease more than 10 years ago was a watershed time for Toby. “Dad was a young father, only 23 years older than me. I wondered about the heredity aspect of the disease and questioned what I wanted to do with the next 20 years of my life,” he says. It was about that time he and Dee Dee Johnson became friends, and Toby found her optimism and “seize the day” aspect of her personality to be inspiring, and just the kind of encouraging outlook he needed to consider continuing his career path with purpose and enthusiasm.
Then, several years ago, a terrible ice storm isolated Jonna and Tony in their home adjacent to the studio for days. With Tony’s progressing illness and the feeling of helplessness in an emergency weighing heavily, the family began to think of mov-ing the couple somewhere closer to the services they needed. It was the beginning of evolution at Pleasant Valley Studio.
It was not easy for any of them. Considering selling the compound consisting of the house, studio and gallery was not something Tony, who had built it over the span of 30 years, even wanted to think about, let alone plan. He had built it with his own hands, first as a house for his young family, then adding on to accommodate his growing family and their artistic endeavors.
During his tenure at the CIA as a forger and master of disguise, the rural compound was his refuge from the spy business in which he and Jonna were engaged for decades. The drive out of the D.C. area to the hills of Knoxville allowed him to leave the tensions of the workday word behind, and the sights and sounds of nature that surrounded his mountain estate allowed artistic creativity to envelop him.
“Dad didn’t want this place to go to strangers,” Toby says. So, with Dee Dee, who by then had become both a life and business partner, he started talking about taking over Pleasant Valley Studio, making it the couple’s home and maintaining it as his studio.
“We can’t make it a shrine”
Yet, it was hard for Tony to leave, even knowing that it was in capable and caring hands. In addition to it having been where his art gave him refuge from work, he and Jonna had formed a life together here. It was where he could relax, commune with nature, and find his emotional balance.
Tony’s feelings about having to leave Pleasant Valley Studio are captured in a recent painting of him by Toby—yes, he’s a painter, too. It’s that of his father sitting on the back porch of the house looking over the flowers and sculpture in the back yard. His expression is a mixture of reverie, sadness, and sense of fulfillment he found in this space. When Toby asked his father how he felt about leaving this place that was his domain, all Tony could say was, “It sucks.” In 2015, Tony and Jonna moved to Reston, Va., where she still lives.
For as invested as Toby has always been in this place tucked into the hills, he realizes that time can’t—and shouldn’t —stand still. His career must move forward and the setting for his creativity and hard work will, out of necessity, change. By way of accepting that, he says, “We can’t make it a shrine to [Tony and Jonna]. It’s not what they would want, but the plan is to stabilize what’s here and update some other things.”
The plan that truly excites him is an expansion of the existing sculpture garden. “I’d like to tie the garden more to the house —to have space to entertain outdoors amid more sculpture in the garden,” he says.
Toby hopes to continue private and public commissions, as well as developing the gallery. Dee Dee is adding her people skills to his vision for what is now Toby Mendez Studios. Part of that is for Toby to do more cohesive sculpture and painting: landscape painting that includes more figures to echo his interest in both.
Toward that end, he and Dee Dee have been rethinking the business with an eye toward creating a new body of collectors and developing partnerships with the community at large. Dee Dee says this could include “collaborative events with other members of the business community, dinners with the artist, intimate art shows, and possibly incorporating music.”
They both hope to make a visit to Mendez Studio more personable. A recent studio tour gave them an opportunity to connect with the community at large, and they’re investigating opportunities for public work, as well.
For the time being, he works from the same studio in the hills of Knoxville that he’s always worked in, letting this place both motivate and inspire. “My hope is to keep the torch lighted, to keep his [Tony’s] spirit, which is so much a part of this place and the land around it, alive for all who visit,” Toby says.
For more information about Toby Mendez Studios, go to www.tobymendezstudios.com.