What Felt True

We ended up at a local market among a handful of weathered, yellow wooden tables.

The sound of shopper chatter, hard heels clicking on wooden planks and friendly commerce filled the cavernous space, immediately warming us as the rain continued to softly shade the world outside with a slick iridescence.  It was somehow fitting, moving from a trendy coffeehouse to an eclectic spot filled with intriguing local characters and organics. More real, much like Paolo del Toro himself, a Lancaster-based artist fashioning the surreal and the strange into tangible form. As a transplant by way of Herefordshire, England, a locale that sees rain more than sun most of the year, Paolo possesses a unique perspective on American life. He spent the next hour weaving the story of his history and how he experiences art. It’s as textured as the intricate pieces he creates from wood and felt, and explains a lot about the dichotomy of traits observed in his work.

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Ironically, Paolo’s art emerged by accident, the result of a vagabond existence after deciding he’d had his fill of modern society. He’d worked as a farmer most of his adult life, then spent years visa-dodging with no true stability to be found. Sleeping in caves, woods, digging canals, once working on a coffee bean farm in the jungle infested with gun-toting drug traffickers, it became essential that his pieces be compact and portable. “You’ve got to get it out, the impulse to create,” says the man who once found himself absentmindedly drawing on a nearby table once when he didn’t have access to materials. “You can only hold it back for so long before you find yourself sculpting your mashed potatoes.” He began with a series of boxes that were both lightweight and functional with interior storage space ideal for traveling, but which also served as practice for future wood sculpture. Favoring cherry and maple, he crafted the boxes using hand tools, some almost tribal in nature, some animalistic, others influenced by the human form with delicate inlaid teeth of boxwood or holly.

Paolo was led back to modern life after meeting Pam, his now wife and a Lancaster native, in the Pyrenees Mountain Range that forms the border between France and Spain. “She sort of dragged me kicking and screaming back into the real world, which I’m glad for,” he chuckles. When he settled in the U.S., the self-imposed size restrictions placed on his work suddenly vanished in an almost comical way. Given the room to let his imagination roam, Paolo turned to experimenting with felt sculpture.

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He began with a bag of felt purchased from a local store and Rit fabric dye that can be purchased at any common pharmacy or grocery. Starting small, he created a series of brooches that he’d sell at market. Though that endeavor wasn’t the grand success he’d hoped it would be, it was a learning experience. He was selling the painstakingly crafted brooches for only ten dollars, and would-be hagglers still tried to negotiate. Arguably, this may have marked the moment when Paolo realized he needed to stop trying to please other people with his work and to simply do what felt true to him. Asked how he would characterize his creations, Paolo shies away from categorization. “I think people often want to put things into categories, and that’s for their benefit, not yours. It’s really for you to take what you take from it. When people ask me to describe my work...sometimes I just say ‘big, wooly, felted heads.’”

Big is an accurate descriptor. Having lost track of scale after years of being size-restricted, Paolo was working on a project that he thought was about the size of a human head until Pam passed by and he realized, “right, this is about ten times bigger than the size of the human head. Got it.” With the next project, the scale increased yet again, now limited only by the size of the doorway. He’ll admit that when laser-focused on a current piece, the world around him shrinks away, leaving only layers of felt, eons spent stitching and a stunning devotion to detail. “Sometimes you can work on something for days and it will still look the same to the naked eye,” he explains. With his three-needle holder, he might go over an area six times, often working with a mirror to capture the correct symmetry and looking at things upside down to get a fresh perspective on the subject.

With each piece, Paolo renders the lay of his internal landscape, trying to avoid the pitfall of emulating others’ work. However, he does remain intrigued by the work of Tove Jansson, a Finnish novelist, painter, illustrator and comic strip author known for her Moomins childrens book series published in the mid 1940s. The influence of the cartoonish oversized heads and fairytale-like qualities of Jansson’s Moomins characters can be felt in Paolo’s work, but only to a point. “I think all you can do then is poorly imitate someone else...I think if you become too enamored with another artist, all you’ll ever really be is an imitation of what they are and that’s not really being an artist from the way I see it.” To him, it’s about having a singular vision and following it through—no easy feat by any measure. When Paolo does look at art, he says, it’s typically tribal, folk masks, Renaissance period pieces, a bit of everything. When asked the tritest question in the universe, “what inspires you to create?” he replies with the thoughtful humbleness that’s so evident in his demeanor: “The answer is a bit of a mystery and that’s always the case. The creative act is a magical act, you’re making something from nothing, something separate from just observing…that’s what the imagination is.”

Paolo’s felt pieces range from the physically wearable such as “The Visitor From Sirius B” that layers an alien-featured caricature below an Asian-influenced human facade that can actually be removed, creating a dramatic effect. Others are simply for display, like “The Other World Becomes Visible,” a 2’ x 2’ wall hanging composed of colored wool and foam which he displayed at his September 2015 exhibition at the Sunshine Art + Design gallery in Lancaster. Paolo has most recently exhibited at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Manhattan after the notable art aficionado contacted him out of the blue via Facebook. Paolo’s whimsical world of witches, sprites and wonder has a riveting way of indulging the explorative imagination of childhood with scenes gleaned from dreams, imparting an otherworldly, ethereal tone. And it was beginning to capture more and more attention.

He does sell some of his work, but for Paolo that’s not what making art is about. It’s a consideration for others, but it’s not his impetus for creation. “You’ve had this nebulous idea that no one else has had or no one else has seen and you’ve managed to render it into the real world, so sometimes it can be frustrating to try to couple that to any kind of capitalist enterprise.”  Where Paolo’s imagination leads him next is anybody’s guess, hidden even to him, but he finds clarity in a simple principle. “I might make a hundred more big sculptures or this might be the last one. It’s just about doing what feels right.”

See more of Paolo del Toro's work on Tumblr, Behance, and Instagram.

Written by Lore Mauger

Cover Photo: Tifani Truelove

First, Last and Studio Photo: K. Scott Kreider