The town in Hunterdon County was originally to have been called California, but the name was shortened to Califon in order to fit on the welcome sign, according to one legend. Then there’s the story that the sign painters had a bit too much to drink and stopped at the n.
Artist Jim Toia, pictured at right, makes his home in Califon’s hills both because of its refuge from the metropolitan area and its proximity to the center of the contemporary art world. Toia relies on the natural world as inspiration for his artwork. “Jim Toia: From Here to Uncertainty” will be on view in the New Jersey State Museum’s second floor Riverside Gallery starting Saturday, September 26, and continuing through January 3, 2016.
He calls the space he built in 2000 in Califon’s Long Valley his dream studio, at 45-by-25 feet, with a 35-foot peak and loft space in the top. “It gives me room to make large-scale work and work on an intimate scale on the second floor,” he says from his office at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he teaches art full time and is the founding director of a community arts program for high school classes in the area. As he speaks, Toia is staring at a tank for jellyfish that will be in the State Museum exhibition. “I’m in the middle of getting proper flow for the tank that I built to fit in a hollow log, a unique environment for its use,” he says. “I don’t know if anyone’s made one like this for jellyfish, or even put a fish tank inside of a hollow log.”
From Lafayette, it’s a 35-minute commute back to the hills of New Jersey, a region that is mostly wooded, bisected by rivers and streams, and surrounded by farmland. With only one traffic light in the 57-square-mile town, it seems like an older rural New Jersey.
Toia is happiest in the natural world, “in the barren landscape of Alaska or the deep woods of Big Sur with all its majesty, not governed by 19th or 20th-century constructions of man,” he says. “The woods of my home town have an infinite amount of information and offerings. I like to find natural spaces with no human interaction.”
The artist began fishing and splashing in rivers and streams in his boyhood in Summit, where his father sold life insurance and his mother was an amateur painter. His parents were supportive of his art making, but Toia lost his mother was he was 17, so she never got to see him pursue it, a sorrowful regret for him even today. “She left behind 20 paintings, which I cherish,” he says.
At Bard College in the Hudson Valley Toia began to take art making seriously. “There were more acres than students and a large fresh water estuary. I found myself drawn to the Hudson River and wooded fields — it was a constant source of beauty and wonder. Bard has an incredible environment to investigate. I’d jump in a canoe or walk the beautiful fields. At Bard I started to further define my relationship with nature and delve in.” After Bard he earned his MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Explorers of nature are often collectors, and Toia lines his shelves with turtle shells, mushroom logs, and other beautiful and fascinating objects. As an adult artist, Toia limits his foraging to places where it’s allowed (not state or national parks) or, if necessary, obtains permits to collect mushrooms or jellyfish. Visiting friends describe the home he shares with his wife, Angela Adams, a contemporary pop singer and registered nurse, as “the natural history museum of Jim Toia.”
Toia’s two step children, now in their 30s, shared in his fascination with the natural world. Their property abuts 350 acres of wetland, and they would disappear into the woods, chasing frogs and newts. “Humankind likes to take credit for this beauty, but we can’t,” he says.
Some items of natural ephemera from Toia’s personal collection will contribute to the exhibition’s conversation about man’s relationship to nature. “He uses natural materials the way other artists employ pencils, clay, or paint,” says fine art curator Margaret O’Reilly. “He has learned to manipulate the materials, but he also accepts the uncertainty that using them brings, creating aesthetically beautiful works which allow us to explore the symbiotic relationship between man and nature.”
The exhibit includes an outdoor installation, “Entropic Flows,” a 100-foot log made up of 10-foot logs spliced together to form one continuous log that tapers at both ends. “In the process of their entropic life, they will fall apart over time and do what wood does,” says Toia. “In the end, I may let it go back into the ground. That’s the beauty of these things: they can morph and go back to the earth when ready.”
In the “Hall of Wonders” visitors will be encouraged to match scientific holdings and models with Toia’s drawings and sculptural works created over the past 15 years and which include mushroom spores, jellyfish, and spider webs among other natural materials.
“Futurepast,” the fine arts gallery installation, is made up of a 13-foot hollow log that will house the cylindrical-shaped saltwater aquarium holding jellyfish. The log itself came from the Washington, NJ, Merrill Creek Reservoir that drains into the Delaware, and then travels the length Pennsylvania and New Jersey until it reaches Trenton and the State Museum. Toia credits Lafayette neuroscience major Greg Biggiani for helping to create the tanks. Like Toia, Biggiani is a fly fisherman and soccer player.
So how is this the future past? “It’s a rudimentary cycle,” says Toia. “We’ve got water, sea life, and things that represent terrestrial life. The hollow log has been deteriorating over years, fueling the forest floor with nutrients. The water evaporates off the ocean surface, carried by clouds in the atmosphere, drains into the landscape and back into the rivers and sea, creating a cycle of nutrition and environmental balance.”
Toia’s interest in mushrooms began in high school when he was taking public speaking and needed a subject. There was a mushroom outside the door of the building where he was to give the talk. “The amanita is fairly poisonous and can kill you or make you hallucinate in a very unpleasant way, but visually it’s enticing and beautiful and scary. Mushrooms are fascinating, ancient species. They’re their own kingdom, closer to animals than plants, and come in a wide variety of forms and do a wide variety of things, from breaking down things like dead trees to becoming nutrition for everything else. It’s how nature fuels itself.
“As I started working with nature in the art making process, I wanted to investigate mushrooms more. There are bracket mushrooms you can carve and paint and hang on a wall. There are fleshy chanterelles and oysters that eject spores into the atmosphere to propagate. You can capture the spore on paper for spore drawings. Inky cap mushrooms don’t eject spores, they just turn into a liquid that forms an ink. It can be carried away by an animal.”
On occasion, Toia will even eat mushrooms. “Only if I’m absolutely sure of the identification.”
Jim Toia: From Here to Uncertainty, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Saturday, September 26, through Sunday, January 3, Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Suggested admission $5. 609-292-6464 or www.nj.gov/state/museum.
Gallery Walk, led by Jim Toia. Friday, November 13, 12:10 p.m. Free.