Another phrase that's been used frequently to depict the phenomena that is Toller is "Renaissance Man." Painter, writer, illustrator, World Champion free Skater, 6-time Canadian champion figure skater, Olympic Medalist, Member of the Order of Canada, costume designer, choreographer, coach, TV commentator and general Bon Vivant—Toller Cranston is all this and more.
In the 1970s, Toller burst onto the world's figure skating scene like an exotic comet streaking into view. In a world of tightly prescribed (read dull) style, stick-stiff arms, flat hands and precision figures, his totally distinctive kind of skating—by turns lyrical, balletic, elegant, romantic or fiery—turned the sport on its head. He weaved his arms over his head, stretched his long body into graceful arcs, spun himself into spins and turns no one else could pull off and skated with a musicality never seen before. And in doing so, he changed the face of men's figure skating forever. It earned him the sobriquet "Skater of the Century." And the Toller Cranston style became the one to beat.
Talking With Toller
I've known Toller Cranston casually for more than a dozen years, but it was great to sit and talk with him one-on-one about his work. It was also something of a challenge. He is so intensely curious about people and life that he tends to turn the questions back on the questioner, learning more than he's telling. And he's so interesting that you let him do it. Then you remember you need to steer him back on point.
He's always been a hard worker. No one gets to be an Olympic medalist and World Champion in any sport without a lot of hours of hard work, concentration and pure sweat. But he admits he was also lucky, both in his timing and in his personality.
"My biggest advantage throughout my life has always been that I am completely uninhibited," he says. That was the secret power of his skating, giving him the courage to develop a totally new and unique style that blew into the staid and stilted conventional style of men's figure skating like a fiery rocket.
That uninhibited approach to life is also the hallmark of his art, his home, and his life.
A lot of assets came together to create Toller Cranston: the perfect skater's body, enormous energy, a huge amount of raw talent and a great capacity for discipline. Couple that with even greater determination to succeed and you've got a champion. "To achieve anything in life, you must never take no for an answer," he explains.
Though best known on the world's stage as a skater, Toller Cranston has always thought of himself as an artist first—"a painter who skates." In fact, in those pre-sponsorship and scholarship days of Olympic sport, Toller paid for his training on the ice with income he made from selling his paintings.
"We're all born with an inclination in the genes" he explains. "Who we are, what we're supposed to do, it's in the DNA. I had full knowledge as to what my destiny was—my inclination—from a very early age. I was a painter."
From the time he was a teenager, Toller began visiting every major museum in the world. The quest was made easier by the world touring that was so much a part of his skating life. "That was my education," he says.
The "Toller Cranston Style" also developed early. It's easy to recognize his work, even pieces done 20, 30 or more years ago. And while it has evolved in detail and in depth, becoming more focused, layered and forceful with age and experience, the overall "feel" of the style was there from the start.
Definitely Russian in accent, many of the paintings feature figures that look like they just stepped out of a production of "Prince Igor" or "The Firebird." Reminiscent of the early-20th century ballet designs done by Leon Bakst for the Diaghilev Ballet Company, they glow with jewel-like colors, entice the eye with highly detailed decorative elements. The faces of the figures feature vaguely Asian, almond-shaped eyes and elongated noses. With knowing, secret smiles, they seem to invite you in to share a private joke.
Whimsical, bright, circusy, multi-layered, the paintings have that quality of theatricality that infuses everything Toller Cranston does, and who he is.
A Home in San Miguel de Allende
Unique though he is, Toller's San Miguel de Allende odyssey began like so many others. In 1988, he came to visit an artist friend for a two-week vacation. After being here less than 24 hours, he asked for the name of a real estate agent. "I knew immediately that San Miguel was the stage set for this part of my life." But the search for the perfect property took longer than he thought. It wasn't until the 74th house he looked at that he knew. He'd found his piece of paradise. And he knew it while still standing on the sidewalk, before he'd even gone inside to explore.
It was an almost derelict 2 1/2-acre property just steps from Parque Juarez. A tannery in the 17th century, it later became an estate and then a boarding school for rich American teenagers with problems. It had four houses on it, but it was the garden that called to him. "It was like stepping into a winding tunnel of greenery." He knew at once he'd found his piece of paradise.
Buying the property was a huge stretch. "I was virtually penniless at the time," he adds. But he envisioned the home into being, selling his Toronto home to make the down payment. "I sold everything I owned to buy this place."
That sure sense of theatricality and living larger than life that he was known for extends to his San Miguel home. It begins at an unassuming metal door on Calle Sollano, set into a painted concrete wall dripping with scarlet bougainvillea, blue plumago, and green trailing vines. It opens onto a set of shallow stone steps walled in a jungle, his tunnel of greenery—lush ferns, huge monsteras, more colorful bougainvillia, rubber trees. You duck your head now and then to avoid the branches and leaves.
Then you reach the first part of the house. It's an amazing work of art in itself, a pure reflection of Toller Cranston both as an artist and as a man. For everything he does is done with style, elegance, great attention to detail, and huge panache.
The style is... well...Tolleresque—eclectic, whimsical, creative, a bit outrageous and totally over the top. To get to the gallery, you enter through a huge kitchen, its walls lined with colorful platters, its shelves scattered with gilt Egyptian statues. You spot an 18" high talavera-style ceramic mask. In most homes, one or two of these giant masks would make a nice accent on a wall. In Toller Cranston's home, there are more than four dozen of them in various arrangements.
Just outside the gallery/living room, you find the hearts. Some 200 (at last count) hand-blown glass heart ornaments in every color and style. They range from a simple, clear "valentines" heart to corazones in iridescent pink, cobalt blue and burnt orange, winged "sagrado corazon" religious hearts and anatomically correct bleeding hearts. They hang from a mirrored archway, from a tin and wrought-iron sculpture and from the ceiling.
In the high-ceilinged gallery, designed like a living room, the walls are completely covered by his canvases both huge and small, bursting with color and detail. There are also tapestries, carvings, Mexican folk art, ceramics, tin lanterns, blown glass. Like Toller himself, it is extravagant and larger than life. You'd think at first glance it would never work, that it's too over-the-top to hold together. But surprisingly, it's a very comforteble room. "And everything in it is for sale," he points out.
"I'm in business," he explains. "I'm a worker." Indeed he is. Here in San Miguel, it's not unusual for Toller to spend 10 to 12 hours a day in the studio.
Painting in San Miguel... But Not Painting San Miguel
Many artists come to San Miguel for the light. They paint the color and movement and life of the Mexican scenes around them. Toller adores San Miguel. "It is a constant source of fascination and pleasure to me," He says. But he doesn't paint it. In fact, he often closes the curtains in the studio when he works. "The color from the gardens is just too much of a distraction." And he doesn't paint from a model. He creates from the images in his mind, with details augmented by frequent research in the hundreds of art books in his personal library.
"Artistically, I'm at the top of my game," he claims of his work today. "But I know time is finite so I am in a frenzy to create. I'm very cognizant of the now."
Many of his canvases are smaller now. "Splendid achievement has absolutely nothing to do with size," he says. "A queen can checkmate a king, but so can a pawn." But even these small pieces are filled with that distinctive sinuous line, so like his physical style as a skater, bold color and perfectly executed detail. He calls the style of his work "mystic symbolism."
Toller Cranston and San Miguel de Allende have found the perfect point of balance, each adding to the other. He knows this is where he is supposed to be right now.
"The number one rule in life is to know who you are and know where you fit. You spend your life, whether as an artist or as a human being, discovering who you are. And at the end of the road the 'successful' person has achieved his full potential."
Toller Cranston is not yet at the end of that road, but his life is already an amazing achievement.
To Visit:The Toller Cranston Gallery is located at Sollano 84. To make an appointment, call (415) 152-0347.
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