by Crystian Mendoza
photography by Natasha Brennan
When you close your eyes and think of an artist, you normally do not visualize someone suspended 50 feet in the air, supported by nothing other than a simple harness and dangling precariously while trimming an enormous tree. Meet Christopher Hart Toovey: When he is not serving as president and co-founder of the dA Center for the Arts or painting huge murals for businesses and buildings in La Verne, he can be found practicing a different type of art: tree trimming. With the same concentration required for the finishing touches of a freshly painted mural or work of art, Chris, as he likes to be called, slowly and precisely navigates his way around a tree as he strategically chooses branches to prune. To keep, or not to keep, that is the question. That is the art of tree trimming.
That is also the intellectual patience that comes with creative art. On the south side wall of the University of La Verne Arts and Communications building are three separate murals created by Chris and his team, all depicting scenes from historic Old Town La Verne. Beautiful oranges sit in a wooden crate, waiting to be shipped. Miles and miles of orchards fill the background to the mountains. The incoming steam train takes you back to 19th century Lordsburg, the former name of the city.
For historical reference, Chris utilized a special collection at the Pomona Public Library. “Pomona has this special collections in the basement that has world renowned photographs and articles about the Pomona Valley, including La Verne,” he says. Former La Verne historian Evelyn Hollinger donated a passel of photographs to both the Pomona Public Library and the University of La Verne, forwarding the preservation of the history of the old valley.
These murals are traditional art and not his creative expression. “It is what they ask for, and I am limited in my creativity.” His favorite mural is at Cal Poly State University, Pomona. Unfortunately it is painted in a gallery basement, and, sadly it has been covered up with other artists’ work. “You can still see my brush strokes,” he laments.
While up in the trees, Chris sometimes finds solace and reminisces back to a time when rent was $25 a month in the 1980s for his first gallery space, the era when he started his gallery. Despite the Downtown Pomona area (his first site was on First Street, just south of the historic Pomona Mall area) then being a literal ghost town, it was perfect for artists. Art was booming, and at that rental price, it became a creative haven for Chris and his colleagues. Thirty-five years later, the dA Center for the Arts still has its space in the heart of the Downtown Pomona Arts District, albeit moving to Second and Main Street. It is a vibrant community center for art, where artists teach classes and up and coming artists gain space to first mount their work.
Jason Lemont, 51, is one such artist, first coming to the dA Center for the Arts in 2012 and regularly attending figure drawing classes. “It was the best deal I found around here,” says Jason. “I was an artist and into figure drawing, and this was the first class I went to outside of a college campus that just had a great group of people. I really liked the funky artistic vibe of the basement.” Graduating from Claremont Graduate School in 2007 with an MFA, Jason needed time to digest everything he learned. His process of discovery led him to becoming resident director of visual arts at the dA. “I realized that this organization is run with the help of very few people, so I offered to do whatever I could to help, and here I am today.” From that first figure drawing class, the student became the teacher.
Chris says as a young Claremont artist, he experimented with new ideas in the late 1950s. Claremont sported an established art community. Nevertheless, his vision of where art was headed was ahead of the Claremont Colleges. Contemporary and modern art was still heavily favored among the colleges and its associated galleries, so when people talked about the fine arts, they always referred to the colleges. Yet, “Art is about seeing; it’s a visual experience. One can only take so many landscapes and seascapes,” says Chris, who was born in the city of Orange in Orange County but raised in Claremont. As a student, he recalls having “really great art programs in elementary school alongside a district art teacher who was brilliant.” Her name was Dory Hart, and she shared a vision that allowed students the freedom to be themselves when it came to artistic expression. “She gave us the tools, but she said, ‘You’re the ones who will provide the art,’ and to ‘never be afraid,’” remembers Chris. “As a child of 10-11 years old, we had free range.” As up and aspiring artists, he and his Claremont classmates were invited to use the college’s facilities. “We owned the colleges.” This was due largely because many of the students’ parents were art professors or artists themselves. Their children would constantly get invited to gallery presentations. “It was pretty open to us; it was a very different time,” says Chris.
Throughout history, the term “art” represents a variety of different genres. What is considered art in 2018 may not have been titled that in a former time period. As a young artist, Chris learned firsthand, when trying to exhibit his artwork, that he was not able to do experimental pieces, per se. At the time, the gallery aid, located in Claremont, only wanted art that was sellable, leaving a then 12-year old Chris asking himself, “Well, now what do I do?” Art should not have restrictions, just as the mind does not.
Chris saw the future. “There’s a contemporary art world where people are constantly creating something new and changing directions radically; it’s the nature of the arts, especially for artists who are creating art for themselves and not to be put in an art market.” The business side of the art world made it tough for artists who wanted to do things that were out of the norm, forcing them to produce what others wanted as opposed to bringing forth their own creative expression. It is as if the art world attempted to give every artist a stencil to follow and to trace that which was a staple of previously created artwork. Chris says the commerce side of art saw little change in regards to content, and the art world continued to ask artists to mimic classical antiquities—if they ever wanted to be successful.
Now a student at Claremont High School, Chris felt he had great art and was hoping to gain the opportunity to showcase his work. It never came. “It’s a little deflating in a way; I was enemies with that gallery for years because they were not accepting. They were exclusive,” he says. “So, we said, ‘Let’s open a garage.’” With sensitivity toward art shifting in the United States, Chris felt it was time to move past making art that mimicked classical antiquities. “We were thinking of making art that looked more like today.” Despite the discouragement he felt when being told he could not produce experimental pieces, it ultimately led him down a path that paved the way for a new era of art. “This experience helped me see what I really wanted to do. I wanted to create a space where you could work on your own ideas. Something new. Something that looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Being shut down by the Gallery Aid was probably one of the better things that happened in my development of creating spaces.”
In 1977, Chris landed a job directing an arts “groove”— a team of artists who called themselves C.A.T., (Community Arts Team). While looking for gallery space, Cindy Evans, a team member, found a location that worked for them on Garey Avenue near the Fox Theater. The space was a storage facility. Interested, the owners showed Cindy the space, which was about 6,000 square feet. When she asked the owners, “How much is rent?” they responded, “Would $25 be too much?” Cindy with her boyfriend Bruce Gothard opened up the C.A.T. studio. “We then set up the place so that it was livable,” says Chris. “It was a great loft studio in the middle of downtown Pomona.”
At first, the space was just a studio for their personal artwork as they began partnering with the surrounding communities to produce art on commercial buildings through special grants. “In 1977, it was kind of dangerous; it was empty,” says Chris. “It was perfect for studio spaces.” Chris worked alongside Cindy and Bruce. Five years later, in 1983, he would take over the space completely. At the time, Chris had a friend named John who recently lost his own studio space in nearby Ontario, so he invited him to join. “I told him, I hate to tell you this, but the rent is going to be $12.50 a month,” says Chris jokingly as both men then shared a laugh.
By 1984, there still was really no place to exhibit art of their creative mindset. Remembers Chris, “You had to belong to the Pomona Valley Art Association. You had to pay a membership fee to be there, and you didn’t really get to show anything until your turn came up. To top it off, a lot of the stuff we were doing didn’t even make it up on the wall.” Chris set out with an art mission: to let people know that art is essential in a community, because in turn, it creates an opportunity for community building.
With the Arts District opening in 1994 in Downtown Pomona, followed by the first art walks two years later—“Second Saturday on 2nd Street”—art became the focal point of Downtown Pomona. “People didn’t go to buy art,” says Chris. “Though it was sold, people came because things were happening. It wasn’t just the static visual arts, it was also the music and performances.” The local Glasshouse and Fox Theater grew from the creative vision of people, and the Glasshouse is actually responsible for what Coachella Music Festival is today, he says. People in the surrounding communities realized art wasn’t strictly about commerce; it was also about culture.
Some 30 years later, Chris continues to enable young artists by providing a judgment-free space to produce and appreciate art. In the dA Gallery, Chris brings art to life. The dA Center continues to thrive as an early outlet for up and coming artists to first mount their work in a pressure free environment. “Part of the dA’s mission is letting people know art is necessary in a community,” Chris says. “Art is a universal language. Everybody and every culture around the world speaks art.” ■