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Artist Toby Salkin: “The Women’s Movement Wanted Us To Be Free”

Special To Topanga Journal

A member of Women Painters West and the Topanga Canyon Gallery (TGC), Toby Salkin has her heart in Topanga Canyon and the San Fernando Valley, and it shows in her paintings and collages that light up the room with colors reminiscent of this region. Salkin is a committed member of TCG’s collaborative space in the center of Topanga, Her story of commitment to art, the women’s movement, family, and the gallery is evident in her enthusiasm for life and the creative process. 

Mary Crescenzo

By Mary Crescenzo


TJ: What brought you to California from the East Coast in the mid-70s?  

SALKIN: My first husband, Jay, was a sales manager in the toy business. He had come out to California from New York on business, loved it and wanted us to live here. I thought it was a great idea, so we moved.  

TJ: What did you want to be when you grew up? 

SALKIN: An artist. I was always drawing as a child. I remember painting my first oil painting in probably first or second grade.  

TJ: Were your parents supportive of your ambition?  

SALKIN: Always. My aunt was an artist, my mother’s sister. Art was a very important part of my life growing up.   

“Two things I most like to use, even in my collages, are red, and leafing in gold, silver and copper.” Toby Salkin

TJ: You said you lived in New York. Did you study art there?

SALKIN: I took high school art classes. I thought I wanted to be a decorator, so I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. I was married at twenty-two and had two children soon after, so we moved from New York and bought a house in a new development in Pine Brook, New Jersey. On warm nights, after the kids were bathed, I’d sit on my front stoop wearing bell bottoms with my long hair parted in the middle enjoying coffee or a glass a wine. I found out later from a neighbor who eventually became my friend, that she cried to her attorney husband that when she saw me that there were hippies in the neighborhood! I decided I needed to go to my local YMCA and take art classes. I had a fabulous teacher, a woman who encouraged me. One day she called me out of class and asked if I wanted to join a group of women painters who met at her studio to work. I was elated. At the time, I was doing cubist work in muted colors. When we moved to Westlake Village, California, it was the saddest thing to leave that class, because I loved it so much. I was so overwhelmed my last day at the Y, I accidentally walked out of an emergency exit door and sounded the alarm!  

TJ: Did you continue your art studies in California? 

SALKIN: One of the friends I made at Westlake Village was also an artist who told me about Everywoman’s Village in Van Nuys. This organization had opened at the time of the original women’s movement. It was a great space for women to paint, but, unfortunately, it’s now closed. I studied painting in Los Angeles with Alex Vilumson, a Russian artist who I would say brought me into the light. He had me using bright colors which I still use today. Most of my paintings start with red. I just love the bright intensity of it. Two things I most like to use, even in my collages, are red, and leafing in gold, silver and copper. I’m drawn to this. It just makes me happy.  

TJ: What is your approach to color? 

SALKIN: When I put my bright colors out on my palette, I don’t have anything definite going on. I just start on an idea. I use a lot more colors than most artist do. I also use black. 

TJ: What is the biggest challenge when starting a painting?

SALKIN: I think it’s usually around the idea of wanting to paint the next day but not yet knowing what to paint. Then I wake up around 3 o’clock in the morning with an idea, I think about it, and the next day I start by drawing on canvas. I very rarely start with a piece of paper. I often use photographic images that inspire me. I just finished a series of portraits of famous artists, including Picasso. One of my recent collages depicting war is called, “Make Love Not War,” that old slogan from my activist days in the Sixties when I was a hippie, even though I was married.

TJ: What part of the painting process is most challenging when painting? 

SALKIN: I start the painting, and I’m very excited. Then, after a three or four hours, which is the maximum I paint at one sitting, I look at it. At first I love it, then I hate it. That part is the most frustrating. I walk away from it but force myself to go back in a day or two. By the time I’m done I usually love it. 

TJ: Do you recall as a young female artist any struggles you faced amongst your male counter parts? 

SALKIN: The women’s movement always wanted us to be free. I always was. I was a woman who did what I wanted to do. I was able to be a stay-at-home mom, and I painted as well. Lately I’ve been thinking about the 60’s, and there’s no doubt about it, men were in control. I was very aware of this. I supported the movement and worked for the Democratic Party. One day, when I rang a doorbell while canvassing for the party, a woman opened the door and said, ‘Shouldn’t you be home with your children?’ ” 

TJ: Before you began painting in Los Angeles full time, what other passions did you possess? 

SALKIN: I sold real estate for thirty years, was a real estate office manager, and trained other agents. I loved it. 

TJ: When you’re not painting a specific subject matter, how do you approach the concept of abstract art?  

SALKIN: Abstraction is more difficult. I starting thinking it’s going to be one thing, but it becomes something else.   

TJ: Tell me about your love of painting old and antique cars? 

SALKIN: On a rainy summer’s day, I was waiting for my son in a house he had rented in East Hampton, Long Island. The home, belonging to a New Yorker cartoonist and writer, was filled with a variety of art books I had never seen. As I was enjoying going through the books, I looked up and saw an old Chevy parked in a covered area. I took a photo of it and later went home and painted it. I started looking at other cars, and soon old cars became a subject matter of mine. 

TJ: Do you work in any other art medium besides oil painting and contemporary collage? 

SALKIN: I’ve done stone carving and assemblage works with manikins. I love collage. Collage  artists are the ones who always have their heads down, picking up stuff from the street. I have a huge collection of papers, newspapers, old books etc. that I use as materials for inspiration. 

TJ: According to The Topanga Canyon Gallery website,

a group of artists got together in the spirit of the first Topanga Artists’ Guild in the 1950’s, and formed a collaborative space showing works of members that include, to this day, well-known as well as emerging artists from the greater Los Angeles area. Its mission is committed to “keeping art in the canyon alive.” What is one of your earliest memories as a gallery member, and how does the gallery work?   

SALKIN: I’ve been a member for about six years at its present location at Pine Tree Circle.  When I first joined, there was a wall dividing the space in half, front and back. Some of the artists came up with the idea of creating one big room. Instead of having work by artist members featured every month in the front, we now fill the space with four featured artists every other month, and a group member show on alternative months. Each member sits the gallery for a total of eight hours per month. You must be juried in to become a member and each artist pays a yearly membership fee. We also rent the gallery one month out of the year to an art organization for display of their work, and we conduct an annual tour of our artists’ home studios. 

TJ: Describe your art in one word.

SALKIN: Playful

TJ: Describe yourself in one word. 

SALKIN: Confused. No, eclectic!


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