A stunning and larger-than-life artwork at this year’s Sculpture by the Sea has a compelling back-story. The concept came to its creator, Dr Toby Bell, in a flash and fully-formed but it was a moment accompanied by supraventricular tachycardia that almost cost him his life.
“I won a sculpture competition in 2010 and used some of the money to go to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, which is a wonderful celebration of music and art with a strong sense of community. One night I felt a few brief palpitations and pretty much knew that I was going to need serious medical help. I was in the middle of a desert in a tent and my chances of survival weren’t looking too good.”
“I could see the defibrillator paddles hovering above me and I thought I was probably going to die. And if the dominos had fallen the wrong way I would have.”
“I remember feeling quite calm and peaceful, it was a moment of intense pressure and then complete acceptance. That’s when I had this image of The Cosmic Blacksmith. It came into my head as a completely finished sculpture. I knew exactly how it would look.”
“It’s that idea of unbearable pressure followed by a sense of acceptance that I’m trying to communicate to people who take the time to look at the sculpture closely.”
Art and life
“Burning Man utterly changed my life. It was just an avalanche of emotions and when I came back to Perth I knew I’d have to become much more serious about my art. Before that I used to do it almost in secret. I felt that I couldn’t really call myself an artist, that I wasn’t worthy of being regarded in that way.”
“I’d changed radically by the time I came back from Burning Man. I actually looked physically different and some people I knew didn’t even recognise me. There were, inevitably, some difficult times ahead. My marriage couldn’t continue and that was hard because we have two children, but once you buy that sort of ticket you’re on the ride.”
“Art became the medicine to express my emotions, it was therapy.”
And, given Toby’s family background in the UK, it’s hardly surprising that there were long-standing issues that needed some form of resolution.
“I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family. My father was a doctor, a typical alpha male, highly successful and charismatic. He was also an alcoholic and not one for expressing emotions in a positive way. And that’s not surprising because the job of being a doctor predisposes you to playing the role of the ‘carer’ and the ‘strong’ one.”
“It’s not entirely appropriate to display vulnerability in front of a patient, as we all know.”
“And my mother had her own set of problems. She became addicted to opiates and was in a drug-induced haze most of the time.”
“It was really difficult for me as a young child watching my siblings fall by the wayside one after another. It was terrible, really. I decided I wasn’t going to succumb to that so I became highly controlled, emotionally detached and shutdown.”
Toby trained as a doctor in the UK and, perversely, the very qualities that enabled him to survive a difficult childhood suited the practice of medicine.
“Being a doctor was quite good in a way. The whole idea of being professional encourages the building of emotional walls so there was no need to feel much outside well-defined boundaries. I’d become a lot like my father, although I hasten to add I wasn’t an alcoholic!”
“I thought I was fine, but there were niggling feelings that something was missing.”
Finding the balance
If it came to a choice between medicine and art, Toby would have no hesitation in choosing the latter.
“Initially, it was quite difficult to balance medicine and art. It was like being two people, with both of them wanting to do everything. It’s all too easy to end up thinking like a doctor all the time, and being an artist is not that dissimilar.”
“I break the week up with two or three days working in the area of skin cancer, which I really enjoy. The transition between medicine and art is pretty seamless now, I came to realise that they’re both ‘me’ and that’s been beneficial in both areas.”
“But I have to say that being a sculptor is not an occupation for me, it’s more like breathing. It’s so intertwined with how I live my life and, if I had to, I could always find something to do other than medicine.”
In May 2016 Toby did find something to do other than being a doctor. He, quite literally, ran away and joined the circus!
Life’s a circus
“I spent a month touring WA with a bunch of amazing people. I had this incredible costume and they gave me a flame-thrower to play with, which I used in a fire show and backing a band. It was wonderfully inspiring to be with people who were so dedicated to their art.”
“But it’s always sculpture that I come back to because it’s an extraordinary medium. The three-dimensionality brings the artwork to life and, at its best, embraces the universal human experience.”
“I would hope that a piece such as The Cosmic Blacksmith becomes a conversation that connects people and resonates with their own experiences.”