Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Toni Tiller, Artist

Posted in art, interview, photography by Jason Gray on June 3, 2013

tableful, © Toni Tiller

In life, there are certain people that you meet whose trajectory seems to point them perfectly at their intended destinations; people unconfused about their purpose and seemingly unfettered by the baggage that you yourself carry on your own slow journey.  These persons do not stop to read the road signs; they plunge ahead, assured by their own inner compass. These individuals, few as they are, tend also to constantly inspire, albeit often less for following the rules than for breaking them. Toni Tiller is one of these people.

Tiller is an artist, but not of the traditional vein.  For instance, she does not concern herself with the typical game of galleries and exhibitions, preferring instead to showcase her new work online to a growing base of supporters (many of who tune in for her wednesday contributions to the arts blog, www.Darteboard.com).  Often, she has traded her work with other artists, their cultural esteem/art world-cred notwithstanding. In other cases, she has even allowed herself to become the object of the art. For her, the art is always front and center, while the commercial value of it is of very little concern.

Since 2006, when I first met her online, I have witnessed Toni’s virtual following grow from a mass of strangers on an arts forum, to blossom into a real bouquet of friends and fans alike.  Despite all of her bohemian tendencies (or maybe because of them), I can imagine that she would be the first person that many people would choose to take with them to a deserted island. And why not, if nothing else, I am sure that she would tell some damn entertaining stories.

After you read her interview with One Round Jack, take a moment to explore her Flickr sets and see for yourself why I find her artwork so compelling.

HOI- As someone who has known you online for several years, I have thought of you alternatively as a photographer, a collage artist, a former NYC club kid, a model and muse, a blogger, and a printmaker, among other things. I know now that you represent none of these things separately; that you are much rather all of them, though non-exclusively. Can you briefly explain your trajectory up until this point, and why “keeping your options open” has been such an important part of who you are as an artist?

TT- I guess I never really thought of it so much as “keeping my options open” as much as it is just the coincidental cross point of two important positions. The first being that I am essentially an experience-based person; I like doing things just for the sake of doing them, and often times the results border on being irrelevant.

The other thing is that I decided pretty early on that I had no interest in pursuing a career in art. I tried to think about it briefly, but the whole process of applying, writing artist statements, worrying about producing a consistent body of work, selling… it took me out of the experience and made me focus on results. I hated it, and now I don’t have to think about it; I can do as I please at any given moment. That freedom is essential.

murder 2© Toni Tiller


spanner 2© Toni Tiller


bryan© Toni Tiller

HOI- I first knew you as a self-portrait photographer [maybe not the right description; feel free to elaborate on this], and many of those images from when we first started conversing still stick out in my mind as exceptional. Where did you get the idea to focus the camera on yourself; was it a natural growth from your early years in front of other people’s cameras?

TT- What is funny is I never spent all that much time in front of other people’s cameras, but the few times I did just happened to be significant, and I was lucky to work with really talented people like Mario Testino, Terry Richardson, and Dale May. The truth is I am absolutely terrified of cameras, and I can be completely paralyzed by them. There are virtually no photographs of me between the ages of 5 and 18 at all.

© Mario Testino


Toni on the cover of the Godsmack debut album.

In the aftermath of club life I moved to Connecticut and I was suddenly isolated, I discovered the internet as my only means of social connection, but people still want to see you, and everyone had these absolutely horrible photographs of themselves taken in the bathroom mirror, or with one arm up in the air. We’ve all seen a lot of right armpits I think…anyway I thought, I can do better.

pink© Toni Tiller


stuffy© Toni Tiller

I still had all these clothes and costumes left over from club years, and I missed becoming someone new everyday, so it was the combination of isolation, the desire to create, and the opportunity to deal with something that terrified me on my own terms gave birth to this new internet thing. I was surprised that it took off as much as it did, but at that point it was still kind of a new thing, since then the internet has leveled the playing field for self portraiture and I really love that. We can all be whoever we want now.

HOI-  These images seem rooted half-way between Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman; any inspiration there?

TT- I had no idea who either of these people were when I started, but once I did I connected with both of them right away.

caley got mugged© Toni Tiller


laura got stung© Toni Tiller

HOI- Nan Goldin’s personal relationships were a big part of her output. How have your relationships (significant and otherwise) affected your art?

TT- It’s huge, it’s everything really. All art is conversational to me, so I am always talking to someone specific regardless of the medium. The photographs were often inside jokes, or love letters, but even the collages and prints are connected to people, so when I feel lost and disconnected I can’t make anything, I am utterly dependent on my personal relationships.

a distant relative will phone you soon© Toni Tiller


with every deed you are sowing a seed© Toni Tiller

HOI- When did you begin exploring collage as a medium?

TT- I started when I was really little, I would spend hours and hours cutting up magazines, it’s just pure physical pleasure. I had, and still have a box of things I have cut out that I have lugged around with me everywhere since I left home at 17.  I still sift through these images to get ideas, or stir old memories, but I picked it back up in earnest a few years ago with the fortune cookie pieces. They were so fun for awhile, but when they started to feel like work I put them down for bit, the narrative aspect had become claustrophobic for me. My work, no matter what the medium has always been heavy on narrative and I spent the last year trying hard to get away from it. I have so much respect and fascination for people who create non-representational work probably because it doesn’t come easily to me, I turned to my friend (and fellow darteboard blogger) JD Hastings in a moment of overwhelming frustration and he told me to do the opposite of what I think I should do. From there these loose scribbly things were born, but I still have no idea where that is going. We’ll see I guess.

ab 2© Toni Tiller


jesus© Toni Tiller

HOI- I see a correlation between your collage work and your photo series of aging, advertising signs found on the streets of New York. Anything to that?

TT- That was a total random “Oh yeah!” moment of hindsight for me. I did the subway series again because non-rep doesn’t come naturally for me so my logic was that I would just go find the stuff and then I wouldn’t have to make it, just capture it. I usually forget I made something as soon as I finish it so when I started doing these new paper cut pieces I didn’t even remember those photos, then one day saw the connection, and it was a forehead smacker. I think it has a lot to do with the markers used to make them, people would graffiti these posters, and I was making similar marks and cutting them out, but I didn’t put it together right away.

as above, so below© Toni Tiller


lou reed 1© Toni Tiller


art park© Toni Tiller

HOI- Do you see many parallels between your work as a photographer, collagist, and print-maker?

TT- On the surface, no.  The types of images I make are all over the place, but the mental space I occupy while making them, the experience of it, and the need for conversational connection is the common thread.

HOI- Shifting gears, what is a “club kid”, and what was the scene in NYC like, back when you considered yourself one?

TT- Back in the 90’s a club kid was someone who more or less got paid to go to nightclubs and make the scene, we were the freak show that drew in the paying bridge and tunnel crowd and set the atmosphere that allowed the owners to charge them an arm and a leg to get in the door and buy teeny weak drinks. For us it was pretty glorious for awhile, complete and total freedom to wear, do, and say whatever you wanted, an escape from whatever back woods town we were all reinventing ourselves from, there were just very few rules at all, but then it shifted gears into something darker when the drugs took over. The parties became excuses to hand out as many drugs as possible, we were all spending way more time in the bathrooms than anywhere else, and at the end most of us had pretty serious habits. You knew things were just fucked up beyond comprehension when one of us would die and the rest of us would still go out that night. Overdoses were common, and eventually it all ended abruptly and badly with a murder and tax evasion issues, but it is exactly what I signed up for.

Toni as a “club kid”.

HOI- What made you leave that environment?

TT- External circumstances and a profound survival instinct.

HOI- Your years as a club kid seem to me as experiences rooted in the physical realm. What led you to pursue a very different kind of experience in the internet? Has the virtual world impacted your real one?

TT- I suppose they were physical in the sense that it was a lot of corporeal stuff, sex, drugs, dancing, and costumes, but it was never an unconscious experience for me. I was always hyper aware of what was going on, what it could mean, what was being witnessed, and processing all of that information. There were childhood ambitions based around stories of the Warhol factory superstars, Studio 54, Max’s, and L.E.S. punk rock that needed to be fulfilled because I knew that it would be inherently important to me later in life.

That consciousness comes with me no matter where I am, and I learned that it also come attached to whatever physical activity I am doing, to me cleaning a bathroom or hauling heavy junk around gives me the same mental space as dancing on a go go box. It is the combination of the internal and the external that counts, and that seems to transcend location and activity.

As such, I have never seen any real separation between online life and offline life, they have seamlessly integrated, and yes it has had an enormous impact. I became an artist there, I met (and left) husband there, and have been able to expand and collaborate in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

HOI- What was W.A.N., how did you get involved, and has it ended?

TT- W.A.N was the acronym for the world artist network on Myspace, a big boisterous group of artists, art lovers, and trolls that completely changed my world. I hooked up with them in June of ’06 I think, and I really didn’t know anything about art, or specifically art with a capital A, so it was a real crash course in immersion. From there I was able to expand my knowledge base and realize I have a point of view, and more importantly I wasn’t afraid to express it. Eventually through circumstances I became the moderator for a few years until Myspace closed groups entirely, then in a moment of masochism I started it back up on Facebook. A good idea for everyone else, but a terrible idea for me, so now Tom Bennett and Steph Gerilomatos (also darteboard authors) are running the show and I am blissfully free of that responsibility. It’s still a great place to participate and get feedback, and I prefer interacting with it on that level.

purple© Toni Tiller

HOI- How can readers access you and your work these days?

TT- Flickr and of course also at Darteboard.com.

All images by Toni are used by permission.


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