Not long before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, Bunny Tobias and Charles Greeley sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Trend Magazine. “You might guess that with over six decades of prolific art-making, [the] multimedia artists might have slowed down a bit—but you’d be mistaken,” writes Cyndy Tanner in the resulting profile, which debuted in Trend’s summer 2020 digital issue this month.
Aptly titled "Elegant Mutations," the story maps out Charles and Bunny’s spectacularly creative routine. They are the owners and stewards of a 300-year-old compound in Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, and maintain a relentless practice as seasoned studio artists. They’re also the legendary hosts of colorful dinners, soirées and community art shows that unfold within the walls of their adobe home, which once housed a saloon (among many other things).
Artists Bunny Tobias and Charles Greeley. Photography: Audrey Derell
It’s a lifestyle that seems both uniquely contemporary and aligned with the modus operandi of modernist salonnieres like Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge Luhan. That is, until Coronavirus shut down the paint-splattered party. We sat down with Bunny for a follow-up interview on what the couple has been doing, making and reading since the pandemic started. Throughout the interview, you’ll discover exquisite wearable artworks that Bunny completed during the lockdown. They’re available to purchase now on her artist page, as part of our ongoing series of studio releases.
Bunny Tobias, Cameo, antique Roman cameo, bronze disc, bronze chain.
Congratulations on the epic story about you and your husband, Charles Greeley, in TREND Magazine’s digital issue for Summer 2020! How did the story come together?
We spent a lot of time with [writer] Cyndi Tanner and [photographer] Audrey Derell. During our interview with Cyndi, I told her that I had a solo show at form & concept of my sculptures, and it was called Elegant Mutations. She said, “I love that so much! Can I use it for the title of the article?” She made it seem like that was really what our life has been about.
We concur! Could you describe how the term "Elegant Mutations" captures your life philosophy with Charles?
We’ve never stayed still, we’ve never gotten stuck in any one direction, we just keep mutating, and we just keep moving on and creating. Sometimes we’re not even conscious of it, but when we look back, that’s the way it’s gone for us.
Speaking of mutation—and adaptation—how are you and Charles faring in the Covid-19 era?
Sometimes we’ve had to force ourselves not to watch the news on TV. At the beginning we were glued to the news, because what was going on was so astonishing. It was hard to believe. Now we find that we try not to tune into it too often. When you don’t, and you just wake up and the day is beautiful, and you’re not listening to the outside world, everything is beautiful. Especially in New Mexico, in Santa Fe, in my backyard, we’re so lucky.
It was very fortunate that it came at this time of year—towards the spring and summer—because it allowed us to spend more time outdoors than in the wintertime. I started thinking that I needed to plant food along with my flowers, because I haven’t been getting out very much to shop. I’ve been planting veggies, and it’s been very gratifying. I’m growing food, I’m getting good exercise, I’m outside.
It hasn’t affected our work because both our studios are here on our property. We’re very disciplined, we go into our studios every day and work. The one change that we found interesting, for the both of us, was that we felt a new freedom to spend more time in the process of work. We allowed ourselves to take the time to get into more intricate details. We liked that, and it became a wonderful way of spending the day, getting into minute details.
Bunny Tobias, Large Bee Pendant Necklace, Bronze, opal, turquoise Swarovski crystals, Aventurine and turquoise beads.
What are you making right now?
I had just finished a new series of wearable artworks for form & concept, and I always like to change directions and go into something totally different. So I got back into painting, my first discipline. I became inspired by the repeated images of the Coronavirus on TV which had been stained for the microscope. I became inspired by this invisible world, in spite of the negative connotation. The first painting was called Micro-Cosmos.
That’s such an interesting idea—rendering visible this unseen menace that’s causing a lot of fear in the world.
That was part of it, but it was also an attempt to turn it around from being such a negative time. I was trying to find beauty in something that may be abhorrent or frightening or threatening. That’s what happened. I saw images of these viruses, and they just started to look graphically and colorfully beautiful. I immersed myself in this invisible world, and I spent two-and-a-half months to finish a 24 x 24-inch painting. The second painting was slightly different, more like enlarged details of the first one. I’ve done a few smaller ones since then.
So it has been the joy of painting. I’ve just been loving going into my studio, feeling a freedom to spend as much time as I want on a piece, and a freedom of choosing what to paint. No preconceptions. I just go for it.
Painting from Micro-Cosmos series by Bunny Tobias. Photography: Audrey Derell
Tell us about your new wearable artworks that just debuted in the form & concept shop for the summer season.
I’m always trying to come up with a new image. For a while I was very involved with bee imagery. Friends who keep bees made me aware that bees are becoming endangered because of global warming. That kind of inspired me to do a series on bees. A new large bee pendant is part of the new work.
But then I switched things around a little and came up with some new forms. I was working with shields. A round disc that has a tiny jewel, a Swarovski crystal in the center. That gave me the idea of doing a piece that, instead of a jewel, would have an eye in the center. A single eye as a power object.
The bronze eye pendants are symbolic of seeing introspectively, meditatively. Looking inward. The way the Zen put it, “Know thyself and then forget thyself.” That allows you to be open to the world around you and others. It affects my work, whether it’s jewelry, whether it’s painting or sculpture. I do love to switch around.
Bunny Tobias, Shield, bronze, Swarovski crystal, bronze chain.
Do you think about the type of person who might wear your jewelry? Who are they?
I absolutely think about that. I know personally that I do not intend my wearable art to appeal to everyone. At the outset, I’m trying to more or less please myself. I know that I don’t like ordinary jewelry. I believe that if I satisfy myself in doing something that would please me, that there are other exceptional people out there who would appreciate it.
You’re a veteran artist, but is it still kind of electrifying when you gain a new collector?
It’s very gratifying. It’s a thrill. It never gets old. You think you’re doing it for yourself, but you really are putting yourself out there, and when someone gets it you feel very gratified. I’m always appreciative of anyone who really understands what I’m doing and wants to collect it. I love that, I’m not indifferent to it. It’s one of the things that motivates me. Especially if you see someone wearing what you’ve done. If it makes them happy, if it gives them joy, if it lifts them, there’s nothing better.
Could you talk about your practice of incorporating recycled materials into your artwork?
An interesting thing has happened. For many years, I was out there discovering and seeking this kind of material. I’ve always loved the idea of finding something that’s been discarded, and then turning it into something beautiful or something new. I have wonderful friends, and they know the kind of things that inspire me. For the last few years, I have been fortunate enough to be gifted with tons of material.
I can’t necessarily use everything that they give me. Sometimes it’ll sit in the studio for a long time, and then all of a sudden I’ll get an idea and I can use that piece. This idea of looking for things and finding things that will work, that has been turned over to my friends. It’s almost become a collaborative effort. When they see what I’ve created with pieces that they have given me, they are amazed. There’s a lot of pleasure involved in it, and they feel like they’ve taken part in the process.
Every time I can use an object in my art that has been recycled, I feel really good about it. The idea of being able to now mix it up, where I’m doing recycled sculpture that has bronze pieces in it, or I’m doing bronze jewelry that has recycled pieces in it, it’s more fun and very freeing. It allows me to not have any restrictions about any direction I’m going in. For the new series at form & concept, I was able to use glass eyes from dolls that I had collected, and others that were from taxidermy supply places. It was an exciting new way to use the bronze clay, to make it more sculptural, to work around the eye.
Bunny Tobias, Large Bronze Eye Pendant, glass eye, vintage Swarovski crystal, opal briolette, bronze chain.
Have you ever had someone donate a recycled material, and then acquire the piece that it ends up in?
Yes, that has happened. They’re sharing with me, and then I end up sharing back with what I’ve done with it. But I also love being able to pass on material that I may not be able to use, but another artist may. It’s a continuation of the process and it just keeps evolving.
You and Charles are legendary for running an art space, Gallery Zipp, out of your home. In more normal times, you’re all about community. Has the imposed isolation of the lockdown been particularly difficult?
It’s a huge shift. First of all, I love to cook. We used to have lots of dinner parties with artist friends and collectors. I can’t do that. I’m cooking up a storm, but it’s just for Charles and me. We have tried to have a few social gatherings outdoors now that the weather is warm. We call them social distancing picnics, and everybody brings their own food. We’re no more than five people together, and we stay six feet apart at the table, outdoors. We’ve done that a few times, and that really has been very nice. You do get lonely, you miss your friends.
We are following the guidelines of social distancing and staying at home. But then there’s email and social networking, and we send each other images of work that we’re doing. I’m photographing new work and posting on Instagram, so people to keep up with what we’re doing.
Mixed-media, recycled material sculpture by Bunny Tobias. Photography: Audrey Derell
What else have each of you been making these days?
I’ve also been doing my mixed-media, recycled material sculptures. Charles got involved with painting fish at the very beginning of the pandemic. He became aware that a lot of these fish don’t exist any longer, and the coral reefs, the habitat for these fish, are dying. Just as I got into this one painting that took me a few months because of all the details, the same thing happened to him. He felt like he could take all the time in the world to keep painting, to a point where he felt that it was finished, with tremendous detail. Many years ago, he painted very large canvases with minute details. Many of them are in museum collections now. He’s also going back to a microscopic world of detail.
Could you talk a bit more about the meditative state that each of you seek in the studio?
We both have always felt that painting is a form of meditation. We go into our studios, and we have a very disciplined work ethic. While creating, we feel that we are in a meditative state. It is also relaxing and makes is feel relevant during this difficult time. I usually leave my studio around 4:30 or 5:00, and just relax and get into a good book. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading.
Bunny Tobias, Fish Necklace, bronze, Swarovski crystals, bronze chain.
Any book recommendations?
One of the best books that I read this year is Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel. It’s all about the beginning of AbEx, and the women who were part of it. They were such strong women, and it was such a difficult time. I loved this book. Talk about empowering women.
Then I went in another direction and read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. He’s a famous atheist, and it’s all about the role of religion in the modern world. He does it with such great research, and also with a sense of humor.
Bunny Tobias, Rocket Man, bronze, Swarovski crystals, gold vermeil chain.
Finally, what has this strange time taught you about the power of art?
Art is very important to civilization. We should not have to live without it. It just makes the difference in our life. Any outside support in the form of relief funds and grants in order to sustain the artist is most important during this pandemic.
Artists need to work, they want to work, and they need to be able to support themselves, to eat and pay their rent and buy supplies. I don’t know any artist that does not want to be in their studio and working. I think it’s very important, and I think it gives people hope and optimism that life continues, that we can still see beauty in the world.
I’ve had the tendency to always be more optimistic, and it’s such a difficult time for younger artists to be more optimistic now. But even if they’re expressing pessimism or depression, it’s important to express it. It’s a way of telling a story about what’s going on right now.
I think about history, this is such a unique period of history that we’re living in right now. When I’m gone, and people are going to look back 50 or 100 years to this time, what are they going to get out of it? What did we do to deal with this worldwide pandemic and economic crisis that has resulted from it?
There is always that other side. Is the cup half empty or half full?
There is always beauty.
Bunny Tobias. Photography: Audrey Derell