For anyone who sees the pastel drawings in this article, it’s obvious Vilas Tonape is an extraordinary artist in our community. A nationally and internationally known artist, Tonape is known for his masterful portraiture, still lifes, and non-representational paintings. Celebrated in his mother country of India since 1993, Tonape has returned to India each summer to teach workshops.
This article will not only explore the strengths of Tonape’s works, but the end of the article will share information on how the public can attend an hour-and-a-half online portrait demonstration by Tonape in October, at no cost.
Before the portrait demonstration, visitors to Rosenthal Gallery, on the campus of Fayetteville State University, will have the opportunity to see more than 25 works by Tonape in his one-person exhibit titled Ways of Knowing: Works by Vilas Tonape. The opening reception for Ways of Knowing is Sept. 23 from 6-8 p.m. If attending the public reception is not possible, visitors to the Rosenthal Gallery will be able to see the exhibit through Oct. 23.
Tonape earned a B.F.A. in Painting at Sir JJ School of Art at the University of Bombay in Mumbai, India, and an M.F.A. in Painting at Texas Christian University at Fort Worth, Texas. Employed since 2015 at Methodist University in the Department of Art, other art related teaching positions include, but are not limited to, the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia., and a visiting artist at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida.
Tonape’s exhibition record is extensive, his work is in many private and corporate collections, and he has received many honors and awards. In 2018, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award, First Friday Forum, Government Museum and Art Gallery in Ghandigarh, India.
Most recently, he was interviewed and published in a 6-page article titled "Celestial Color" by John A. Parks, Fall, 2021, Pastel Journal Magazine.
Another highlight in Tonape’s career is when he received a call from President George W. Bush’s manager in 2018. Bush had seen one or more of Tonape’s 11 YouTube instructional videos and was enthralled with his process — a private teaching session was eventually scheduled between Bush and Tonape.
Looking at Tonape’s images can cause different reactions. Many will admire his skill and the beauty of his images. Tonape masterfully understands how to recreate the representational around him in pastels, watercolor and painting.
One argument against realism is why an artist in the 21st century would choose to replicate reality when a camera is sufficient. What is the relevance and relatability of realistic art in the digital age?
A second argument is that artists learn how to control materials and work from observation; then the artist will leave the realism nest and move in a stylized direction.
Among the diversity of styles, I argue that realism is still relevant in the 21st century. Tonape’s realism convinces us that what we are seeing is how it looks — yet he actually creates a type of hyperreality. One of his greatest gifts is being able to broaden our ways of knowing by recognizing the transcendent qualities of a still life or a portrait.
One of Tonape’s earliest works presented in the exhibition is “Moments of Gloria” from 2002. The 22” x 17” gouache on paper was created after Tonape graduated with an M.F.A. in 1996, and the year before he was employed as a visiting artist at the Ringling College of Art and Design. In this work, he allows the sitter’s essence to emerge from observation while mixing realism with abstraction.
This painting, perhaps, is a pivotal moment in time and reveals Tonape’s future journey of exploration and love for both the human form and nonobjective expression.
Whether it is figurative or a nonobjective work of art, “Gloria” is an example of how Tonape creates the experience of time for the viewer. We are drawn in by the burst of shapes and brilliance of color, but also have spaces of rest in the mimicry of push and pull, activity and rest in the pictorial space.
While Tonape’s pastel drawings convey the feeling of effortless spontaneity, his process is never random.
Viewers will discover his masterful way of using a piece of pastel or a dab of paint into an expressive image.
Tonape gives evidence to the idea that material is integral to the overall meaning when he shared the following: “I leave marks in the borders of the paper on a pastel portrait and include them in the framing of the portrait — they are evidence of the process.”
Tonape creates a story in both his figurative and nonobjective works, objects and the figures are placed in the composition for viewers to ponder the story.
The pastel drawing, titled “Witnessing,” is a good example of an intentional story-telling composition. Three portraits are included in the 19” x 19” pastel drawing. The luminous, warm skin of the seated figure contrasts with her cool, stare — we sense her guarded gaze. A photograph of Frida Kahlo, a well-known artist and woman activist, is on her right. Tonape has painted himself into the background as an onlooker.
After our senses acknowledge the skill of the artist, we then wonder about the relationship of the three portraits. Tension in the work emerges, Tonape’s use of emotion, space and a well-known iconic image leave us with questions to answer about the meaning in Witnessing.
In addition to Tonape’s overall approach to building a composition, the way he performs in a specific medium also influences how we experience each work.
For example, a pastel drawing in the exhibit titled “Moments of Gloria,” is evidence of his performance or the act of making: broad sweeping strokes of color are the result of paint as it leaves the brush onto a surface. Later, in his pastel drawings, the performance become a specific, focused, repetitive act of adding a multitude of points of color on the surface of the paper. In the words of Tonape, “the large shapes across the surface of a portrait became a mosaic of shapes.”
It's easy to see that color is very important to Tonape, but his response to shape is also highly relevant. Tonape responded: “Color is structure. Shape without color, for me, does not mean anything … I think of the shape of color. When color seems to take over, shape is always the underpinning.”
At the end of the interview, I asked Tonape what some of his influences have been that helped to shape his work as an artist.
Tonape was quick to say, “the biggest influence is Picasso’s dedication and engagement as an artist, three of my undergraduate teachers and two of my graduate professors, being in America for 27 years, seeing works of art in museums and galleries, and just being around people.”
Visitors to Ways of Knowing will need to spend time in the gallery to study the large body of work being exhibited and become aware of Tonape’s subtle and underlying formal structure.
The exhibition includes figurative and nonobjective works next to each other to reveal underlying sources and influences — a stark reminder of the artist’s diversified knowledge.
Anyone interested is seeing Tonape do a portrait demonstration will need to mark their calendar for the free online demonstration that takes place towards the end of the exhibition. On Oct. 19, from 5–7 p.m., Tonape will be doing a live online demonstration from a model. (The surprise model is a well-known member of the community). Before the event, the public is invited to log onto Fayetteville State University’s Fine Art Series Live on Facebook.
Rosenthal Gallery is located at 1200 Murchison Road on the campus of Fayetteville State University.
Ways of Knowing is open from Sept. 23 – Oct. 23. Gallery hours are Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
For information on the exhibit or the call 910-672-1057 or 910-672-1571 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictured above: "Witnessing" by Vilas Tonape
Pictured below: Artist Vilas Tonape conducted a private teaching session with President George W. Bush in 2018, after the former president watched one of Tonape's YouTube insructional videos.