If there is one thing Saint John native Ken Tobias has learned in life, it is that it is never too late to follow your dreams. While he first found fame in the realm of music in the 1960s, the beginning of a career that has now stretched more than five decades, art has also been a constant throughout his life.
Long before selling his first painting, which depicted an acrylic rendition of Lake Superior in 1972, Tobias had always been intrigued by art, he just happened to find success in music first.
“I knew what I wanted to do when I was growing up: I wanted to be a singer, an artist and a scientist,” Tobias said. “Because music was always on the front burner for me, art took a backseat throughout much of my career.”
After rising to national prominence in the 1960s as a cast member performing on the Canadian television series Singalong Jubilee, Tobias had his first single,“You’re Not Even Going to the Fair,” produced by Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers.The following decade saw him perform alongside The Everly Brothers, Anne Murray, Gene MacLellan, among others, while also securing a second hit single when his song “Stay Awhile,” performed by The Bells, ascended to the No. 7 on the Billboard Charts in 1971. The next year, in 1972, Tobias recorded his debut album for the MGM label in Los Angeles, while his sophomore effort, The Magic’s in the Music with George Martin (The Beatles) in London, England. A year later, Tobias recorded his third album, Every Bit of Love, for Canada’s Attic Records.
Tobias’ music career remained busy throughout the remainder of the ‘70s and well into the ‘80s when he released Here You Are Today, a tribute to his hometown of Saint John recorded to coincide with that city’s bicentennial celebrations in 1985. Since then, music has naturally remained an integral part of Tobias’ career and says he never felt compelled to choose music over art at any point in his life.
Although the end result of writing a song and creating a painting are very different from one another, Tobias says there are more similarities between the two mediums than one might be inclined to believe.
“There are certainly a lot of parallels between music and art, but the former is intangible; you can’t hold it. I’ve pursued painting for spiritual reasons, which is, incidentally, what initially drew me into music. Art has gotten to a point for me where it is now almost meta-physical. I can look at a blank canvas, start peeling down pictures and running through ideas, and before I know it, I am painting and just being led by the muse,” he said.
While that muse typically leads Tobias to a place of sheer joy, he admits that the creation of one of his works elicited more emotion than any song had previously done.
“I was painting a violin once and had done the background first. When it came time to adding in the instrument, it suddenly dawned on me that that first stroke of the violin had to be perfect or the whole work could be ruined. I remember swearing and crying and pacing the floor over the stress I was feeling. I’ve felt a wide range of emotions when writing songs, but just couldn’t believe the pain I was going through when it came to this painting.”
Since the sale of his first painting, Tobias estimates he has sold upwards of 200 works between private sales and various gallery showings. One of his most recent sales stemmed from Ontario’s True North Gallery, where an unnamed buyer from California bought his piece “Mint Tea & Honey With A Little Lemon.”
The brainchild of Canadian music industry veteran Geoff Kulawick and his wife Mabruka, the True North Gallery in Waterdown, Ont., is home to works of art from some of music’s most acclaimed voices, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood, and Graham Nash, but also boasts a heavy Canadian contingent of musicians including Tobias, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen.
“It was my wife’s idea to start the gallery, as she noticed that a few of the musicians we were working with had also been pursuing painting as a visual art form,” Kulawick said, adding the gallery is currently home to approximately 100 art pieces.
“As we got to researching just how many musicians were pursuing visual arts, the list just kept getting longer and longer. It just made sense to dedicate a space in our building to these beautiful works.”
Kulawick says Tobias’ work was brought to his attention by a friend. He immediately fell in love with Tobias’ art and reached out to the musician to inquire about the possibility of hanging three to four pieces of his work in the gallery in April of this year.
“You can see the different styles Ken uses in his work, but the work remains very uniquely his. We are proud to have his work hanging in the gallery.”
“I am in great company at the True North Gallery,” Tobias said. “Some people might see [Bob] Dylan’s art and feel it’s a little crude, but then you’ve got someone like Ron Wood, where just by looking at his work, you can see he is skilled and loves what he does. I am incredibly grateful to Geoff and the gallery for including me. It is a big honour.”
Unlike a song that can be repeated as often as one would care to hear it, once a piece of art leaves his hands, Tobias knows he will most likely never see that same piece again. He acknowledges it is sometimes hard to let go of certain pieces, but also feels he is doing what he is on this earth to do.
“My paintings are like children to me. It’s hard to let them go, but I also believe in the spiritual aspect of what I am doing in that I’ve been fortunate to have the talent to bring these pieces into the world,” Tobias said.“The creative process can be a healing space where an artist tries to bring some beauty into the world. That’s something that is humbling to be a part of.”