Driving to Tory Casey’s house in the woods is like driving backwards in time.
With every turn after leaving the Dobson town limits, each road is narrower than the last and each bridge is smaller and closer to the water. By the time the one-lane gravel road abruptly ends at a closed gate and a wooden plank bridge over the creek is crossed, there is still Casey’s mile-and-a-half long driveway to navigate as it twists and turns up through the deep pine woods. It is not unlike driving into one of Grimm’s fairy tales.
That illusion is not dispelled by the first flickering glimpses through the trees of Casey’s rambling log house with it’s jutting bays, shady porches and stained glass church windows. It could easily be the lair of a wicked witch, a passel of dwarves or even a sleeping princess.
It is only the incongruous appearance of a utility pole (which have been absent for some miles) and Casey’s smiling face in the yard that remind approaching visitors that they are indeed still in Surry County in the 21st century.
The effort required to get to Casey’s home and the glorious quirkiness to be found on arrival can be seen as a metaphor for her career as an artist. It has been a long road with many twists and turns but at long last, she may have reached her destination. Or it could all be an illusion. Either way, it has all been built on Casey’s own terms.
Tory Casey is usually defined as a folk artist though she bristles a bit at the designation. She prefers the term “narrative artist.” And indeed, each of her works tells a story. The bright happy colors often mask a wide range of emotions, even notes of darkness lurking below the surface. Those deceptively childlike primary colorations make the complexity of the narrative even more jarring when it finally makes its presence known to the viewer.
Casey says, “My art is all about looking directly at my life and my opinions about it, the people I know, things I see and friends I have.” Though Casey is painting from a very personal place, the finished paintings transcend to something more universal. That ability of Casey’s paintings to speak to a diverse group of people has led to her developing a large base of ardent fans and collectors over the years.
Casey’s history with art goes way back. She was creative as a child. She says her parents loved her creativity but found it challenging because it came with a big mouth and strong opinions. Casey characterizes herself as a self-trained artist but in fact, she attended the Kendall School of Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she studied furniture design, interior design and illustration. She now says of that experience, “I am not a structured person so after about two years of in-school training, I moved on.” She says now of that move, “It didn’t please my parents.”
Casey doesn’t believe those years impacted her much and doesn’t even mention them on her resume. She says of her formal training, “I learned there were about 200,000 shades of gray and I learned perspective. Those things don’t interest me.”
Casey’s colorful paintings confirm her lack of interest in gray in any of its myriad shades. Perspective is perhaps another matter. Her paintings do defy the rules of conventional perspective but not in a primitive, pre-Renaissance way. It is more like she has created a new, alternate perspective that is all her own which would probably not have been possible had she not learned the rules in the first place.
Following her design school debacle, Casey took a few years off and then moved to North Carolina in 1982 where she began to find herself as an artist. She says, “I came here to find out what it takes to be a creative soul.” Early on in that process, she met Surry County musician and fiddlemaker, Joe Thrift, and the two have been inseparable ever since. Together for 32 years and married for the past two, the couple have mutually supported and nourished each other’s creative journeys and dreams. “We’ve been very lucky,” says Casey.
As the young Casey matured and began to better understand politics and feminism, she painted a series of portraits she called “Rude Girls” in which she painted women as independent, powerful persons. That work got her an invitation to join Artworks, an artist-run cooperative gallery in Winston-Salem, then and now an important player in the Winston-Salem art scene. From there, she connected with Millicent Greason, owner and curator of the now-defunct Urban Artware Gallery in Winston-Salem where Casey had several one-woman shows.
She has been represented by Marcia Weber Gallery in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the leading dealers in American contemporary folk art. A decade ago Casey became involved with Foothills Arts Council in Elkin when it was under the leadership of Rosy Beverley, who has become a close friend. In the years since then Casey has had several one-woman shows there which helped establish her as an artist in the community.
Whereas Thrift is the better known of the couple in Mount Airy due to his interest in old-time music and his skill as a fiddlemaker, Casey has long turned her artistic sights to Elkin. She says, “I’ve had studios there for years. If I try to work at home, I end up vaccuuming more than painting.” Starting out in an upstairs space with no heat and no light, she moved on to a studio with arched windows and a crystal chandelier over a winery. Neither were an ideal fit.
She has wound up in a street level space with an aesthetic that suits her own. The building is one long, narrow room with rough brick walls and hand-hewn beams overhead. It is unassuming and authentic but rich with detail, much like Casey herself.
After painting there for a year, it occurred to her that the space would lend itself to use as a gallery. She decided to curate a few shows a year there, hand choosing artists whose work she admired to show alongside her own. She sees it as a way to help other artists, people she loves whose work is challenging and interesting and not being shown while being able to exhibit her own work without the hassle of dealing with galleries.
Casey’s “Smalltown Gallery” opened its first show, “Quirky,” on April 10, 2015 showcasing Casey and three other artists. The show drew good crowds and had good sales. The second show, “Human/Nature” opened on July 31. Attendance has been good and sales brisk.
The success of her gallery has launched Casey into a new role of gallery owner/businesswoman. It is not a role she relishes. “I am not a businesswoman,” she says. She does not care for administrative and clerical work and the minutiae of business. When asked if she feels her studio/gallery model is sustainable, Casey is characteristically direct, “I don’t know.”
But regardless of what the future brings as far as Casey’s career as a gallery owner, it is safe to assume that she will keep on painting. It’s what she does.
Small Town Gallery is located at 227 W. Main Street in Elkin and is open Friday through Sunday from 1-6 p.m. when a show is hanging and at other times by appointment. Call 336-466-7707. The current show, Human/Nature closes Aug. 30 and includes works by Robin Mangum — Ceramic Artist, Woodie Anderson — Print and Graphic Artist, Tammy Sawyer — Fiber Artist and Tory Casey — Narrative Artist.
Bill Colvard is the lifestyles writer for the Mount Airy News and can be reached at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.