Sunday, April 11, 2010

Chamber of Horrors

Published in Salem Monthly, May 2009.

Once in a while someone takes a look at Toby Wayne Larson's sculptures and asks, "Will you sculpt my child?"

In a perfect world, Larson would respond with a few questions of his own:

"Can I deform them a little?"

"Rip their cheek?"

"Put a dent in their head?"

Often he just smiles and moves on to small talk about other subjects, but anyone with a jones for horror flicks is likely to know exactly where he's coming from.

Larson's sculpture subjects, which include major horror villains like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers, aren't typically considered beautiful, but it's hard to deny his talent for capturing the macabre, terrifying or horrific in clay. The mini-busts might fall outside traditional beauty conventions, but Larson's creations and interpretations of them possess a strange, alluring - if sometimes off-putting - charm.

"You don't have to sculpt cutesy things. Sculpt what you want, but do it well," the Albany-based sculptor said.

My Bloody Valentine

Larson's fascination with horror villains began at a young age and, as with many a childish adventure, disobeying his parents.

"My dad was a huge horror film buff, but I, of course, wasn't allowed to watch," he said.

One night when his parents sat down to watch "My Bloody Valentine" and sent Larson outside to play, he circled around the house and plopped down on the porch to listen, even if he couldn't see.

"I imagined things that were worse than anything in that movie. I had nightmares for a week, but I absolutely loved it," he said.

In addition to fostering a love of horror films, Larson's father also encouraged his love of art. Larson often joined his father as he sketched mummies, vampires and Frankenstein and Larson himself soon fell in love with artistic pursuits, though his passion for horror was never far behind.

"I would do finger paintings of camping scenes and then put a little hockey mask back in the woods somewhere," he said.

Art classes were often the quickest 45 minutes of his day. All other time was spent waiting for the next art class. Nevertheless, Larson was bored by the time he reached his junior year of high school. He voiced his dissatisfaction to an instructor who asked for a few days to come up with something.

"He showed up in class a few days later with a lump of oil-based clay. I was making things I could see from all angles," Larson said. "From that point on there was no other medium."


If there's one thing Larson hopes people notice in his work, it's the teeth.

His garage workshop is littered with anatomy books, muscle magazines, artist's models and a skeleton replica, but he considers teeth a specialty. It comes as no surprise, really. Larson's day job is crafting dental prosthetics as a dental technician.

"The hard part is resisting the urge to make up a pair of fangs," he said.

While Larson draws upon icons of pop culture for inspiration, he tries to infuse all his pieces with elements of realism.

"Slasher films are sort of like fantasies. They're the things we wish we were capable of, but real life is frightening," he said.

To bring out the realistic elements, it's not uncommon for Larson to delve into crime scene and accident photos angling for the right details for certain pieces. Photos of sideshow performers typically offer a rich vein of material for mining.

"I'm not trying to make these things obscene, but I want them to look realistic," he said.

Depending upon the amount of detail, some of his mini-busts take as little as 24 hours and up to six months to complete.

"The ones that go the quickest are the ones I see in my head before my hands touch the clay," he said.

He recently bought supplies to begin working on full-size masks, which means the mini-bust of Krueger currently on his worktable will probably be on the back burner for a while. His first full-scale bust also is in the works.

As much as he'd love to make sculpting his profession, any money he makes is just a bonus.

"This is much more about passion for the art and the desire to be a standout," he said.

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