“I’m totally hooked,” says Kati Toivanen, about her recent turn to marathon running. Her Midtown studio is piled with gear — colorful running shoes and lightweight jackets, headlamps, foot pods, cage-like contraptions called Yaktrax and other accoutrements needed for protection and endurance.
In a nearby alcove, Toivanen uses her digital camera to capture the source imagery. A semi-translucent vellum screen with a strong light behind it hangs above a small table. She selects and positions items from her running stash between the screen and the light to create a shadow show appearance. She also photographs her running shoes in direct, close-up detail. Both types of images are layered in the computer to construct the dreamy and seductive collages in her series “Chasing Dreams.”
“The sole of a marathon runner’s shoe offers evidence of the endless hours and sacred miles committed to chasing dreams,” she writes in her artist statement. “The shoe expresses the contradictions it embodies: determination and apprehension, victory and defeat, strength and fear, dreams and disappointment.”
Over the course of a career spanning more than three decades, Toivanen has always found inspiration for her work in her life, including the joy and cares of motherhood and her domestic environment. Another constant in her work is a push/pull between abstraction and representation in a bid, she says, to push the viewer from “discovery, to mystery, to more discovery.”
Toivanen took up serious running in 2014 and now averages about 1,800 miles and two marathons per year. The colorful running gear, including a Boston Marathon jacket with a beautiful Japanese lining, attracted her artist’s eye. “I found a way to take ordinary running stuff and turn it into visual poetry,” she said.
In “Chasing Dreams,” as in many of her earlier collages, backlighting heightens the dreamy quality of her layered compilations, which go in and out of focus to reveal the textures, patterns and degradations of use of the brightly-hued running shoes, spaghetti-like knots of laces, the caverns and crevices of equipment seen in blurred closeup and billowy and translucent swaths of fabric.
The series was a while in development as the artist experimented with how much information to include in her compositions. The initial images, created in spring 2019, were too minimal, she decided, but when she added more objects, they became “too documentary.” Her return to backlighting and her decision to combine backlit images with direct photography allowed her to strike the perfect balance: The eye revels in the gentle motion of blurred objects presented in a shallow depth of field and the punctuation and movement contributed by passages of soft, glorious color. “I feel like I’m a painter using photographs as my palette,” she says.
Toivanen finds numerous parallels between her twin passions. “There’s an art and science to both art and running,” she says. “Running is very physical. It’s also very mental. At the end of the race, it’s really your mind that carries you.”
Images courtesy of the artist