Successful Artist With LD and AD/HD Seeks to Inspire Others

Working with paint and clay kept Robert Toth going when repeated school failure threatened his self-esteem. Now a world-class artist, he shares his story in hopes of inspiring others with learning disabilities.

By Linda Broatch, M.A.

Robert Toth, whose sculpture is housed in the National Portrait Gallery, Lincoln Center, and the Vatican Museum, can't immediately recall how many times he repeated fourth grade. But it was at least three. Luckily, his mother encouraged Robert from an early age to follow his creative instincts and passions. An artist herself, Caroline Toth created a safe haven at home where Robert could confidently develop his skills with clay and paint, in spite of the fact that he failed nearly all of his classes at school.

"She was my mentor," Robert says of his mother, who died in 1973. "I think she is still helping me to this day because I remember all the things she said to me. She was a gentle person; she never got mad. I have her paintings surrounding me, and I'm carrying on the things she wanted to do herself. So I feel like she is still with me."

Opportunities in a "Rough Place"

Because of his dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), Robert experienced the pressure of school in the 1950s as a "shadow' over his life. Private school was recommended, but his family couldn't afford it. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey, which he describes as "a rough place - too rough for me." He witnessed drug addiction and violence among kids he knew who were alienated from school and community.

"I found opportunities," Robert says, "but it could be a very discouraging place. I saw many young people die. But sometimes a bad neighborhood is also a learning process," he adds. "There's a lot of diversity and a lot of different kinds of people, and I found that interesting."

Affirmation in a Professor's Words

Even as a young child, Robert had an art studio in the basement of his home. There were also wonderful resources nearby. Robert and his mother often visited art museums and went to the theater in New York City. He attended the Newark School of Fine Industrial Arts, and the Art Students League on the upper west side of Manhattan, where all of his teachers were professional painters, sculptors, and designers. He also studied at the Cape School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with Henry Hensche, a well-known impressionist painter.

Even after he finally began to experience success in his studies, however, Robert had leftover feelings of "awkwardness and not fitting in" from his earlier school years. So, he remembers as a "peak experience" his chance discovery in a popular women's magazine of an article titled, "Your Child May Be More Gifted Than You Think." It was written by the late E. Paul Torrance, a professor at the University of Georgia and a nationally recognized expert on creativity. In the article Dr. Torrance argued that IQ tests measure the more analytical aspects of intelligence, but don't measure the creative intelligence of people like artists, composers, and inventors.

"When I read this article, a tremendous pressure was lifted off of me," Robert remembers. It was 1963, and he was in his early 20s. "I felt for the first time in my life that I was not alone, that there was someone out there - besides my family - who understood what I was going through. This man had tremendous insight, and I corresponded with him over the years. When I moved to North Carolina, I called him to thank him for his work. He was the nicest man.'

Art that Honors Inspirational People

Much of Robert's art expresses recognition and respect for people who've inspired him over the years. He has created a collection of more than 30 cast bronze busts of people he describes as "larger than life." Nineteenth-century Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, was one of his early subjects. Robert's mother was inspired by Montessori's educational philosophy, which influenced the way she nurtured Robert's artistic development. Other subjects include such diversely talented people as Harry Truman, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Leonardo DaVinci, and Beethoven.

To create his bronze busts, Robert creates a clay model, working from photographs or drawings of his subjects, then completes the nine or more steps required to achieve the finished product. He also investigates the lives of the people he sculpts, reading biographical material and sometimes visiting the places they lived and worked. "One of Thomas Edison's quotations is, 'A pile of junk is an inspiration,'" Robert says, "and when I went to his factory, oh, it was a mess! But the quotation from Edison that appears on the base of his bust is, 'You Can Turn It Around.'

"And I've noticed that all of these people have done that," he adds. "They've turned it around. Einstein certainly turned it around. If people look at their own lives, when there is disruption, and you stay with that disruption for a little while, you'll find something of value there. That's why a pile of junk can be an inspiration."

Sharing the Inspiration with Others

After working for 30 years in a studio he set up in New Jersey, Robert now lives and works in Salisbury, North Carolina, with his wife, Lee, also an artist, who he met in art school. His sculpture and paintings are featured in several local galleries. He ships his work all over the country, including to major movie and television studios that have used his bronze busts in their productions. Author Anne Rice has Robert's bust of Beethoven on her desk right next to her computer so that he can "stare right into my face' and inspire her.

Robert also believes that being surrounded by the energy of positive, creative people fuels ones own creativity. His mother was his first model for this, and he, in turn, tries in many ways to pass that energy on to others. He remembers vividly the one class he passed in public school, which was a hands-on science class, taught by two women who were gone the following year. "They taught by demonstration, and, like a lot of people, I'm a visual learner," he says. "To this day, I wish I could find them and thank them."

Over the years, he has taught art skills to adults and children and has even designed his own unique curriculum for drawing. Robert recalls with particular fondness a group of gifted kids, several with learning difficulties, who he taught on Saturdays. "They were sent to me by teachers who couldn't really give them the attention they needed," he comments, "and I always thanked every teacher who did that. I had more fun with them. They were visual thinkers who were very quick to learn and they excelled in my class.

"And I simply taught them in a natural way, like Montessori, by asking them, 'What would you like me to do for you? Tell me what subject you'd like to draw and bring it in.' One boy brought in a mouse, and I said, okay, we'll draw the mouse," he adds, laughing.

Based on his own terrible experience with school, Robert says he wishes the public schools would embrace Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and teach to children's strengths: "The whole point is, in the educational system, we have to look at kids in a new way and say, hey, they have different learning styles - they're visual people, maybe, or they have scientific brains; some of them excel in sports, some of them in art, like me, some in math. I failed math; Einstein passed it. But he couldn't paint and sculpt like me. So we all have these specialties, these strengths."

True to his convictions and his mother's early example, Robert continues to pass his creative energy on to others. "It's a great feeling to be a resource person and a role model to somebody,' he says. "That's a great feeling for me."

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.