Honoring Toto Rendlen

by Bella Erakko

The Alliance Art Gallery invites all who know Toto Foster Rendlen, an original founder and member artist of the Alliance Art Gallery, to attend a retrospective celebration of her work on Second Saturday, October 14, 5:00-8:00 PM.

Though a Yankee girl whose father made his living plying the Atlantic waters, Toto always yearned to go West. “I’m overwhelmed by prairies and huge plains and fields more than the ocean. The colors, winds, clouds. I feel connected to land.”

She sees her art through a spiritual lens, one outcome of her training as a spiritual director. “I began by painting my dreams,” she remembers, and often uses intensely saturated pastels. Anyone looking at the rich history of her decades-long love affair with art notices the frequent appearance of hay bales, fields under brilliant blue skies, billowing white clouds, her beloved 200-year-old “Dancing Oak” tree which shades her home, and a cat. For Rendlen, the passionate connection to what she paints must be there. In life’s stresses and moment of depression, she adds, “It can be very healing and freeing.”

She once wrote of the whimsically painted furniture she creates, “Following the phrase of the Australian Aborigine, I believe each of us has his/her own storyline—a sacred word—God’s song-seed sown within us. Our lives are the unfolding of that song, an infinite word that is sung-spoken through us.” For Toto, “Painting is purely and simply my grateful response to life.”

Part of Toto’s song, accompanied by her husband Charles baritone voice enthusiastically booming, “Toto, let’s just DO it,” has resulted in transforming Hannibal into a destination town for artists and art lovers.

Sometimes a town starts inexplicably to sizzle. The time becomes ripe. Today it is Bluff City Theater and the Muddy River Radio. Back in the 90s, it was art, artists, and “Provenance”—a grant-based magnet to lure artists to settle in our town. Toto drove to Springfield, Illinois to attend a workshop on how towns can attract artists and become an art destination. Anita Lamb Sorrill, a jeweler who would soon move to Hannibal, happened to sit next to her. By the end of the day, they looked at each other and said, “Let’s do it.”

Thus began the Alliance Art Gallery. By this time, Toto had run two galleries, and been an early director of the Hannibal Arts Council, and Charles worked on the Board creating Provenance. The Rendlens rented the old bank building at 201 North Main (across from today’s Hannibal History Museum). The massive vault stood open; dust lay everywhere, but the windows were large and the location central. With Anita, Toto and Charles invited artists to attend a meeting about starting a cooperative gallery. Some of our highly recognized regional artists—Brenda Beck Fischer, Willie Richmond, Pat Kerns—were among the first and the Gallery opened its doors in October 2003.

Today, the Alliance Gallery is the longest continually running cooperative art gallery in Hannibal, and highly successful in the region. Art lovers from Chicago compare it to the best galleries in their windy city. Under Anita (until her unexpected death in 2005), Brenda Beck Fischer, and today’s Ann Titus and Pat Kerns, the Gallery has gone from a cooperative-style venue to a polished gallery.

The only jolt in the journey happened when the building owners, the Ginsburgs, unexpectedly got an offer on their house and decided to move downtown —into the bank. One member lamented, “We are art orphans.”

Kristy Trevathan, having just purchased one of the Famous buildings with personal dreams of a green grocer market, realized the Alliance Art Gallery needed a good new downtown home. After all, she laughingly admits, she had closed the sale that forced them to move. With that in mind, she renovated and updated the Famous building, tuck pointing one wall, and providing perfect track lighting for art. In 2008, the Gallery moved into this larger 112 N. Main space, adding more artists.

Many times, Toto wrote a larger check for her rent, knowing the Gallery was having a slow month, or something needed repair. The Rendlen’s often stepped in to help on major upgrades. Throughout the years, Toto has generously provided her talents, her time and her treasure to the Alliance Art Gallery. In November of this year, she will retire from exhibiting at the gallery but will remain as a valued member and friend and thus, we are celebrating her many years of creativity.

Art requires three things: artists, a place to display, and buyers. Without Toto and Charles Rendlen, along with other visionaries, Hannibal would not be the art lovers destination that it is today.