Mumble Sauce is a summer 2019 column about how DMV Black communities uplift healing and creativity in the face of gentrification, displacement, policing, and incarceration. This is installment four of 10.
Toni Lane says you can feel plants talking to you if you pay attention.
Her houseplants had just finished cussing her out. The sprawling spider ivy and aloe had spent the day baking in the sunlight piercing the window of Lane’s studio apartment. The 65-year-old artist was busy making lino prints and hadn’t noticed they needed water.
Lane tells me this as we nurse our half-finished bottles of Beck’s in her home, which is also her art studio. Stacks of canvases fill each corner. One of the walls is a large bookshelf holding self-made publications going as far back as the 1980s.
The multidisciplinary artist often refers to herself as the Magnificent Toni Lane. The name fits her well. She wrote her first book in Marseille, France. She owned a gallery in San Francisco for nearly 10 years. And then she had a brain aneurysm and lived to paint the tale.
Toni Lane currently works with other local disabled artists at Art Enables, a D.C.-based center that provides artists who have disabilities with education and professional training. Her art portrays experiences of Black women and girls. Lane’s signature style breaks down the human figure into its barest parts. Geometric, high-contrast bodies painted with thick brushstrokes and rounded edges bleed through her canvases.
Whether it’s through her series “Ghetto Girls Rule” or paintings inspired by Black people who have lost their lives to violence, much of Lane’s artistry highlights the harm that Black and brown people endure. She’s moved by people like Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman who was found hanged in her cell after being jailed for a traffic stop in Texas, and Relisha Rudd, a young Black girl who went missing from a D.C. homeless shelter in 2014 and has yet to be found.
“There are children in cages. In detention centers. In jails,” Lane says. “As an artist, I feel like I have to put it out there.”
Lane’s childhood in Southeast D.C. is her biggest creative inspiration. The brick project buildings that towered over her in her youth are reflected in many of her pieces, especially in her “Ghetto Girls Rule” series. “I had a wonderful childhood. Call me ghetto any day, I loved it,” Lane says, breaking out into her signature wide smile that shows all of her teeth. She grew up in Anacostia’s Frederick Douglass Dwellings projects with her parents, sister, brother, and cousin. “You learn about community, about family. You get close to people. You know the man in the corner store, and when you get caught stealing he knows just who your mother is,” Lane laughs.
Lane gave birth when she was 18, and a few years later, she was studying photography at the University of the District of Columbia when she decided to move to France with her daughter. They “beboped” around the country for six months.
“My mother got me some ‘Learn to Speak French’ records when I was around 13. At first I wondered why she got them for me. I thought only rich white people went to France.” Lane laughs again. “But I would play my records real loud in the ’hood. Everybody knew Toni was learning her French. And I knew I’d go to France one day.”
It was in Paris that Lane found out she had been accepted into the San Francisco Art Institute. She started attending classes in California. The school didn’t have very many Black students, but she got to study under the legendary Black artist Robert Colescott. Lane’s eyes mist and she stumbles over her words as she describes her admiration for the late painter. He gave her the first canvas she ever owned.
Life in California was wonderful and hard. Lane graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in photography in 1983 and started teaching art to high school students in Oakland. Driving a taxi cab paid the bills. San Francisco’s lesbian and gay scene offered her friendship. In the early 1990s, she opened her art gallery, Ethnic Trip Cultural Art.
At the same time, she lost friends to AIDS. And the violence her students faced took a toll on her heart. One of her favorite students, LoEshe Lacy, was fatally shot while she was sitting in a parked car with her friends. She was only 16 years old.
Lost in grief, Lane escaped to France again.
“I went to Marseille. This time I stayed for about six years,” Lane says. “I didn’t come back until 2005 when I realized I needed to be closer to my grandkids.” Her daughter had started having children and Lane wanted to be around as they grew up.
It would be a long road to stability for Toni Lane once she got back to the District. She went to the hospital with a mind-splitting headache in 2006. Doctors in Fairfax rushed to operate on the aneurysm that had developed in her brain. “I felt lucky to be alive, but depression set in. My mental state was whacked,” she remembers. Lane’s mood worsened. Recovery was long and she felt lonely. A few years later, Lane started going to rehab where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“Part of me was like, ‘Bipolar? Well, I’m bisexual. I’m a Pisces. It fits.’” Lane chuckles and takes another sip of her beer. “Another part of me felt like, ‘I’m the Magnificent Toni Lane. I used to have a gallery. I used to drive a taxi and teach kids in school,’” Lane says. “I had to work to accept it.”
Art Enables helped her on her path to acceptance. SSI checks were barely covering the bills when her behavioral health case worker suggested that she check out the D.C.-based arts center. Lane became a studio assistant soon after. She’s been at it for around three years.
“Working with people who have different disabilities makes me stronger. And the artists there are great,” Lane says. “We create some beautiful art together.”
Before this interview, the last time I’d seen Lane was at Art Enables. She was taking photographs of an event at the center. She maneuvered through the crowd with her camera hanging from her neck, her finger ready on the trigger, her senses guiding her to the scene she should capture next.
Lane tries to pay attention when her environment is speaking to her. And just like her houseplants, the environment speaks. The clamor of Anacostia project buildings. The rattle of classroom desks in Oakland. The hum of Paris streets in the night time. Lane’s surroundings beg her to create wherever she goes.
The result is magnificent.
To learn more about Toni Lane’s artwork, check out her website, ethnictripculturalart.com.