PENINSULA PROFILE: How Jeff Tocher went from homelessness to gallery artist

Messengers, one after another, have whispered two things to Jeff Tocher.

Believe in your talent.

Use it to start anew.

One of the first messengers spoke to him one wet, cold spring day in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. There, Tocher was a homeless drunk looking for $1.35. That would buy him a 40-ouncer, a bottle of malt liquor to get him through the afternoon.

A passer-by told him: Sure, I’ll give you the money, if you’ll come have a bowl of soup with me.

They sat outdoors — Tocher knew his clothes stank, so he didn’t want to go inside the cafe — and talked a bit.

The man asked Tocher, then 37, how he ended up on the street.

Tocher admitted that after hitting bottom, he had been ready to go to a treatment center in Camas. He had planned to take the bus there; instead he’d gotten drunk again, and the driver wouldn’t let him on board.

“Don’t give up. There must be someone you can call,” the soup man said.

Nope, no one, Tocher replied at first.

Then: OK, my father lives in Sequim, just across the water — but I can’t call him. I’ve let him down one time too many.

Just try one call, said the soup man. I’ll give you the change.

So there they stood, pouring quarters into a pay telephone, to reach Tocher’s father. Retired Army Col. Patrick Tocher answered, and his son simply said, “Dad, I screwed up again.”

The response came quickly.

“Stay right there. I’ll come get you.”

While he waited for his father to arrive on the ferry, Tocher took the $1.35 from the soup man; the two said goodbye, and Tocher gave the money to some guy he knew from Pioneer Square.

He remembers how, for once, he didn’t want that bottle of beer.

Tocher’s dad picked him up, took him back to his home in Sequim, where they contacted the Camas treatment center. He got there the following week, and the program director gave him a statistic: Of each class of 30 people who come here, only two get and stay sober.

But you are going to be one of those two, she told Tocher.

She was another messenger, like the Seattle soup man. And Tocher did stay sober. He spent a month in the rehabilitation center, then returned to Sequim. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, went looking for work — and turned back to art.

During the late 1980s, Tocher had studied for a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Georgia at Athens. He chose the place after moving around the country throughout boyhood, as the son of a career military man. But Tocher stopped just short of graduating, after getting a D grade in his French course.

The university placed him on academic probation, and two quarters’ worth of French short of his degree, he decided to take off for Atlanta, where he got married and worked in construction. He held down jobs, though each day ended at the local bar.

“We were big partiers,” he said of himself and his then-wife. “Suddenly, it became a mess.”

It’s 1993 now. Tocher loses his job; he and his wife begin divorce proceedings. Then he gets a phone call from his father, with the news that his mother had suffered a stroke. The family later learned that she had cancer that had brought on the stroke; she died in 1995. Tocher moved to Sequim to be close to his father and rented a house near downtown. He did some painting, including the murals inside Las Palomas, the Mexican restaurant at 1085 E. Washington St.

And though he wanted to do more such work, he was “all talk,” since he was still devoted to drinking. He left Sequim for Seattle, where things fell apart again.

After he returned to Sequim in 1999 — rescued by the soup man and by his father, Tocher received another message. This one, from the Blue Whole Gallery cooperative, seemed negative at first. The Sequim cooperative turned down his application for membership. Tocher didn’t win enough votes from the members, as some saw his work as too dark and depressing.

“I took the criticism to heart,” he recalls. “Maybe it was time to lighten up.”

Easier said than done. Tocher had been painting dark. There were large abstract paintings, done outdoors, until his backyard looked like one big Jackson Pollock canvas.

But around the same time, Tocher found a new job, a job that would turn out to be the right one at the right time. First Step Family Support Center’s Nita Lynn hired him to drive the First Step shuttle van for single parents attending classes at the center. He later looked after the children during class sessions, having impressed Lynn with his natural ability with kids.

“He had a very caring way about him,” remembered Lynn, who is still executive director of First Step.

“He is this great, big guy, who is very gentle and playful . . . and that came out even more” as time went on.

“It was really nice,” Lynn added, “to have a caring male to interact with the kids,” many of whom are children of single mothers.

Tocher began teaching art classes for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. This too delighted Lynn, who watched the youngsters grow to adore their instructor. They would be walking downtown with their parents, Lynn recalled, and they would see Tocher, yel,l “JEFF!” and leap into his arms.

Tocher taught his students how to use brushes and colors —and gave them the whole world of art, Lynn said.

Around the same time, Tocher got to know the group of local artists who banded together to open Gallery 9, the cooperative in downtown Port Townsend. One day, right after a gallery members’ planning meeting, Tocher stepped out onto Water Street and saw a river otter crossing the road.

“That otter stood up and looked me dead in the eye,” Tocher remembered.

Then, message delivered, it went on its way.

A painting had formed in Tocher’s mind: a whimsical yet iconic image of four creatures crossing the street, as the Beatles had crossed Abbey Road.

He spent the next two weeks working on “Otter Road,” the canvas that would bring him somewhere new again.

On the first Saturday night in May 2004, Port Townsend had its monthly gallery walk, and that’s when people came to Gallery 9 to discover Tocher’s work.

He remembers how it started to rain that night, and people burst in the gallery door, one after another, saying they had received phone calls saying, in effect, “You have to go see this.”

“This” was “Otter Road,” of which Tocher sold six prints that night. That didn’t mean a lot of money, but it showed the artist that yes, he had a style that got people’s attention.

“Otter Road,” Tocher said, is more than a fun takeoff on the Beatles album. For him, it represents crossing over into a new life, a life of doing what he was born to do.

Tocher reinvented himself as an artist. He continued selling his work at Gallery 9 and joined the Clallam Art Gallery, a cooperative inside The Landing mall. He gained a following for vivid scenes like “Port Townsend State of Mind,” a vision of a schooner with sails full of wind against a starry sky, and “Boxed In,” which shows a Dungeness Valley elk hemmed in by big-box stores.

“It’s always been very important to me to make some sort of statement about the community and what’s going on,” Tocher said. “I’ve found the best way to do that is with a sense of humor — and bright colors.”

He used to believe a fine artist had to make dark, depressing work and be depressed himself. No more.

Whether he’s at the Blue Whole, 129 W. Washington St., for Sequim’s First Friday Art Walk or Gallery 9 for Port Townsend’s Gallery Walk on the first Saturday night of the month, Tocher hears people giggle. He turns to see them in his section of the gallery, where they’re looking at his irreverent otters, cats and other creatures. He sees his images around town: During the Sequim Irrigation Festival one year, he saw “Otter Road” pass by on a T-shirt.

And so, through his 40s, Tocher worked, and worked some more, at First Step, in his studio and at galleries in Port Angeles and Port Townsend. He lived in Port Angeles while his father moved to The Lodge retirement center in Sequim.

By 2011, Patrick Tocher’s health was deteriorating. Now 79, he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and dementia, and his son knew, by the middle of last year, that he would need more care than The Lodge provides.

The younger Tocher was advised to move his dad into an assisted living facility. But Patrick wanted none of that.

So Tocher, while continuing to juggle jobs — now at The Landing Art Gallery and Gallery 9, along with building his website, — found a house where they both could live. He moved Patrick into the little place near downtown Sequim in November — the same month he was voted in as a member of the Blue Whole Gallery.

It was a poetic, circular turn of events. Once rejected by the Blue Whole for being too dreary, Tocher is this month a featured artist and has filled a section of the gallery with bright light and color. “Port Townsend State of Mind” is here, and so is “Wetland,” a recent painting inspired by one of Tocher’s nights of performance painting.

In early 2011, Tocher admitted, he was feeling a bit weary from working his several jobs. Then, last February, he and fellow artists Johnny Rickenbacher and Doug Parent launched the Three-Legged Dog, a kind of team that would produce a painting every day. The three got together weekly in Rickenbacher’s studio and wielded their brushes with new fierceness.

When May came, with its Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts during Memorial Day weekend, Tocher and his compatriots pitched the idea of painting beside the festival’s main stage during the nighttime concerts.

At the Vern Burton Community Center they would set up their easels, listen to the bands play and pull out all the stops.

Together, they created quite a scene, with its swirl of the visual and musical. As the bands played and the painters painted, it was as though they shared electricity, then put it out for all to see and hear.

“Music is what was missing,” Tocher said. “It relaxes me, and it inspires me.”

None other than 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin, whose classic works are gracing the Seattle Art Museum now, likened vivid color to music. They both come across in vibrations — vibrations that express the inexpressible.

Tocher, you could say, is on the same page. Painting to live music was like nothing he’d ever experienced.

He’d joked that his arms would fall off from all that painting during the four-day Juan de Fuca Festival. Instead, the environment charged him up.

“It was,” Tocher said, “magical.”

The artist has since painted at concerts large and small: At the Vern Burton Community Center Halloween party featuring Deadwood Revival, Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boys and Great American Taxi, and to the Next Door pub in downtown Port Angeles, where singer-songwriter Kim Trenerry gave a solo performance in December.

In recent weeks, Tocher’s brother Tim, who lives in Arkansas, and his sister Maureen, who lives in Georgia, have come to Sequim to help him care for their father.

And Tocher has kept busy with his various artistic pursuits: He’s assistant manager of the Landing Art Gallery; he has paintings in galleries in Port Angeles, Sequim and Port Townsend, and he curated “The Art of Passion,” the February multimedia art show inside The Landing mall.

For Tocher, who turned 50 in December, art and life show no signs of letting up in their intensity.

On March 9, he will be performance painting again, during the Second Friday Art Rock party at Bar N9ne, 229 W. First St. Redwing, the featured band, is a cross-section of the local art and music scene.

The singer-guitarists are Tocher’s friend Doug Parent and Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts director Dan Maguire, while Jenny James plays fiddle and Eric Neurath, a fine art photographer and president of the Port Angeles Arts Council, plays bass. Rock and art will start at 8 p.m.

As for later in 2012, Tocher said he’d like to expand his reach a bit, and perhaps have a show at a Seattle gallery.

He predicts too that the coming year will be one of flux on the Olympic Peninsula, with art venues closing and opening, and the retirement of Port Angeles Fine Arts Center executive director Jake Seniuk in June.

“There’s going to be new stuff popping up this year,” he said, “and no one knows what it’s going to be.”

Tocher, at this point in his life, has learned to embrace it all: challenge, change and a lot of bright color.

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