Youthful ImaginationĀ 

03 Jan 2024

Local UNCW professor and artist Grayson Toal (aka GERB Art) creates vibrant paintings that evoke childhood wonder 

By Madison Bailey  »  Photos by Grayson Toal

For Grayson Toal, childhood isn't a fleeting memory; it's a vibrant tapestry interwoven into the very fabric of her artistic creations. Having recently emerged from graduate school and now holding the position of a part-time English professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Grayson, affectionately known as “GERB” since her girlhood, is a self-taught artist fully immersed in a world of youthful imagination, infusing each brushstroke with inspiration. 

Drawing from the rich palette of North Carolina's natural scenery — from soft pinks to deep greens, mellow oranges, and vibrant blues — each of Toal's paintings stands as a testament to her unwavering commitment to encapsulating the essence of her magical childhood. Raised on the serene shores of Lake Wiley, her hometown wasn't merely a backdrop but a stage for the unfolding beauty of Toal's formative years. 

“Having a barn, pasture, horses, goats, and the lake — especially the late summer noises of cicadas and frogs — that's a very special place for me,” she reflects, intertwining the narratives behind her paintings with the beauty of her home.

Besides her girlhood, another anchor for her inspiration may seem surprising to some, but to a late '90s-born artist, it makes perfect, mystical sense. “A big source of my inspiration is the movie ‘Bridge to Terabithia,’” she confesses—a movie about children that create an imaginary world to escape from their everyday problems. “I reference this film a lot, but I swear it's ingrained in me. The themes of fantasy, friendship, and wonder in that movie have been a staple for my mindset about imagination and keeping a childlike wonder about the world.”

This connection to nature and the arts was further enriched by Toal's family background, where artistic expression was part of daily life. Raised by a pottery artist and ceramics master, her parents played pivotal roles in the local art scene of Charlotte, North Carolina. Her mother, who owned a pottery studio, was able to foster a creative environment that allowed Toal to explore various artistic mediums from a young age.

Meanwhile, Toal's creative process mirrors the simplicity of childhood she aims to convey. “Towards the end of the painting process, I sense that the piece begins to let me know what it wants to be,” she reflects. “I am constantly contemplating what it means to navigate being an adult woman while still wishing for the simplicity of youth, so I aim for the subjects of my paintings to exude that innate childlike wonder.” 

A mere scroll through her Instagram page will make you feel just that. The platform has proven to be more than just a tool for sharing for Toal; it has become a community hub where individuals with a shared appreciation for art converge. “I'm very grateful for social media, and as much as it can be a bit demanding, I have a really good community on there that supports me and pushes me to keep going,” she reflects. “It's really special.”

Community is precisely what Toal finds the most joy in the nature of art. “What I like about art is that it's up for interpretation,” she says. For her, beauty lies not just in expressing her own emotions and experiences but in the diverse ways people perceive and connect with her creations. The best part, she adds, is receiving messages about what a painting meant for someone's specific life. “I can talk about the painting all I want, but I really enjoy hearing others' thoughts and feelings,” she says.

Her recent works, “Mirror Ball Manifestation” and “Bubblegum Girl,” embody her signature connection to childhood and positivity. Through a thoughtful interplay of pink and red hues, Toal encapsulates not only the fleeting nature of youth but also her own positive outlook, giving viewers a glimpse into the artist's emotional landscape. “I've always thought that pink represents youth, but also, it truly mirrors my positive mood,” she says. The chosen colors become a visual language, narrating stories of innocence, joy, and the vibrant energy that emanates from Toal's current state of mind. 

As Toal takes GERB Art into the future, she's enthusiastic about the ongoing development of her portfolio and looks forward to participating in local gallery shows. Currently, her artworks grace the walls of New Elements and 24 South Coffee & Bottega. However, for this Wilmington-based artist, art transcends being merely a profession — it is a lifelong outlet, a canvas through which she perpetually explores, expresses, and finds joy. Success, to Toal, transcends the boundaries of recognition; it's about maintaining art as a fun, creative outlet and continually exploring the interplay between her emotions and the canvas. 

“I've always thought that art should be something that makes you happy and something that brings you joy,” she says. “So, in 2024, I want to continue playing around and expressing myself.”

View more of her work at gerbart.com.

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