Antonio Tobias “Toby” Mendez makes his living as a sculptor. He is best known for the Thurgood Marshall monument at the Maryland State House, several sculptures of Baltimore Orioles baseball players for Camden Yards, and work on the U.S. Navy Memorial.
He also has a significant body of work related to civil rights. Among them is a monument to Maggie Walker, the first woman to start a bank and the daughter of a former slave. Another is to Major Taylor, the first African-American world champion cyclist.
When working in his studio, Mendez is quiet, focused and very fastidious.
“I get lost in my work. I can be in my studio working on a sculpture or a painting or drawing and just completely get lost and lose track of time,” says Mendez.
He notes that, of the visual arts, sculpting is the biggest challenge. “It's about protrusions and depressions. And one thing that I think is very dynamic about it, because it's 360 degrees, that you have to capture what you want to capture from every possible angle.”
Becoming interested in sculpting started at an early age for Mendez. He says both his parents inspired him.
“My mother, when I was a child, did a sculpture of me, and I just thought that was the neatest thing,” Mendez says. “So, I was probably about maybe six years old when I first saw somebody work with clay. And so, growing up I was always making things, not necessarily figures, but just playing with clay and carving things and so forth.”
He says his father was an artist, too. “Whenever I had a problem sculpting an ear, he would sculpt the left ear and I would have to reverse my mind and sculpt the right ear.”
However, Mendez says being an artist requires more than working with his hands. It also requires learning. Mendez says when he is commissioned to do a sculpture, he begins by researching his subjects and thinking about what the final product will convey.
“One of the beauties of the work that I do, especially the public work, is it's a constant education. I'm learning about history of people I'd never heard of and experiences I never heard of,” says Mendez. “But also, I am constantly curious about things.”
Once a sculpture is finished, Mendez says he sometimes still is not quite satisfied, but he eventually comes around.
“A lot of times when I get the sculpture done there's always something that bothers me about it. And it takes me sometimes years where I look back and realize I actually did hit the mark.”
Mendez says being constantly critical of himself makes his work better. At the same time, he appreciates being able to share his talent with others.
He says, “Somebody seeing one of my gallery pieces and loving it enough to take it home, and having them show it off and seeing it in their world and becoming a part of their landscape, is quite something and feels good.”