Toller - Source of Creativity and Inspiration

It all began 14 years ago with a dream of escaping our simple and predictable life to embark on an adventure we would remember forever.  My husband and I had been planning to travel for a few months before we moved from Austin to Boston.  We came up with a plan to drive from Austin, Texas, all the way to Costa Rica and back over a four month period.

While planning this journey, I met someone at a coffee shop in Austin that I was told had been in Mexico recently.  He said, “You HAVE to go to San Miguel, and you HAVE to look up Toller Cranston!  He is an  Olympic Medalist figure skater from Canada, an amazing artist, and a real character!  He has these incredible houses, you have to meet him!” 

This person clearly did not understand that we had both quit our jobs and were essentially backpacking out of the back of our 1997 stick shift Pathfinder staying at cheap hotels…not renting luxury villas!

Nonetheless, we arrived in San Miguel on a picture perfect sunny afternoon, bumping along on the narrow cobblestone streets and stopping at the first pay phone we found.

I called the number I had written in my travel journal.  In my broken Spanish, I explained we were looking to meet Toller.  Somehow I got the street number and address and our adventure began.

We arrived in front of this golden yellow and dusty rose colored concrete wall with the most magical garden and wonderland behind.  Someone answered the door, and casually led us through the towering, blooming bougainvillea on the stone paved sidewalk.  Circling up the stairs to what I called the glass castle, we arrived at Toller’s art studio.  Looking up at the pitched glass ceiling, the light poured in while Toller painted dreamlike masterpiece after masterpiece.  Full of color and imagination, I was in awe at the size and color of these pieces.

Toller asked, “Now, who told you to come visit me?” We explained that we met someone that had stayed in one of his homes and had told us we needed to meet him.  Toller just motioned for us to follow him and led us around blooming gardens, through arch ways and hallways filled with incredible collections of art, mostly his own eccentric, flourishing paintings. Lavishly plush couches in colors of magenta and tourmaline velvet, chandeliers of metallic pastel dripping with blown glass flowers, ceramics of all colors, shapes and sizes covering the walls…it went on and on, I was living in someone’s dream world.

Toller led us to his rooftop deck for some chilled grape juice and a look at the sun setting over San Miguel.  As we talked and got to know each other, he leaned across the table and said, “Pretend I am your rich Uncle and stay as long as you like.  Breakfast is at 9:00”…and he handed us the key.  This was the start to the magic filled time we knew Toller.

The week passed quickly - we enjoyed many conversations that jumped and shifted from topic to topic in mere minutes - world politics to American lifestyles – Musicians.  Strolling through the streets of San Miguel, Toller lead us to his favorite eateries walking smoothly, hands clasped behind his back, in his khaki chinos stained with every shade of paint, and his wide brimmed hat.  He had a presence like none other. 

Toller truly took us in and shared his home, his meals, his life with us.  We were sad to leave his magical world, but new adventures were ahead for our road trip.  We invited him to meet us in a few weeks down in Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Ocean.  Toller, in a very enigmatic fashion, said “Well, if it’s meant to be, it will be…we shall see.  If I do go, you can find me by the pool at the Hotel Santa Fe.”

Off we drove, several more weeks…tope after tope bumping along in our car through Mexico.  Images of hot dry fields gave way to beach like trees and then the powerful waves of the Pacific Ocean that make Puerto Escondido a surfer’s paradise.  We checked into our hotel, and after a quick change into beach attire, we flip flopped down to the Hotel Santa Fe.  I told my husband we just had to check to see if he really might be there…we had no idea if he would come!  There, by the pool, red hot belly in the sun and face under a wide brimmed hat, Toller lay sleeping in a sun chair. 

We enjoyed another week where he showed us his favorite beaches to relax on, his favorite restaurants…we played in the rolling warm bubbly waves of the Playa Principal.  One day I lost my hat – we decided I must have left it on the boat that took us to a beach the day before.  When Brad and I made our way down to the beach, along strolled Toller, he had rescued my hat. 

Our four-month journey went by way to fast, we had to head back to reality, jobs, school…Our very last night of the entire journey, was spent in San Miguel with Toller.  He told us he absolutely had room and wanted us to stay our last night.  We enjoyed dinner sharing the stories of our road trip adventure and ending our journey as it had begun 4 months before when Toller so graciously took us in…it was a perfect final night of our trip.  We drove off at dawn the next morning, very sad that this time had come to an end, and not sure when we would ever see Toller again.

Over the next decade, I remained in touch with Toller – always sending Christmas cards he said would arrive in July…I called a few times as well and it was great to hear of his latest works of art and travels.  Then came our daughters Vivian, then Clara and next thing we knew 11 years had passed and we had not been back to San Miguel.

Every now and then I would look up his artwork online to see if we could buy a painting to remember our wonderful journey and our magical time with Toller.  Many were much too large in size and price for us…but I kept looking.  In the fall of 2013 I called Toller to catch up, and tell him that I wanted to surprise Brad with one of his paintings for an anniversary gift.   I asked where I could buy one of his paintings.  He immediately said, “Paige!  I will make a painting for you and Brad that is just as I remember you!”

I was truly taken back and could not believe he wanted to do this for us, what a gift!  Toller and I talked more frequently which was a treat, and I began to share the story with my daughters, Vivian and Clara ages 6 and 8.  We watched videos of Toller ice skating, interviews of Toller and soon they knew who he was to us.  A few weeks later a package arrived. 

The four of us sat in the living room as we carefully opened this masterpiece Toller painted just for us.  It was magnificent!  With tears in my eyes, we gazed a long time at this work of art displaying our lives through Toller’s eyes.

“I had more fun painting this for you and Brad, and I want you to know it means more to me than you could have ever pay me that you asked me for a painting.  I want your girls to grow up in a home with this on the wall, as a window into a world of imagination.  I named it “Come Fly with me for the Rest of Your Life”.  He went on to describe the painting and each aspect and the distinct meaning and purpose behind each element – the bubbles were like the waves from when we met in Puerto Escondido and also represented each a wonderful memory during Brad’s and my life together…the gift we are gazing at is the gift of our future…he went on and on I was taken back by his thoughtfulness, and the deep meaning in the painting.

Toller and I remained in touch and he invited our family down to visit in San Miguel.  He said he really wanted to meet my girls and that we could all paint together and enjoy staying with him and traveling around San Miguel.  How could we say no!  We were so excited to return to San Miguel, and to share such a treasured part of our life with our girls. 

Summer 2014 – off to San Miguel.  Pulling up to Toller’s property, going through the doors and into the gardens felt even more magical than the first time.  I was overwhelmed again by all the beauty, ceramics, art, gardens, sculpture…my girls were in awe…jaw dropping surroundings…like living inside an artist’s own creative mind.  It was so wonderful to see Toller again!  He was just darling with Vivian and Clara.

He had a plan for us each day…”Tomorrow you will go to the hot springs, on the way you will visit a church from the UNESCO world heritage site.  You have to have the best pork carnitas for lunch…” it went on and on…the days were filled with touring around and the afternoons hanging out with Toller, watching him paint, relaxing enjoying leisurely meals with cake or ice cream at every one…we were all feeling very spoiled!  I was thanking him for showing my girls such a fun time, he said, “well its better than not having fun!  I want them to enjoy themselves so they want to come back!”  My heart aches when I think of this now…the kindness and interest he took in my daughters…the time he took painting with us…the long meals enjoying his company…the plans he made for us to enjoy our time there…all ending with a fabulous dinner party where we met many of his friends in San Miguel.  It was all just too perfect.

Returning to Seattle…I spoke with Toller a few times and sent him a fun thank you package including his favorite jelly beans, coffee and a belt we had inscribed “THANK YOU FOR YOUR INSPIRATION - YOU BRIGHTEN OUR WORLD - LOVE BRAD, PAIGE, VIVIAN & CLARA”.  He truly did brighten our world. 

January 2014 I received a phone call and learned of Toller’s passing.  I was stunned, and I still am.  Such a shock… the month before he was telling me of the fabulous surprise he had for his Christmas dinner guests – an evening all in canary yellow!  He was so excited…

I woke up in the middle of the night and was thinking back on all the conversations we shared our last vist with him - all his great stories, ideas, laughter...  The memory that stands out to me the most was when we were all painting in the studio and he was taking the time to talk to my girls about the paints, the colors, he was complimenting each of their styles with vocabulary I rarely hear - he had the most amazing vocabulary!  Later we were alone by the pool and I was expressing my gratitude for hosting us for such a lovely, memorable week - for sharing his passion of art with us.  He said "that is all of our jobs - to share our talents with others".  It struck me.  He has left a permanent mark on our lives - a mark of the color and flair and beauty of art - a mark of his generosity, always sharing his life, his talents, his meals, his home with others.

Toller, thank you for sharing your many talents with us while you were here.  You are missed, you can never be replaced, and you have given us memories to cherish for a lifetime.  Thank you for everything.