How TV Texan Toby Huss Turned Childhood Trauma Into Giant Paintings
Actor Toby Huss first made an impact in the pop consciousness with a role on early '90s Nickelodeon classic The Adventures of Pete & Pete as Artie, the Strongest Man In The World, but became best known as “Hollywood’s favorite fake Texan,” as Texas Monthly put it. While he’s actually from Iowa, his time as a TV Texan includes playing parts ranging from Hank Hill’s dad Cotton on the animated King of the Hill to his work as John Bosworth on four seasons of the AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire.
But throughout his career, he’s been a multidisciplinary artist offscreen, becoming an accomplished painter and photographer.
His Unknown Companion
His latest solo exhibition is titled “Flutterluster,” showing at Los Angeles gallery Matter Studio. It features large works that incorporate what Huss describes as a “fluttering line” that he’s been playing with ever since he was a child — going on 50 years.
“It was always something, if I was talking on the phone and I was doodling, or I was walking around town like when I lived on the Lower East Side of New York in my twenties — I would graffiti it sometimes with other guys, and it was this sort of unknown companion. It was always there with me,” Huss said.
The pieces are abstract, a swirling network of lines all layered on top of one another. Friends that he’s known for 40 years have told him he used to put that line on the outside of envelopes, Huss said.
“It was just this sort of undulating, cluttering thing,” Huss said. “I never looked at it as legitimate when I was painting other things, or if I was drawing other things. It wasn’t until the last couple years that I looked at that and thought, well, maybe that is the basis of a painting — that’s the skeleton of it, the backbone. Or maybe it’s the main thing. I didn’t know.”
Creating visual art has given Huss a reliable pursuit outside of acting. He appreciates the balance between this solo work and acting with an ensemble, creating more collaborative art.
“One great thing about this, which is also sometimes its detriment, is that you’re alone,” Huss said. “Which can be good and bad. Because if it’s ruinous, and if it’s awful, then you’re the only one to blame.”
Big Pandemic Art
The paintings he’s showing at Matter Studio Gallery are some of the largest work he’s ever done. Shortly before the pandemic, he purchased a 50-yard roll of canvas to start working with, utilizing a large 10-by-35-foot wall in his basement studio at his Atwater Village home.
He started experimenting with 10-by-10-foot work, and once he realized he could do that, he tried rolling out 30 feet and painting that.
He thought, “Roll out 10 yards and see if you can staple that to the wall, and see if it can hold your interest, and see if it’s something worthy afterwards,” Huss said. “And it was, and it did, and it was good. And I liked painting big — I’m working on one that’s 10-by-14 right now.”
Huss says the pandemic helped him to focus his work in a way he couldn’t normally do when he was always busy filming something, despite having a home studio for the past 20 years. Especially in the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, it gave him around six months where all he had to do was to go down to his studio and paint.
“Before that, I worked out of my apartment on the Lower East Side, and it was always the thing that I did alongside of acting,” Huss said. “Acting was the choice I would get when it was offered to me, but art was always there. That was always the constant. … So it’s almost like acting was the aberration.”
Photos In Palmdale
Not that he left visual art behind while filming — when going to work on location, he turned to photography, which ramped up as an attempt to change his visual aesthetic.
“I took a trip to Palmdale one time, 15 years ago — just drove through it. I thought it was a little rough around the edges, and I didn’t think it was a particularly pretty place to be,” Huss said.
The Iowa native compared it to where he grew up. “I thought, some poor kid grows up in Palmdale, that’s rough. [Then] I thought, no, that’s pretty arrogant to say — maybe that kid had a great family and a great life. His visual aesthetic is formed by Palmdale.”
So he started to shift, seeing if he could find the beauty that a kid growing up and loving Palmdale would find in that town. Both in photography and visual art, he uses these mediums to investigate different ideas. Photography lets him explore visual symmetry and subtly humorous sights, while in painting, it’s often about color — and that fluttering line.
Exploring Old Trauma
Huss believes that the line that never left him goes back to some childhood trauma that he said he’s discovered over the past couple of years.
“[Painting with the line] is a bit of a reclamation, I think, of some childhood things. I think you hold that stuff in your body, and I think this is one way that that’s getting out,” Huss said. “Some of these paintings, I think they’re beautiful. And it’s less ‘Here is some dark things,’ and more, 'This is the coping mechanism that I’ve used for 50 years, and this is the thing that has saved me for a long time, and has helped me heal.”
It’s a place that he’s had to access emotionally as an actor as well.
“But I’ve done so much comedy, you don’t really need to access that stuff when you’re goofing off,” Huss said, laughing. “But I think it’s important to stay connected emotionally, no matter what you’re doing acting-wise. So I think some of that stuff will seep in there.”
With the painting, the solitary nature of the work for hour after hour lets him access those deep emotions regularly, according to Huss.
“It’s more of a direct line to that stuff,” Huss said.
Relationship With The Audience
Huss feels that, with the subjective nature of painting, he tries to sit back and let people feel whatever they individually take away from the work.
“If you’re making a narrative film, you know what you’re trying to say with the piece, exactly. And by and large, you can sort of move the audience toward one political place, or emotional place, to another,” Huss said.
But with painting, it’s more about sticking with his own process and then releasing it for people to connect with themselves.
“As long as I’m connected to it when I’m painting it, and it’s not phony, and I’m doing it for an important reason myself, I think that will translate. Translate into what, I don’t know,” Huss said.
You can see what his work translates into for you at Matter Studio Gallery, where Huss will be delivering an artist talk this Sunday from 2–4 p.m. The exhibition runs through Jan. 15. And you can see him acting in HBO’s upcoming White House Plumbers and the forthcoming Paramount+ series Fatal Attraction, as well as recent appearances in Reno 911’s Christmas special, the Weird Al Yankovic faux documentary — and anywhere TV needs a fake Texan.