It seemed like Duane Todman was on the brink of accomplishing everything he’d worked toward.
The 27-year-old artist’s application was about to be accepted at the Academy of Realist Art in Boston. He was the featured artist on a community arts project in Schenectady and he was planning to exhibit his work in the fall.
That all came to a halt on May 23, when he was fatally shot on the corner of Craig and Stanley streets in Schenectady, not too far from the Electric City Barn, where he had an art studio.
He didn’t get to read his acceptance letter from the Academy and he was never able to see his work exhibited, as it is now at the Albany Center Gallery.
“I just wish he was here to see [it] because he always wanted to have his own art exhibit and unfortunately, it came as a result of his death,” said Michelle Hightower, Todman’s mother. “That’s hard for me because I knew he would be successful. I always told him that. But I just wish he was here to see it.”
“Shining Light” honors the artist’s work and life, gathering together some of his striking portraits, carefully composed still lifes and well-used sketchbooks.
The exhibition was created in collaboration with Hightower, Todman’s sister Essence and Tony Iadicicco, the director of the gallery. Featuring 51 works, it highlights how meticulously Todman worked and how passionate he was about perfecting his style.
According to Essence, Todman would often create three smaller paintings before starting a large scale work to make sure his proportions were correct. That’s seen clearly in the exhibit, as some of the larger paintings and portraits are accompanied by his sketches, allowing the viewer to track Todman’s progress from the rough drafts to the final work.
The journey is especially evident in a larger painting of a blindfolded Black man who is breaking away from being chained to a wall. In a smaller version, which is seen nestled in one of Todman’s palette boxes, the figure has broken both chains and his shape is slightly less defined. In the larger and final version, the figure has only broken one chain.
Todman was mostly a self-taught artist, though he never stopped seeking out art workshops and formal education programs.
“Education was important to my brother, even though he couldn’t finish [college] the first time, he never stopped trying to get a formal education,” Essence said.
While financial and mental health struggles delayed his formal art education, Todman spent many hours studying other artists, including William-Adolphe Bouguereau, reading about different techniques, and learning through experience.
He was always looking for people in the community to pose for him. A few months ago, William Rivas, the director of COCOA House, became one of Todman’s many models.
“He came to my office and we spent two days doing this portrait. Spending so much time together we started talking [and] I just realized how genuine of a person he was, not just how good of an artist he was, but just how beautiful his soul was,” Rivas said.
They kept in contact and Rivas brought him on to be a featured artist in a forthcoming project called Common Unity Banners, which works with youth programs to create banners to put on the Craig Street bridge.
Unfortunately, Todman died before the project could come to fruition.
“Immediately I felt like I wanted to do something for this young man because I just knew [from] my experience with him he was a phenomenal person. I’d seen his artwork. I knew his passion. . . . I just wanted to do something really special for the family,” Rivas said.
He worked with the family to create the Duane X Foundation and two scholarships in Todman’s name.
For Essence, who is also an artist, the foundation and the scholarships reflect everything that Todman was passionate about.
“He continued to work and he finally got accepted to a school that he wanted to go to. It’s just a shame that he wasn’t able to go,” Essence said, “That’s why this foundation and the scholarship is so important because a lot of the times money was the issue when it came to school. There’s not a lot of scholarships for art . . . [we can] provide that resource for people who are like my brother, who have the passion, who have everything — they’re just lacking the financial support.”
The foundation will launch on Saturday, July 11, during the reception of “Shining Light.” Scheduled to run from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., it will feature spoken word performances inspired by Todman, a presentation by members of the Academy of Realist Art Boston and live music.
“The idea was to create this beautiful celebration where people can come; they can engage and share stories about Duane and just offer a circle of light and love around the family,” Rivas said. “It’s a generational loss because he was that talented . . . he was that good of a person. To see some of the things that he could have done and ways he could have inspired other people, I felt like that was taken from the community.”
While the reception will be the first time that Hightower will have seen the exhibition, she’s already stunned by the number of messages and amount of feedback she’s heard not only about his work but about how her son impacted so many people in the community.
“He just blew me away. He’s touched so many lives that I never even knew just how much of an impact he had on the art community,” Hightower said.
“His passion was art and it’s very comforting to know that so many people in the field that he was so passionate about respected him,” Essence said.
Both mother and sister share the same favorite piece of Todman’s: a portrait divided into more than 100 tiny squares of varying shades of black, grey and white.
“When I saw it . . . that’s when I realized how his mind works and how he sees things, how he’s able to put things that intricate together to make a whole picture,” Essence said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we were so different. He saw the fine little details and he fixated on those where I saw the big picture.”
While the two never collaborated, Todman did collaborate with his other siblings on songwriting and recording, which he also did a fair amount of throughout his life.
“He has a lot of music out there. If you listen to the lyrics . . . it moves you. He had a way with words. He just saw things so different,” Hightower said.
She hopes the exhibition will give people a chance to look through Todman’s lens.
“What I would like is for people to see the world the way he saw it. Duane saw good in everybody no matter what. . . . For him, the world was perfectly imperfect,” Hightower said.
“Shining Light” will be on view at the Albany Center Gallery through July 18. The Gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information visit albanycentergallery.org.
‘Shining Light’ reception
WHEN: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sat. July 11
WHERE: Albany Center Gallery, 488 Broadway, Albany
MORE INFO: visit “Shining Light: Duane Todman” on Facebook or Eventbrite
NOTE: Masks and social distancing will be required and a limited number of people will be allowed into the gallery at a time. The sooner one purchases a ticket, the sooner they’ll be able to get in to see the exhibition.