Scraps to Riches

Gina Torkos’ work may look familiar. Folio Weekly has featured two of the artist’s collages on the covers of recent print issues. The Pennsylvania native has been making art in St. Augustine since 2007; she’s currently a member of Aviles Gallery, a fixture on the Oldest City’s self-styled oldest street and a tent pole of St. Augustine’s monthly First Friday Art Walk.

It’s an unlikely second act for Torkos, who was a speech therapist in suburban Pennsylvania in her early professional life.

“I’ve always done art,” Torkos told Folio Weekly from her second-story artist’s studio, overlooking the Matanzas River. “But when my kids grew up a little bit, I was able to start taking classes, class after class, whatever I was interested in. That let me sort of focus and pursue what I really liked.”

The first thing she really liked: murals. It all started with a Tuscan landscape in her own laundry room. Then she painted similar scenes on friends’ walls. Before long, she was taking commissions for offices and private residences.

Eventually she moved on to acrylic and oil painting. “It was a natural progression,” she explained. “I didn’t have a formal art education, so I would take more classes to fill in the gaps. I wanted to get better at the craft.”

Oil paintings, mostly landscapes and architectural detail, comprised her first solo show in 2007. By then, Torkos had left the speech therapy world—and the Rust Belt—and embraced a new career in a new town. The natural beauty of Northeast Florida offered itself as grist for her creative mill.

“I mean, look at this place,” she exclaimed. “I’m so inspired by the water and the nature.”

With a new range of subjects, Torkos began experimenting in a different medium: collage.

“After I felt I had mastered the skills I needed for oil painting,” she said, “I wanted to loosen up a little. I started a little scrapbook and played with images from magazines, doing color exercises every day. They ended up being art.”

She keeps a running archive of magazine scraps, organized by shade, and uses these to populate her canvases. Each strip must be treated with Liquitex gel medium, as must the canvas itself, in order to preserve the integrity of the collage. Up close, the details resemble abstract color splotches with random printed words and image fragments; from afar, the compositions become landscapes, river vistas, city scenes and wildlife studies.

The process requires a whole lot of raw materials. Torkos constantly pages through magazines to build her color palette. She scores from a variety of sources.

“I have a stash of old Nat Geographic Magazines and old Harper’s Magazines,” she said. “I have old French ledgers that I bought from antique stores. I do Vogue, I do W, I do travel magazines and local magazines. I’m always looking for interesting objects, words and textures.”

The new working method bore fruit in 2016, when Torkos joined Aviles Gallery. Resident goldsmith and co-owner Joel Bagnal spied the artist hauling a collage on neighboring Charlotte Street. He was so impressed, he immediately suggested Torkos get in touch with his wife (the gallery’s other co-owner), Hookey Hamilton. Torkos has been a co-op member ever since. One duty for member artists is to tend the gallery three days a month—often displaying or working on a current project. The place naturally attracts a lot of tourists.

“People who come in just appreciate art,” Torkos explained. “Sometimes they want a piece of St. Augustine, and we have plenty of those. But they’re all also beautiful art.”

First Friday Art Walk is the gallery’s big monthly event, during which dozens of St. Augustine’s galleries keep their doors open into the evening and provide refreshment and entertainment for strolling visitors. Torkos treasures the opportunity to meet new friends and potential patrons.

“Once you make that connection,” she said, “you’ll start seeing those faces again and again, whether they live in town or abroad. It’s fascinating.”