Sykes’  “Vah 14 (The Carrier Series).” Ink, alcohol marker and colored pencil on paper.
Sykes’ “Vah 14 (The Carrier Series).” Ink, alcohol marker and colored pencil on paper.

MATT TOOLE AND RUTH SYKES: Entangled minds blown

The Old Roberds Dairy Farm at the end of Tennessee Avenue in Thunderbolt is home to over 165 acres of pastures and marsh salt flats. At the entrance to this wild and magical space sits the dairy plant building, abandoned in the 1980’s, and now home to Toole Sculpture Works. 

It is here, in the un-airconditioned organized clutter of machinery, projects and found objects, that I meet with Matt Toole and Ruth Sykes to discuss their upcoming collaborative show, “Entanglements.”

Prior to our meeting, Sykes had not viewed the pieces Toole has been creating, and she is overcome with speechless delight when she sees the twisted and subtly colored sculptures of branches that so cleverly echo her own two-dimensional pieces. 

The similarities between such disparate mediums are striking. Toole gives much of the credit to his parttime co-creator Michelle Muller for figuring out how to wrap the specially foraged branches of holly in newsprint and gauze; the latter subtly dyed to mimic the soft colored pencil finish Sykes applies to her intricate drawings.

Part of one sculpture, still in progress, is covered in the most beautiful lichens. The main branch soars from a piece of fabricated metal, and the whole piece is set into the repurposed prop housing of a boat. Other works are wall-mounted, springing forth from a spongy bed of sphagnum moss.

click to enlarge MATT TOOLE AND RUTH SYKES: Entangled minds blown
Sykes looking at Toole’s wrapped sculptures that mimic her own work

Another piece, fashioned from twisted and grainy Hackberry wood, is extended and amplified by the addition of a second narrower piece of wood that elongates the whole to a graceful point. Toole lovingly strokes the Hackberry’s curves, delighting in the textures sculpted by beetles – only revealed when he peeled away the outer bark.

Both Toole and Sykes are deeply drawn to the natural world, found objects in general, and to wood in particular. Sulfur Studio’s Director of Exhibitions, Jon Witsky, and Executive Director Emily Earl are to be credited with recognizing this synergy, and for asking them to collaborate on a show.

Sykes is a native of Wisconsin with a BA in Arts, specializing in Graphic Design and Illustration, from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. 

She enjoyed an extensive career as an award-winning graphic designer, most recently with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, before moving to Savannah in 2010, drawn, she tells me, by the trees. She loves the marsh, the beach, and the boats on the river, but it was the live oaks that spurred her relocation and inspire so much of her work.

Sykes, both thoughtful and intelligent, recreated herself as an artist only after retirement, seeking a way to fuse her graphic design mindset into fine arts. Now, she devotes part of every day to her highly textured drawings, which, she tells me, are often mistaken for body musculature, sinews, and tendons. 

click to enlarge MATT TOOLE AND RUTH SYKES: Entangled minds blown
Sykes and Toole at Toole Sculpture Works

“When I’m working on them, there’s all these different influences that come into it. It’s not just the organic and natural, but also books that I’m reading, music that I’m listening to, stories I’ve read. I like Celtic art, Scandinavian art, Art Nouveau. Any of that intertwining kind of thing.”

“When I was first starting out in graphic design I always had a technical pen in my pocket, and I was always making slow, highly detailed work. As my illustrations became more abstract, that kind of drawing stuck with me. I’d turn on the music and let it flow out of me. I just let go,” Sykes continues. “I don’t plan it. When the pen and ink drawing is finished, I go over it with colored pencil. It’s very time consuming to build up the layers of color. While the core of my work is pen and ink, I’m also experimenting with cut paper doing collage and assemblage.”

Sykes adds, “I recognize that my work, as much as I love it, can get a bit sterile. It must be framed and put under glass. It starts to feel a bit meticulous. But I think combined with Matt’s sculpture, it will really come alive.”

Toole was drawn to Sykes’ bio-abstractions before he knew her, recognizing and appreciating her love of texture and love of nature. Toole grew up in the woods and marshes of Wilmington Island, earning a BFA from GSU in 1994 and an MFA from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville in 2000. He’s enjoyed several prestigious sculpture residencies in the United States and in Europe and has traveled extensively to collaborate on cast iron projects. 

A former professor of Foundation Studies at SCAD, he still occasionally teaches but focuses mainly on his utilitarian iron work and creating his marvelous, nature-inspired sculptures.

Sykes says, “My father was a high school science teacher which pretty much meant I was homeschooled in biology and physics 24/7. My mom was amazing. She wasn’t an artist, but she’d bring home things from the woods and make little centerpieces of rocks, chips of wood, twigs, and things for this little fairyland in the middle of our dining room table. Both my parents were foragers, and of course, Matt is always foraging. We have that in common.”

Toole agrees, “There’s an interesting common ground in terms of how our early years developed into art making. We are both inspired by the natural environment and the live oaks. That’s what dictates a lot of the movement and the lines that I try to replicate.”

Like Sykes, he enjoys allowing his mind to be in a free-flowing state and seeing where that will lead him. 

click to enlarge MATT TOOLE AND RUTH SYKES: Entangled minds blown
Toole works on the Hackberry wood sculpture

“It’s been a departure and a new direction to add fiber to my work. You know, we do practical work here, railings and lights and such, things that require exact dimensions. So, it’s an absolute pleasure to let my mind explore and wander – it’s like the patterns of organic energy explained in the Dancing Wu Li Masters book that Ruth and I discussed when we first met about this show. That’s the journey. That’s the process.” (Here, we go off on somewhat of an intellectual/spiritual/scientific tangent, with Sykes excitedly explaining recent progress in the search for “God particles” and how this science has inspired her latest drawing entitled “The Wheel of Ezekiel”).

Asking the artists what they hope their show will evoke in viewers, Sykes says wryly, “People are so busy shopping and looking at ‘that rectangle in their hand.’ It’s like modern day foraging. Instead, I hope that people will look at the work and slow down. Maybe, they’ll be inspired to go out in the woods and take a walk. Pick up some moss. Appreciate the fallen leaves, the color, the water, the beauty.”

Similarly, Toole wants viewers, “to appreciate both the intricate, beautiful things that have been made by hand and the natural elements that been made by the forces of nature. To see the beauty that is inherent in our natural world - like the Hackberry wood that was sculpted by the bark beetle. I just want people to walk into the gallery and have their minds blown.”

“Entanglements: Ruth Sykes and Matt Toole”, with investment by Starlandia Art Supply and by the City of Savannah, opens this Friday, August 5 from 5-9pm in conjunction with First Fridays in Starland at Sulfur Studios, 2301 Bull Street. Find out more at The artists will give a talk on Saturday August 20 at 2pm and the show runs through August 27. Find Toole’s work at and and find Sykes’ at Sulfur Studios.

Beth Logan

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Beth Logan had a career in healthcare HR and marketing. An artist and former gallery director, she serves on the board of nonprofit ARTS Southeast and has a passion for showcasing Savannah’s arts community, travel, oil painting, and cocktails!
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