CMA Stories

“This precarious existence and how we stabilize ourselves within it creates an interesting edge in my paintings” — 5 Minutes with Artist Ann Toebbe

Artist Ann Toebbe creates intricate works made with gouache, pencil, and paper collage on wood panels. Like pages from a diary, Toebbe records the architecture of current and former domestic environments. For the work displayed in Home Sweet Home: Is a Home a Sanctuary?, Toebbe archived social media posts from her large extended family, amassing a trove of images of family gatherings, birthday parties, baby showers, and displays of holiday decorations, using background details to construct photos of the homes themselves. Get to know Ann below!

Do you have a favorite quote about “home” from a movie, book, or song?

I love Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables. Here’s a quote where Hawthorne describes the house as if it were a living thing:

“The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance… It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and sombre reminisces. The deep projection of the section story gave the house a meditative look, that you could not pass it without the idea that it had a secret to keep.”

In your own words, what does “home” mean to you?

Home means a place where you feel safe and comfortable, but at the very least, it’s a place where you belong. Home is where everything is familiar; the rooms, furnishings, and objects are full of memories and are often chosen by you (or your parents). Everyone gets creative arranging their living spaces. A person’s home reveals a lot about their personality, a home is a portrait.

Your depictions of home interiors are collaged from different materials and depict multiple viewpoints at the same time — a bird’s eye view from above for the general layout with head-on depictions of certain objects and people throughout the piece. Why do you mix and match materials and perspectives to create your homes?

Using multiple viewpoints allows me to include everything in the room from any which way. I mix and match materials because I don’t like to follow any conventions or rules when it comes to composition, and I like the freedom and challenge of using mixed media in a painting.

Two of the works on view in this exhibition depict your friends’ homes as you glimpsed from Facebook photos. How does reconstructing the homes of friends from afar via digital images affect the way you literally or metaphorically view the homes of others?

I used the photos from Facebook because I realized that social media was giving me unusual access to people’s homes. From one person’s feed I could get an entire floor plan of a house or apartment. Puzzling them together felt creepy and sneaky and satisfying! I wanted the paintings to reveal how in this wild west of social media, we all give up our privacy. By taking the time to look at the background of friends’ posts,I was able to paint very detailed portraits of homes I had never visited.


Though your pieces focus on the interiors of homes, in most of them you show a bit of the exteriors around them, such as trees, a lake, or the view of other homes outside. Why did you choose to present the homes situated in their external environments in this way?

Painting the landscape is fun and it adds different colors and textures to the paintings. The landscapes and window views allow me to play with different painting techniques and sometimes set the mood or season of the painting. In “Friend: Susan” I intentionally included winter and summer and used stylized and painterly techniques for different exterior views, because why not?

You have stated in previous interviews that you began depicting homes from your native Ohio while living in New York City, and then started depicting New York City homes once you left the city. How do you think nostalgia affects the idea of home in your work, or the concept of home in general?

Nostalgia weighs heavy in my early work. I was often searching for a feeling of home and turned to dissecting my memories of my childhood in Ohio. There is a point as an adult where you suddenly realize all was not as it seemed, and people and relationships are complicated. Now that I have a family of my own and the present looms much larger than the past, I rely less on nostalgia and paint more in the present. Everything in middle age is so unimaginable to a young person. The drudgery, the disappointments, the repetition, and being tuned into how society and people are a lot less organized than you would expect, and often barely holding it together or falling apart. This precarious existence and how we stabilize ourselves within it creates an interesting edge in my paintings.

Has becoming a parent changed what home means or feels like to you?

Being a parent shifted my feeling of home from being with my parents in Cincinnati to being in Chicago with my husband and daughters. I moved to Chicago in 2005. We live in an especially tight-knit neighborhood community on the Southside.

Artist Elizabeth Murray said her daughters kept her in the world. Having children forces you to interact with the community and to be engaged on issues that would otherwise not be on your radar. I have been on a school LSC and worked as public school activist for equal funding. I’m currently the 5th and 6th grade girl’s basketball coach at my daughter’s school! All of these activities in addition to having my studio here for 10 years make Hyde Park feel like my home. Chicago is where my daughters are making their memories.

Home Sweet Home: Is a Home a Sanctuary? is on view until May 3, 2020.

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