The Artist and The Athlete

Toller_1I lost a new friend this week. We had only just met and had one extraordinary conversation, but he made such an impression on me. I was very much looking forward to seeing him again. Toller Cranston was found in his home here Saturday, lifeless apparently from a heart attack, at the all-too-young age of 65. I had initially become aware of Toller as one of the many eccentric, and perhaps best known residents here in San Miguel De Allende.

In addition to six consecutive Canadian men’s champion figure skating titles and an Olympic bronze, Toller introduced a level of artistry into the sport unseen before, paving the way for today’s more balletic performances. The NY TImes refers to him as ‘The Nureyev’ of figure skating and speaks to his contribution to the sport; he is to be inducted into the World Skating Hall of Fame. My experience of him had nothing to do with his skating accomplishments. I knew him only in his reinvented state as an artist. His paintings are mesmerizingly beautiful, informed by a uniquely imaginative and fantastical vision inspired in part by Russian fairy tales.

I was initially blown away by his his over-the top home, experienced on a house tour—chock full of amazing objects—many of his own creation. I then met him at a book signing event held in his studio. I had never encountered such a quiet presence—gifted, prolific, larger than life in his accomplishments yet exuding warmth, accessibility and genuineness. His output was prodigious. He painted 12 hours day, most days. I caught his attention when I asked him if he felt a parallel in the experience of being an athlete to the experience of being an artist. I knew the answer, especially in his case, would be a huge and mighty YES.

We spoke of the discipline required to accomplish anything in both realms. We spoke about the passion and commitment required and the ability to deal with critics and failure. But mostly we talked about FLOW–what it feels like to be ‘in the zone’ in either pursuit. He acknowledged that is what made Toller-the-artist and Toller-the- superstar athlete keep showing up each day to do the work—the intense immersion and subsequent ‘high’ produced from challenging oneself in a realm one is passionate about, every day. He saw them as one in the same. Toller is said to have produced over 40,000 paintings; many of which I have seen. I think his reputation as an artist would be greater had it not been eclipsed by his reputation as an athlete. A very rare thing for one to burn so bright in such seemingly different realms. In his mind it wasn’t such a leap (pun intended).

For a great read about the man who was his own work of art, written by a life long friend click here, or simply Google him. Pure entertainment: YouTube  has some great videos of Toller on ice.

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