Best known for his cast-paper hybrids of paintings and sculptures, Ray Tomasso, who was based in Englewood, Colorado, has been a mentor and teacher to artists around the world for more than forty years. On Thursday, June 25, while he was working in the courtyard outside his studio, constructing his latest effort — a monumental wall relief, one of three currently in production — it started to rain. So together with his wife, preservation consultant Diane Wray Tomasso, they wrestled the massive, heavy piece under cover. According to his wife, Tomasso then became uncharacteristically winded. Although he had cancer, he had responded well to treatment. Diane held him for a while, and he appeared to recover, and when a friend dropped by with some printing equipment, Tomasso went back into his studio. About a half-hour later, Diane went to check on what they were doing, and she found her husband’s body on the studio floor.
Tomasso was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1949. He became deeply interested in art as a child, deciding, while in the midst of children’s classes at the city’s renowned Joslyn Art Museum, to dedicate the rest of his life to making art. And that’s exactly what he did.
In 1971, Tomasso earned his BFA at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and afterward took graduate art courses there, and at Michigan State University and Southern Illinois University. In 1974 he created his first artwork made of cast paper, while his main forms of expression were printmaking and letterpress, which have likewise been lifelong pursuits for him.
A few years later in 1977, he came west to complete his MFA in printmaking at the University of Colorado Boulder, studying with the late Clinton Cline. He graduated in 1979. Through these academic experiences, Tomasso had received a high level of training in ceramics and printmaking, and he taught himself how to make paper.
When I interviewed him some years ago, he mused, “I thought, ‘How hard could it be if people had been doing it for two thousand years?’ and this was obviously a mistake, because traditional techniques are actually very hard to master.” Tomasso told me at that same time that he had initially been led to papermaking because of his unhappiness with the inability of etchings to create anything other than shallow reliefs.
It was in 1980 that he moved to Englewood, and he became a part of the Denver art scene. Before he had left Omaha, he had founded what he called the Inter-Ocean Curiosity Studio, an atelier that came with him to Colorado. He used the operation to create prints, cast paper pieces, and his bread and butter: sheets of handmade paper that he sold to other artists. After coming to Englewood, he occupied a series of studios before rehabbing a former luncheonette and constructing a complex of small buildings behind it, in an industrial area northwest of downtown Englewood. He established separate structures meant for the production of different mediums, with, for instance, a messy workshop for papermaking and a clean one for printmaking.
The ’70s and ’80s were watershed decades for the paper medium, and Tomasso rode the wave of interest to the top of the field, traveling the world, learning and teaching. Among his many credits, he became one of the founders and later the director of the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists, headquartered in Switzerland. Through his experiences and studies over his lifetime, he accrued an encyclopedic knowledge of paper techniques and was accomplished at a dizzying array of them.
His method was to create a mold using found objects including cardboard, book pages, brail, sheets of pressed metal, neon tubes, dowels and anything else he could think of. These materials were assembled into arrangements that he referred to as “collages,” which he put together instinctually. Once his “collages” were complete, he would press wet paper pulp into them, producing a mirror-image of the mold, which would then be destroyed in order to free the completed cast paper form. He then would paint them with natural pigments sealed in acrylic glazes. He preferred to work monumentally, often combining multiple panels to make his sometimes-enormous pieces.
All along Tomasso created abstracts which at first blush resemble paintings, and in fact they are painted, but the pigments he’s applied have not been freely worked and instead follow the contours of the preexisting bas-reliefs in the underlying cast paper. That means that though they appear to be expressionistic and spontaneous, they have actually been meticulously planned and carried out.
He was a skilled colorist that matched similar shades or juxtaposed contrasting tones, creating pieces that are complex stylistically with references to abstract expressionism, color field abstraction and constructivism. In addition, because of the more-or-less representational elements used in the underlying “collage” molds, there’s even a little Dada or Arte Povera in the mundane objects visible in the sculptural surfaces underneath the paint.
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Even after he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, Tomasso continued to teach, and produce work, taking on a residency in Hong Kong from 2017 to 2018. “It was right after he was diagnosed,” remembers his wife, Diane, “and when he was discouraged by his doctor from spending a month in Hong Kong, Ray said, ‘I can just as easily die in Hong Kong as I can here.’” In Hong Kong he not only conducted classes but outfitted the classroom with a functioning paper-making studio that was the school’s to keep when he left.
Tomasso’s pieces are in hundreds of private, corporate and public collections, including those of his alma mater, CU Boulder and the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art.
Ultimately, Tomasso died where he loved to be, doing what he loved to do, in his studio making art.
He left behind an incredible trove of pieces, and hopefully a proper show will be mounted in his honor. A virtual memorial service for him is in the planning stages.