Boise's Bird Man 

Local artist Toby Robin on his art

This year, the Record Exchange—a downtown Boise landmark—turns 30. To commemorate the occasion, owners Mike Bunnell and Jill Sevy commissioned a new mural to be painted on the outside of their building that turns the corner from 11th to Idaho Street and houses the Record Exchange, its offices, the Edge and the Neurolux. The new mural needs to reflect the hip businesses within, but also be a vision that wouldn't go stale; one that could stay current in the years to come. They turned to local marketing company Oliver Russell and its senior graphic designer, 32-year-old Toby Robin to help them create an image.

After leaving high school, Robin says he really focused on art, including attending a year and a half at a community college in his hometown of Powell, Wyo., but says, "I took the long way to figuring out what I wanted to do. I started out in fine arts, stopped going to school, got married, had my first kid then went back to school. I had a watercolor teacher say I should try graphic design." That led him to the University of Idaho, and it wasn't long after graduation—about six years ago—that he started at Oliver Russell, where he's worked since. It was important to him to find a way to turn his love for art into a steady income and Oliver Russell fostered that need. I asked if he is able, though, to take his artistic vision and translate that into what clients want. Robin says, "There's some overlap, but you do have to realize and accept it is commercial. [The client] has the final word and you don't own anything. You can never have complete ownership of what you're working on because they can change it and they're paying you. But, I do try to use illustration a lot which is an extension of fine art. I try to put that into my work whenever I can."

The Record Exchange mural turned out to be a win/win situation. The Record Exchange is now as cool on the outside as it is in and Robin found that working on the mural helped him with something beyond just the cachet of being known as the guy who designed it. It rekindled his childhood interest in fine art and he's been pursuing painting with a renewed vigor.

Are you comfortable with a mouse and a keyboard as tools of your art?

Yeah, when I was going to school, I was young and just going for fun, but then I found graphic design and found that I liked it and was good at it so I got away from fine art ... from art of any kind. The Record Exchange [mural] got me excited about that again. I've been painting at home and have art up in Seattle and I'm trying to get some prints in another gallery up there so I'm making the transition back to fine art ... I'd like to get some shows locally, too.

How did the Record Exchange thing come about?

It came to Oliver Russell as a project to illustrate the new mural. There were two other designers on the team, and we just each came up with our own idea and presented our sketches. Out of those, [Bunnell and Sevy] chose mine. From there, they were like, "You can make it really out there. You can make it mean or fun or do whatever. So I took my original [sketch] and put it on the computer and started working on it to what it is now.

Where did the idea for the birds come from?

It's funny how it worked out. Because it's the Hitchcock Building, the birds were kind of an easy idea ... it kind of made sense to explore that. I had done these paintings for [my wife] Laura ... I proposed to her through these paintings. I did a nice version of them for the mural and then they wanted them meaner. So I made them mean. It was cool to do that. It was the whole Hitchcock/birds thing, but I'd also been playing with these birds. It all kind of happened at the same time: the mural, the proposal ... everything.

The mural that was on the building before was pretty well-known. How did you feel about designing something that would go over someone else's art ?

When we first heard about the project, I was like, "Oh, that's cool." But then I walked down there and looked at it and I thought, "I don't even know if we should be doing this. It's such a landmark. It's such a central focus of downtown Boise. So I started talking myself out of even wanting to be on the project. I kept thinking, "I don't know if we need to be doing this. Then we got more information and we talked to Mike and Jill and they were excited about it. Then I found out they were going to use the original artist to paint it again. So they looked at us to come up with the concept, but use Fred Choate, the original painter, to be fair to him and he worked hard on that first one. So that helped knowing he was going to be a part of it.

What was the first meeting with him like? Was he upset?

No! He seemed excited. It was very different from anything he'd painted ... it's so graphic. He didn't express any concern about painting over his mural, just more, "Whoa. What is this?" As soon as he got started, he had fun with it and got in to it. I think he was excited to be able to paint it. I mean, maybe not excited to paint it, but if somebody was going to paint over his mural, it might as well be him.

What was the worst job you ever had?

Painting the big metal fences they make corrals out of with a spray gun. It was a graveyard shift, too, so I was by myself. They were all stacked up outside, so I would have to go get them and drag them inside. I'd paint one side, move it around and paint the other side. And they weighed a couple hundred pounds so they were not very easy to move. It was out in the country in Wyoming in a kind of storage shed and there was nobody else out there.

If you weren't working at OR, what would you be doing?

I'd probably be trying to focus on fine art. That's always been my passion. I think that's why I'm able to enjoy going to work because it's close to that. It's still creative expression even in the most commercial jobs we have. Even in the most restrictive job, there's always some level of creative thought.

With his renewed desire for his own, personal art, Robin's tools again include acrylic paint, brushes and found objects: cabinet doors, shelves, metal signs and scrap metal. "My [art] is influenced by pop-realism. My work is moody and exploring the idea of loneliness and emotion," Robin says. "I've been using this series to explore the idea of loneliness in a vague way. I'm starting to paint as much as I can. It's good energy."

Stop by the Record Exchange at 1105 W. Idaho St., downtown Boise, to see the new mural. You can see some of his paintings at 2915 1st Ave., Suite A, in Seattle, 206-441-4500. You can also reach Robin at 208-830-4390 or e-mail him at

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