When it comes to his art, Toma Villa (Haup) has always liked to go big.
From murals to decorative panels to carvings, Toma has always enjoyed large-format projects, beginning as a graffiti artist. Over the years he has honed his talent and expanded from murals to weaving and finally into wood carving.
“I think it’s my background as a graffiti artist to see a space and think ‘what is the biggest thing I can accomplish?’” he said.
This tendency to “go big” combined with his heritage as a member of the Yakama Nation is prevalent in his work, some of which can be seen on MHCC’s Gresham campus: Toma is the artist behind a whale mural outside of the student union, which he completed
when he was a part-time student in the early 2000s.
In addition to earning his GED at MHCC, Toma took multiple sculpting and painting classes while he studied graphic design.
“I was a tile setter for seven years. I saw a lot of people around me waiting to retire, working their whole life on their knees and I decided that is not what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted to do more art, so I went back to school.”
At the time he lived in Gresham, but today, Toma lives with his family in Suquamish, Washington and art is his full-time job. He bounces between cedar bark weaving, mural painting and carving, and is currently working on a personal commission, as
well as a collaborative piece for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
But you do not have to drive that far north to see Toma’s most recent work. A new installation in the Multnomah County Courthouse features his carving titled “There Once was a Time” depicting, in Toma’s words, “a positive way to settle a dispute.”
“I’ve always heard stories from our elders that there was once so many fish in the Columbia River that you could walk across it on the backs of the salmon,” he said. “That has always intrigued me. It must have been amazing to see so many fish in the
In the carving, “there are two brothers that fish together and when their loads are full, they have to take the fish to town to sell, but only one brother can go while the other has to say behind. So, they race across the backs of the salmon and the
winner gets to go to town.”
The piece took Toma several months to finish, and with a radius of five feet, it is the largest carving he has ever completed.
As evidenced by “There Once was a Time,” Toma tends to reach back to the heritage and culture of his family for inspiration. In addition to coming from a family of fishermen in general, Toma is a member of the Sohappy family and is the great nephew
of David Sohappy Sr., who fought for native fishing rights and was imprisoned following a federal raid in the 1980s.
“I use a lot of the background of my family as inspiration for my art – who we are and where we come from,” Toma said.
Now a piece of that background and heritage has a permanent place in the courthouse, where it can be found on the 12th floor near a window that, appropriately, has a view of the Willamette River.