When writer Mark Welsh decided to publish his book, Sweetie: From the Gutter to the Runway, he knew he needed amazing illustrations. Starring Mark’s rescue dog, the book chronicles the “tantalizing tips of a furry fashionista.” For the visual side of this four-legged romp through high fashion, Welsh needed something just right; something between down-low comedy and the elevated sublime. He chose the perfect man for the job: artist Ruben Toledo.
“I knew him for years, and he was the only candidate,” says Welsh. “Toledo has great style. Everyone in New York fashion is so aware of his talent. In just one conversation, he translated my character into the paintings you see in the book.” Well, almost. After all, no great artist depicts a fashion diva without at least one glamorous sitting.
Mark brought over his pooch Mademoiselle, and Toledo found his inspiration. “She’d really pose.” says Ruben. “I even caught her sitting on the edge of a chair smelling flowers…. Ah, so much personality,” he sighs. “It was a joy to paint her. When you look into those eyes– they are sosweet and innocent– It is like looking into a kid’s eyes. They don’t lie to you.”
Toledo says he became an artist simply because he couldn’t do anything else. Like his wife Isabelle, Ruben came to the United States from Cuba as a child. Once an adult, though, he had trouble finding work, “When you are an immigrant, you don’t have the luxury to choose a career,” he says. “When we first got married, I tried to do other jobs — drive a cab, fold sweaters, but no one would hire me. I tried! I’m a good worker!” he reiterates.
Luckily, Ruben proved to be one of those rare individuals who has the courage to follow their dreams– though he doesn’t see it that nobly. “As children,” he says, “We all draw before we walk, talk, read and write. Some people just stop…” Toledo didn’t. The creative Cuban began hunting for work as an artist, gradually getting small jobs and establishing a reputation. His biggest boost came from Annie Flanders, an editor at Details during the 1980s. Ms. Flanders gave Toledo the publication’s back page to do with as he pleased. What pleased were the satirical fashion cartoons which quickly became a Ruben Toledo hallmark, helping him get his work in countless other publications including Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. He even got him a gig making mannequins for Louis Vuitton.
While Ruben paints and sculpts privately, he has no problem with what he is; a commercial artist. “Commercial art is very sincere. You must be true to yourself, and true to the client.” For him, the arts are his passion. The joy in his work– and work– comes from the process of creation itself; the energy and heart he puts into each piece. “I work very fast.” he says “I aim to capture things and people. It goes from eye, to soul, to spirit.”
And now to the Internet. One of Toledo’s latest jobs is creating content for DailyCandy.com, a website devoted to up-to-the-minute New York City info. “Candy” creator Dany Levy met Ruben when both were working at New York magazine.
“I’ve known Ruben since back in the day.” says the affable Levy. “We both went to Lollapalooza, where he sketched the kids.” Levy recalls fondly. “Later, when I was doing the Gotham Style section (for NewYork), I got him as much work as possible.”
Ruben is rolling. He has work appearing on websites, in magazines and for the biggest names in fashion. However, he is particularly excited about Sweetie: From the Gutter to the Runway, which he feels is a beautiful blending of image, attitude and awagging tail.
No matter how big he gets, Ruben won’t forget his roots. “Being Cuban definitely affects my work.” Around the house, he and Isabelle speak only in Spanish. “We both eat and sleep the whole ‘Cuba thing’ at home,” says the artist. However, when work gets shown on the international stage, Ruben realizes just how much he has changed. “When we visit our French friends, we can see that we are becoming more American.”
Hmm… A poor kid comes to the United States, follows his passion, works very hard and eventually hits the big time. Ruben Toledo is becoming an American. He’s living out an American Dream.