A World Without Toby

The following appeared in the March 10, 2010 issue of the Free Times. It is reprinted here for those who may have missed it.

Remembering Toby Morriss
Local Photographer Killed in Hit-and-Run

Editor’s note: Toby Morriss died Feb. 28 from injuries he received in a hit-and-run collision in Cayce on Feb. 21. The police have not located the driver of the truck that hit Morriss, who was riding a motorcycle.

By Eric Plaag

When Toby Morriss’s memorial service took place this past Saturday, I was not at all surprised to see more than 300 people packed into a room that probably should hold about half that many. Much of the throng stood for two solid hours. Some even craned their necks from the doorway to hear those who were closest to him recount the countless ways in which he filled so many lives with humor and possibility and grace. And I imagine that everyone in that room thought, too, of how crushing it is to lose him, and how lucky we all are to have known him.

Toby would say that we should have done things outside. It was a nice, warm day.

I’ve spent a week trying to figure out how to sum up Toby in 700 words or less, but as my cursor blinks at me, the odd juxtaposition I’ve just typed somehow reveals more to me about who he was and is in my heart than any of the other data I can spill out on these pages.

For example, if I tell you that Toby was a machinist/mechanic/bricoleur who articulated and fashioned grand visions of possibility from the detritus of the rest of our lives, it might sound pretty, but it won’t do justice to the dozens of motorcycles he repaired and rebuilt during his time in Columbia, or his antique Spartanette trailer that seemed to be in an infinite Zen state of deteriorating rehabilitation, or the giddiness with which he could embrace a flawed piece of metal and revel in its perfection. Nor will it adequately explain the effect upon one’s soul of watching a memory-impaired man solve impossibly complex mechanical problems with a child’s curiosity, a handmade tool and his permanently grit-stained hands.

If I tell you that Toby was a photographer who, as he once wrote, always tried “to make a photograph as something rather than a photograph of something,” saying so still won’t sufficiently capture his artistic vision. It won’t explain precisely what he meant when he told me that “the truth lies in the shadows, not the light,” or that digital photography is “the great lie,” or that the pinhole/digital combination camera he designed and built from scratch was going to be named “Inconspicuous Truce.” I might even try to outline for you the vision we had for a combined arts foundation and national photography initiative — something we had finally begun to put into motion during the past few weeks. But a summary of our plans won’t tell you how or why this program was to be our Shangri-La, or what might be saved in the world if it is brought to fruition, or what it’s like to feel utterly stranded and lost, uncertain of how to move forward with that vision without Toby at my side.

I can tell you that he grew up in Oklahoma, and that he went to Tulane for an MFA, and that he was a Katrina refugee, and that he taught photography at the University of South Carolina. But none of these facts will explain why an 11-year-old boy in Massachusetts, who called Toby “Major Ursa,” cried for hours on that horrible Sunday night, begging to know how Toby’s passing could possibly be fair. They can’t explain why an almost wordless lunch at Cool Beans with Toby’s dear friend Jenny and my wife Teresa before Saturday’s service eased my soul’s sadness more than anything else this week. And they won’t even begin to explain how I can still feel him when I stand in the garage of Will Harmon’s shop — palpable, settling, soothing, laughing with his enormous heart — even as I struggle to figure out what happens now.

I collect old box cameras. My wife collects songs. Toby collected friends, and he cared for them with the meticulous attention that only the most serious of connoisseurs applies to his art. And yet Toby so often allowed the “things” in his life, even his own creations, to pass freely to others, given without recompense or expectation, just because he thought they belonged to the world, not him, and would enjoy being in a different home with someone else for a while.

I find solace in that. It’s time for me to hang on someone else’s wall.


~ by ericplaag on March 21, 2010.

3 Responses to “A World Without Toby”

  1. Tears every time I re-read this.

    Thanks again……. Eric

  2. Wow again. Thanks Eric++++++++++++++++++

  3. Again, Mike has re-read this. And passed it to me.
    Your words have captured the essence of Toby so powerfully.
    Appreciate your loving words as much today as when you wrote them.

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