Tolley Marney works like an old-fashioned blacksmith. He heats found steel in a forge until it glows pale orange, then holds it with tongs against an anvil. He pounds precisely with a narrow hammer, shaping it steadily until it’s too cool to manipulate.
For many years, he shaped horseshoes with these tools and traveled the Coachella Valley as a farrier. Now, he uses them to shape sculptures that captivate their viewers.
“I like blacksmithing, but there has to be more to my development as well. If you can create it with a new face, you’ve got to do it,” Marney said. “As an artist, you’re always trying to find a different way to invent the wheel. You want to look at different ideas, different techniques, to create a vision.”
When he moved to Palm Springs at 21, Marney joined Smoke Tree Stables as a ranch foreman, then began shoeing horses all over the valley. About 15 years ago, a friend asked him to use his blacksmith’s training to do some decorative steel work in her art gallery. She then challenged him to sculpt creatively. He chose the form he knew best: A horse’s head.
Marney spent months on the sculpture and unveiled it at a local Desert Riders dinner party. It sold for $5,000 that night.
“I never knew it was sculpting. I always liked to draw, paint, all that, but sculpting is totally different,” Marney says. “When you sculpt, you know you’ve engaged the person when they walk all the way around it. If you can engage the person at every dimension of it, you’ve hit a home run.”
After that, Marney began incorporating sculpture into his daily blacksmithing. He no longer shoes horses, but still works under an awning outside Smoke Tree Stables, just feet from the horses he used to tend.
Marney’s early sculptures are horses’ heads, made with a forge and anvil in classic blacksmithing technique. Then he moved to sculpting people and plants, like his saguaro cactus. In recent years, he’s begun incorporating materials like reclaimed oak and glass to soften the sharp gray steel.
Today, Marney tends to anthropomorphize his materials, maybe because he knows them so intimately. Steel will lie to you about how hot it is, so always wear gloves, he warns. Also, steel and wood don’t like each other – but when they’re blended, they can look phenomenal. Marney doesn’t so much build stands for his sculptures, but “gives them a body to rest on.”
Gazing critically at a life-size saguaro cactus sculpted from several hundred horseshoes, Marney laments, “It doesn’t want to stop.” He estimates he’ll have to un-curl 1,000 shoes before it’s finished. “It sounded like a really good idea until I started doing it, and then I realized, ‘this is really monotonous.’ But I need to get it done.”
When Marney describes his creative process, it seems like the projects drive him, not vice versa. He rarely spends less than a month on a sculpture. Marney is not prolific, he admits — he might finish four or five pieces a year. He frequently sets sculptures aside for months at a time. He likes to think it over, take his time.
He estimates he’s sold about 90% of what he’s made, though, either to collectors or galleries.
“There’s no timelines when you start. For me, it almost becomes a need. It’s hard to start— but then, once you start, it’s hard to stop,” Marney says. “When I’m done, it gives me distance from it. I don’t feel like I have to hold on to it. It allows me to go on and build another.”
The core of his artistic vision for sculpting is still blacksmithing, the art he learned as a young man, and horses, the animals that have surrounded him for decades.
“This is my world,” Marney says, standing under the barn’s awning, one hand on his anvil. A half-formed steel horse’s head gazes back at him. Real horses whinny from the stables opposite him. Being a farrier “seems like a long time ago, but that’s a weird part of my world, I guess. Time goes on and you forget where the time went.”