Irene, meet Irene: Toth sells bust 47 years after creating it

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 6, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
It started, said Tom Gallagher, with a fight he had with his mom, Irene Gallagher. It wasn’t just any fight; it was pretty terrible, he said — unusual, since the Gallaghers are a close-knit New Jersey family.
The fight blew over, though, as fights do, and during the cool-down period, Tom, 42, thought that he needed to do something “over and above” for his mother.
He started thinking, remembering scenes from his childhood in the 1960s in Kearny, N.J.
There was an art store and gallery there, and sometimes his mother would visit with her children to buy art supplies. Tom remembers having to wait on the sidewalk because the large pram that contained his little brother wouldn’t fit inside the building.
So he’d gaze into the shop window, which contained — of all things — a bust of his mother.
It must have made quite an impression on a young boy — his mother’s image in a shop window.
The adult Tom began thinking about that bust, and how his parents had tried to buy it unsuccessfully years earlier.
He decided to give it another shot.
And that’s where local artist Robert Toth comes in.
In 1963, Toth was in art school, majoring in fine art, and one of his assignments was to sculpt a bust in clay of a classmate.
He chose a young woman named Irene Borodavka, who was still in her teens, just out of high school.
After capturing her likeness in clay, he made a plaster mold of the completed piece. After chopping off the mold, a plaster sculpture of Irene emerged.
Irene remembers the bust, as well, and the talented student who created it.
“He was obviously the best in the class,” Irene said.
After art school graduation Robert kept the sculptures he’d completed, along with most of the art he’d created while a student. He was proud of the bust he’d made of Irene and felt it was an important piece in his development as an artist.
In 1967, not long after he graduated, Robert bought a building in a busy area in Kearny, N.J., not far from New York City.
Toth describes the building as “barnlike,” with a store front window, and says it was the perfect place for an art gallery and studio.
He filled the window with art, and included the sculpture of Irene, as evidence that he could sculpt portraits. And of course that’s when little Tom Gallagher would see it as he stood on the sidewalk with his little brother.
Irene and her husband did try to buy the bust once, during the grand opening reception at Robert’s gallery.
Robert wasn’t interested in selling it at the time, since it was one of his favorite pieces.
When Robert left New Jersey to move to North Carolina in 1995, the bust of Irene came with him.
Fast forward to the fall of 2011 — 47 years after the bust was created.
Little Tom, now all grown up and a railroad engineer — and wanting to do something memorable for his mom —asked her the name of the artist who’d created the bust he remembered from when he was little and standing on the sidewalk. (He’d started with his father, who couldn’t remember the whole name.)
Irene remembered, and Tom was able to find “Robert Toth” easily on the internet.
He called Robert and asked if he would be willing to sell.
Robert was touched by Tom’s story and agreed to sell the bust of Irene.
But that’s not quite what Tom told his mother.
Irene laughs remembering the conversation that Tom reported having with Robert.
“He said, ‘That guy’s such a jerk.’”
“He remembered you, but he still wouldn’t sell it,” Tom told his mother, pretending to be angry.
Irene certainly hadn’t remembered Robert being a jerk — but of course it had been a long time….
So when Tom and his brother and sister presented Irene the bust at her birthday party last September, she was genuinely surprised, since she had put it out of her mind completely.
“I had no idea this was coming,” she said.
Tom was happy to reveal then that Robert hadn’t been “mean and ornery” at all but very accommodating.
“He was very kind, and we were very grateful that he agreed to sell.”
?Not long ago, Robert received a book of photos in the mail, created by Irene’s daughter, called “Me, Myself and Irene: A picture book celebrating the meeting of Irene Gallagher and Irene Gallagher.”
lrene included a note for Robert, thanking him for making her birthday a memorable one and adding,“This book should be titled ‘The Meeting of Irene Borodavka and Irene Gallagher …!’”
Robert was thrilled that the bust was “so truly loved and appreciated.”
Over the years, Robert has had great success as a sculptor. The Pentagon recently gave three of his busts of Harry Truman to Citizen Patriot Award winners, including Robert Dole.
But Irene getting hers makes him just as happy.
And Tom is happy too. He’d already made up with his mom, but now, he’s got insurance.