Diana Toma jokes that her first words were, “Can I have a pet to draw?” 

“I think I got the pet,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know.” She no longer even remembers what kind of pet it was.

But the drawing part of her story rings true. Toma says that when she was a little girl, she sketched all the time. Everything around her seemed interesting and something she needed to capture in the pages of her notebook. “I was never bored because I had paper and pencil,” she said.

Diana Toma. (Special)

Constant practice pays off. Toma says that by the time she had finished kindergarten – yes, kindergarten — her teacher suggested she pursue a career as an artist. 

But all that was a long time ago and far away. Toma’s 46 now. She’s living in a different country from the one she grew up sketching, is a single mom of two children, and – after unfulfilling side trips into other careers — makes her living selling paintings and teaching others to paint, including through classes at the Spruill Center for the Arts in Dunwoody. 

One of her works soon could become one of the most visible public paintings in Dunwoody. The Dunwoody Arts Commission recently chose her painting “Daydreaming” as the design for a 9-by-24-foot mural to be painted on an outside wall at the entrance to the center at 5339 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road. 

The brightly colored design shows a child surrounded by, and presumably daydreaming about, things from nature.

Toma says those kinds of images weren’t always things that populated her art. She was born in Romania and was a teenager during Romania’s 1989 revolution, when that country joined the wave of eastern European nations shaking off Communist control – or, as she describes it now, “when the Soviet bloc broke into pieces.” 

The revolution made a huge difference in Toma’s life. She remembers, for instance, that her parents, both engineers, were trapped at work during the uprising. “It was really scary for someone my age,” she said, “but it also was very exciting – the overall energy.”

A rendering of the mural Toma designed for the Spruill Center for the Arts. (Special)

One big change following the revolution, she said, was that the college of art in her hometown reopened after being closed for years. She signed up. During her student years, Toma thought of herself as a conceptual artist whose work tackled serious subjects. “That was the thing, the cool thing,” she said. “It was a little bit … on the sinister side.”

But once she graduated, she found conceptual art didn’t pay the bills. She tried her hand at graphic design. At the time, eastern European artists were drawing commissions from companies in western Europe and the U.S,, in part because the easterners worked cheaply. Toma started working for Americans, ended up marrying one, and about 15 years ago, she moved to the U.S.

She started out in New York, living and working in trendy Brooklyn. “New York was exciting, but was too expensive,” she said. About 10 years ago, she saw an article promoting Atlanta as a good, cheap place for artists, so she and her then husband moved south.

The marriage lasted only a few more years. Toma suddenly found herself divorced, unhappy, a long way from home and doing work she didn’t like to make money. “I thought to myself, ‘If I had to be in another country and be a single mom with kids, I just have to do something I love.’ [At] rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.” 

She started using her watercolors and oils to paint brighter things: flowers, animals, portraits of people. She found a job teaching at the Spruill Center and found the classroom a natural fit. “I love to teach. I love so much to teach,” she said. “I became a better artist. Because I was doing research for my classes. I was doing demonstrations. … You think you have to know it to teach it, but it’s the other way around. By doing, you’re learning.”

She learned to focus on the joy in what she was doing. Now, “it feels like I’m giving back to this country that sort of changed who I am.” One particular piece that’s giving back, the Spruill mural, “is close to my heart [because] the Spruill is where it started.”

“I can’t believe I’ve been doing all these things,” she said. “I didn’t even know this world existed. … I never thought this was going to be my life. I thought I would have a typical Romanian life. Now I have two ex-husbands and a career in art. I’m here and it’s fine.”

Joe Earle is editor-at-large at Reporter Newspapers and has lived in metro Atlanta for over 30 years. He can be reached at joeearle@reporternewspapers.net.