This Friday, June 1st, a show of Tom Rogers’ work opens at the Harwood.
You may know Tom from the restaurants he worked in (the Apple Tree and Lamberts.) Until he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. (His understated discretion and elegant bearing is hard to miss.) His inner strength and resilience brought him through the fire with even more creative energy than he usually brings to bear. That perhaps, is a huge part of his power to heal.
Tom was an enormous support to me when I first discovered I too had been stricken with the Plague of Civilization, and his positive feedback and generous advice put me in the right mindset to beat it back as well.
Tom and I have other things in common – people and places; moments in time.
My daughter Angelica worked with him (in restaurants) for years, and both my girls are lucky enough to own pieces of his art, given to them for graduation gifts. We are all long time admirers of both the man and the extraordinary art he makes, so when Tom emailed me to let me know about this show, I jumped at the opportunity to do an interview with him about his life in Taos, and the work he makes here.
1) You’ve been in Taos a long time – can you tell us a bit about your life before landing here, and how you wound up here?
I am native of Essex Co., New Jersey, just outside of Manhattan. I’ve earnestly identified as an artist since high school and pursued it as a major when I first went to college (Pratt Institute – Brooklyn). I switched majors within a couple of years as my interest veered into trying to untangle life’s mysteries and I ended up with a degree in English lit. and philosophy (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. – NJ). Soon after, I returned to college and got an art degree in studio painting (Florida International Univ. – Miami ). I have lived, worked and shown my paintings in Miami, Atlanta, and the New York City area. And in Taos: I’ve exhibited in several shows at the Millicent Rogers Museum, The Harwood Museum and Taos Invites Taos, 2008, 2009. I have been represented in Taos by 203 Fine Art, Bryans Gallery, Collins-Pettit Gallery, Envision Gallery, and, The Taos Gallery; and, in Santa Fe, by The William and Joseph Gallery. I’ve had numerous one-person shows in Taos and my work can be found in notable collections locally and nationwide. I’m a founding member of the Taos Society of Portrait Artists.
2) When did you begin to make art in earnest?
I have been on numerous career paths in my long life and have always continued paint, some years more intently than others. I began showing and selling my work in NY & NJ in the late 1970’s. In 1985, I opened a small studio gallery in lower Catskill mountain craft village called Sugar Loaf, halfway between Woodstock, NY, and Manhattan. I worked on my art, showed and sold it all from that tourist-centric location by day. I worked in a restaurant at night. It seems I always had a foot in each camp: art for love and restaurant work for cash. I discovered Taos in 1986, when I was hosted (free trip) by my aunt and dear friend (recently deceased at age 102) whose interest in Taos centered around Georgia O’Keeffe. Much can be said and argued about the ‘magic’ spirit of Taos but, whatever it is, it hit me. In less than the first 24 hours, I knew I wanted to live here. I visited three successive years before finally moving in 1989. I have always given Michael McCormick some credit for my decision to move to Taos as it was he who showed my artwork here for the first time when on my second trip in 1987, I brought my work to him at Bryan’s Gallery on the Plaza, where he was manager before he opened his own gallery.
My first influences were Amadeo Modigliani, who, it could be said, abstracted the human figure; and, Jasper Johns, whose work is design oriented, obvious and, at the same time, mysterious. When I started painting (in college), my focus was non-objective and geometrically oriented. I have almost come full circle as my current work is precisely that. I have always felt free to explore and experiment and my work has continuously evolved. The pieces that McCormick was nicely showing and selling years ago were small pictographic textural acrylics on panels in glass box frames. There were both figurative and abstract. I shifted into more representational work for several years; I evolved into portraits done from life (which I found very limiting) and into a sort of ‘pop art’ genre: photo-realism based on greatly enlarged images of small glittery things like marbles, key chains and buttons. The leap from photo realism to pure abstraction came when I started creating patterned backgrounds for the meticulous miniature still-life set-ups that I photographed and turned into paintings. My interest switched from painting the objects to creating and painting the patterns that were in the background. That was several years ago with a number of life crises in between. I have always done figure drawing, and still do, primarily as exercise. I prefer quick model poses and loose gestural sketching. A full 20 year range of the evolutionary variety of my work can be seen on my website: TomRogersArt.com
3) I’ve known you for a long time from the restaurants you have worked in over the years, and have always admired you for holding down high stress gigs while continuing to make art. You’ve had a personal healing journey in the past few years, that’s changed all that, but how has it changed your approach to the work itself?
My approach to my art is in a totally different realm than every day life. When in the midst of a crisis, either personally or in the greater world, when I paint or draw I am on a different plane. Without question, it’s transcendental. And, as much as I believe in the power of art as a political tool, art does not always need to be political. So – and this in relation to your question about my recent health crises – I have been fortunate to be able to be transcended when I work. External problems do not enter my space. I paint from a joy that is absolute and fundamental to my spirit. This is the same personal joyous soul that spared me from anguish when I had cancer. I feel that although my art may have been created during times of turmoil both within me and outside of me, negativity has not been able to cross the line into my work. And, to the contrary, because my work comes from a place of great joy, it is a counter balance to turmoil and, in that way, in the bigger picture, it actually can be seen as political: as a weapon against weightier issues including the hell-bent path the world seems to be on.
4) You make both figurative and abstract art, can you tell us a little about your current process and the work that will be exhibited at the Harwood?
A few years ago, I got excited working with what in ‘artspeak’ are ‘figure-ground relationships’. Using colors that vibrate against one another, I started a fool-the-eye trickery, where the object or ‘figure’ falls back and the background or ‘ground’ pops forward on the picture plane. Playing with small pencil drawings, sometimes using old architectural drafting templates for common shapes like circles and triangles, I expanded the design concepts by scanning the small sketches into my computer and then enlarging them to the point that the lines became broken into pixels. I then experiment with dropping color into the negative and positive spaces (more ‘artspeak’). I am evolving around an ‘op art’ aesthetic and find myself happily in a bit of a rabbit hole of geometric patterning which, like the fool-the-eye stuff I just described, plays with visual perception.
What I am painting today relates profoundly to who and what I have been all my life and to what always stimulated me (and continues to): innovative design (new ideas) and eye-catching visuals. Through all my ways of creating, drawing, painting; and, all my explorations and attempts at educating and improving myself, I arrive at art work of energetic color and visually stimulating design.
For much more about Tom, his work, and his show this Friday, please visit his site linked below, along with the Harwood’s website.
The Harwood Museum of Art is getting ready for a blow-out summer season, with shows by Larry Bell and Peter Sarkisian (both opening on Friday, June 9th), and Harnessing Light (opening in early August), with Debbie Long, Marietta Patricia Leis and Mary Shaffer. For more on these exhibitions, please visit the Harwood site below.
All images thanks to Tom Rogers.