Tom Sherwood Tells Us More About His Life & Artwork

The Assistants, 2010; Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel. Collection of Ron and Pam Binns.

The Assistants, 2010; Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel.
Collection of Ron and Pam Binns.

On May 14th, local artist Tom Sherwood spoke about his artwork in a retrospective and walk-through of the exhibition, Tom Sherwood: A Golden Perspective, at the Lightcatcher building. If you missed the chance to participate, here’s another opportunity to learn more about Sherwood, his background, and his artwork.

Whatcom Museum (WM): When and how did you first become interested in creating art?

Tom Sherwood (TS): Like most children—should they be presented with materials and opportunity—I drew at a very early age (starting in the years of the Second World War) and my parents, as parents now and then do, retained some of my childhood drawings. What they kept, they passed on to me and from that record, and from my own professional survey of child art, and I can assure you that I showed no particular talent or aptitude for creating artwork. My parents both had begun their careers as musicians and while they did not forcefully press their musical penchants on me, they did in one way or another encourage my escape into picture-making and other forms of “play acting.” Still, they believed in the doctrines of liberal education and doubted the viability of a solid, middle-class, remunerative career in “the arts.” I suppose, as a youngster, I found “being an artist” was a sort of useful posture and I continued to strike the pose whenever it seemed to set me apart in what I perceived to be some socially or personally advantageous way.

I carried this pose about with me even into graduate school—the “go to” guy for any cartoons or posters about upcoming academic events.  And after I had been admonished by student colleagues that I should get out of academe and “go be an artist” (and after I had done another stint in an art school and returned to graduate school) I was usually called out for advertising purposes or to show others some of the ropes to which I had been pushed in the course of my little “side show.”  It wasn’t until I was fired from my rather more professionally respectable position as a college professor that my wife, of all people, suggested I retreat to my makeshift attic studio on Liberty Street in Bellingham and “create art.” If I have accomplished anything since that moment, it has been born upon the backs of my wife Dorothy’s thrift and patience and the remarkable nonchalance of our sons, Talley & Jud.

WM: What is your daily/weekly/monthly painting schedule like?

TS: Were I actually a “practicing artist,” your question should be rather embarrassing, but as I really am not a practicing artist, I can answer quite candidly that I have no work schedule.  The circumstances in which I have chosen to “live my life” simply press me on from one opportunity or requirement to the next and I try to eke out some parcel of the temporal passage to seize the opportunity or meet the requirement. It all seems quite incompetent and “catch as catch can.” Sometimes I seem to make a promising show of things, but mostly I have to duck down hoping not get too caught out by my own ignorance or laziness.

WM: Who are the artists who have influenced you, and what have you borrowed from them?

TS: As a youngster, The Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art in Kansas City, Missouri was a rather regular haunt. Early on I got seriously interested in drawing, and figuring out how to overcome the incompetence of my observation and manual recording procedures. Except for my hometown elementary school art teacher, Peggy Brandom, I got very little actual help from any other teacher—so I mostly taught myself. In 1961 I was advised by Toby Joysmith, a very wise British expatriate painter teaching figure drawing at Mexico City College, [who suggested] I might as well start all over again drawing with my left hand. I did that. It was rather humiliating—and very instructive. It was when I subsequently took a course with Joysmith on the history of painting techniques that I was introduced once again to egg-tempera, not in the manner of Thomas Hart Benton, but rather in conjunction with retables in the manner of the medieval guilds. To address the problems of that technique I referred to a copy of Daniel V. Thompson’s The Practice of Tempera Painting gifted to me by Mrs. Brandom when I took my last lessons from her in junior high school. All I know about the craft was introduced to me by my own blunders and more or less successful attempts to follow that book.

Over the years of my off-and-on-again residence in Bellingham, I have come to be amply instructed as to the limitations of my powers as a picture maker by the startling achievements of such talents as John Cole, Susan Bennerstrom, Rachel Foreman and most of all, Thomas Wood whose dark images haunt mostly my trials as a versifier and, perhaps, sometime poet.

WM: What can you tell us about the ideas behind your body of work called The Assistants?

TS: The Assistants, presented in a number of permutations in this current exhibition, emerged from a scribble exercise prescribed by Mrs. Brandom. I made a scribble and was then supposed to realize some composition from it, and what I came up with was three figures struggling in a rather indeterminate space. I made a carbon paper tracing of the figures I defined, and I still have it. I approached this composition many times, under very different circumstances and over a period of years. Some of these approaches appear in the exhibition.

When I was artist–in-residence at Bensalem College of Fordham University, I actually created a clay model of these figures. All that’s left of that exercise is a couple of black and white snapshots. After a half dozen or so years teaching at Fairhaven College I turned to the subject once again. I built new clay figures finished only from one side just for lighting studies of the ensemble, after all, the clay model was a strategy used as early as Michelangelo Buonarroti (whose elegant clay models for anatomical drawing studies I saw in Seattle in the 70s) and as late as Tom Benton (who used them to figure out the lighting for all his major mural projects).

It wasn’t until I had to actually name the sculpture created from the lighting study when I submitted it to the National Sculpture Society in New York City that The Assistants emerged as a title. I selected the title because I realized that the struggle of the three figures was anomalous, and I began to review the various circumstances under which I had both begun and ceased to work on the figures. For example, I remembered that I had been studying the works of Franz Kafka and had written a critique of The Castle when I had rather incidentally diverted time from those literary activities to tinker with the arrangement and detail of the figures. It was much later that I thought to name the two attackers after characters in the novel hoping to create some helpful constraint upon the viewer—allowing for a more reflective perusal of the mutual circumstance established in my original figural ensemble—an ensemble eked out from an impromptu scribble.

WM: Many of the pieces in this exhibition employ the egg tempera and gold leaf on panel technique. Tell us more about this medium?

TS: I am a draughtsman, and though I have studied color and various media for applying it, I have ineluctably fallen back on the childish pleasure of making a line. … I make my under-drawing in silver point as a guide to the application of my colors. I must buy my pigments, but my medium (egg yolk) is at hand either from the Bellingham Co-op or from my next-door neighbor, Maggie McCracken, who raises prize-winning chickens that lay all sorts of interesting eggs. I have to buy rabbit skin glue as a binder for the gesso I make, but the minerals themselves are Plaster of Paris and I have mostly bought that from Hardware Sales. My big investment is in gold leaf and expensive, well-manufactured brushes. I am particularly dependent upon such brushes. Had I a more skillful and practiced hand I could save a bunch buying cheaper brushes.

WM: As a long time Bellingham community member, as well as professor and world traveler, how have both your local community and your international experiences influenced your work?

TS:  I have had the good fortune to “fall in” with some remarkably talented academics like Rand & Dana Jack, Robert Keller, the writer Jerome Richard and in my own cohort artists and craftsmen—people I should not have come across had I not chosen to live here. While I was languishing as an assistant professor at Fairhaven College, the then head of Western’s Art Department, Thomas Schlotterback, discovered me to be a passable drawing instructor both at elementary and advanced levels, so he gave me work in the University Art Department and continued to do so for a number of years after I was “let go” at Fairhaven.  In that era, too, Molly Faulkner, then Bartholik, was director of the Whatcom County craft instructional center at the Roeder Home and she regularly hired me to teach evening drawing classes in the attic studio.

Perhaps the University’s most thoroughgoing importance to my “career” was its very sensible hire and retention of Dorothy Sherwood to supervise their student library forces. Her professional expertise provided the security from which I was able to indulge myself in old scholarly and studio pursuits and to “branch out” into related areas of endeavor. Indeed, it was she who put me in touch with Chinese artists by enrolling me in a summer paper-folding class offered by Western’s technology department. The visiting Chinese master, Zhao Jian, introduced me to his own faculty at the federal provincial teacher’s university in Sichuan Province, which subsequently offered me a position in its art department. Without the demands made upon me in this far-flung assignment, particularly by artist and teacher, He Gong, I should never have codified and refined the teaching apparatus I was later to bring to the Drawing Class which I conducted in the ‘90s at Blue Horse Gallery at the invitation of Toni & Wade Marlow, and later took to my assignment as Lilly Professor at Berea College in Kentucky.

My engagement to a then promising Schleiermacher translation project had earned me more than one sojourn in Germany and a philosophical conference in Naples, Italy. At this juncture Dorothy and I in company of a conference colleague and his wife made a wandering trip to Rome, Vienna, Prague, Dresden and finally to Darmstadt. A decade or so later my friendship with Bellingham painter and printmaker Thomas Wood and his Lucia-Douglas Gallery collaborator, Linda Gardner took me to Florence, Italy for a workshop at the famous Il Bisonte alelier. All this gave me opportunities to see, first hand, the great painting, sculpture and architecture of Europe. BIG INFLUENCE!

WM: When someone walks into your show, what do you hope they will grasp or enjoy about your work?

TS:  Horace, the Roman poet and essayist, declared that the purpose of art is to delight and instruct.  Should my work achieve even a little of those, I should think myself very fortunate indeed.

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