Born: Carmel, N.Y., U.S.
Tom Holt is a Living Legacy Artist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Tom Holt is a painter, muralist, and installation artist born in Carmel, N.Y. He received a BS in visual arts at the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2002. That same year, he moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where he became one of the founders of Kamikaze Gallery & Media Center, a live/work space in downtown Buffalo. Holt and the other core members were in their early twenties and used the combination gallery and performance space/screening room to exhibit their own work and that of guest artists. Both individually and in collaboration with each other, they created work in a variety of media (including visual art, film, video, and live performance) that often made reference to the popular culture of the previous two decades. Though short-lived, Kamikaze made a major impression on the Western New York art community, and signaled that a new generation of interdisciplinary artists was emerging. After the group disbanded, Holt and Brian Milbrand, another of the founding members, continued to collaborate on visual art, media, digital, and performance projects while also pursuing solo careers. One of their most ambitious early post-Kamikaze ventures was 24:48 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2003, a 48-hour long performance (subdivided into 24 2-hour installments) by the duo and an invited group of more than 20 other painters, musicians, writers, and other artists. Holt painted a mural over the course of the 2 days, and video documentation of the entire event formed the content of a subsequent gallery installation.
Holt’s work ranges in scale from small pencil or ink drawings and mixed media paintings to wall-sized murals. He frequently draws from the visual languages of graffiti, advertising, cartoons, comic books, anime, and the video games and skateboard culture of his youth. Expressing admiration for the constantly evolving nature of street art—a genre in which one artist may begin with a sketch of an idea, then paint it on the side of a building, mindful that other artists may later respond to the piece by embellishing or revising it—he describes the ongoing process as "...free-form painting akin to the musical format of jazz arrangements. The purest satisfaction in art is taking something small and recreating it on a grand scale, altering the experience and contributing to a greater visual impact." 
While the collaborative, larger-than-life, public aspects of graffiti hold their appeal for Holt, an equally important component of his aesthetic is the intimate, private domain of the personal journal. Holt’s vast and ever-growing collection of sketchbooks not only serve as the testing ground for more “finished” works, but are sometimes exhibited as artworks themselves. Colin Dabkowski of the Buffalo News describes these volumes as “a compendium of Holt's preoccupations, his dreams and nightmares and some personal details of his life that many artists would be loath to reveal to the public.” 
In the same 2012 review, Dabkowski calls Holt "one of this region's most imaginative artists" and characterizes his best paintings and sketches as “happily rough around the edges … melancholic without being overbearing, beautiful without sacrificing its strangeness, and elevated by a hint of the juvenile or mischievous.”
In 2012, Holt was designated one of the Burchfield Penney’s first “Living Legacy” artists. His work has been exhibited at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the Burchfield Penney, and the Buffalo Arts Studio, among other institutions. Solo shows include Tom Holt: Test for Echo (2009) at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University, Presto! Recent Work by Tom Holt (2012) at Studio Hart, and Hold Your Fire (2012) at Space 224 in Buffalo. In 2006 Squeaky Wheel/Buffalo Media Resources commissioned a mural from him for the rear of their building at 712 Main Street. In 2007, he was invited, along with artists at each stop on Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters’s concert tour, to paint the band’s iconic “flying pig” balloon, set aloft during the show.
In addition to his own artistic career, Holt is an active participant in the Western New York museum community. He served in a number of positions at the Burchfield Penney from 2006 through 2008, including interim education coordinator and preparator, and was involved in several projects making the organization’s collection and exhibitions accessible to the public. In 2007 he curated an exhibition by artist Jack Drummer (1935-2013) as part of the Burchfield-Penney’s contribution to the multi-site Beyond/In Western New York project. He is currently assistant preparator at Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery.
[1 ]Tom Holt, quoted in “Tom Holt: Test for Echo” (author unknown), 05/ 31–09/13/2009, Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, http://www.castellaniartmuseum.org/contemporary-art-exhibits/showExhibit/9. (Accessed 07/11/2013)
 Colin Dabkowski, "Graffiti graduate; Holt exhibit displays engaging artist with big imagination," Buffalo News, 08/17/2012, http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120817/GUSTO/308179953&template=printart. (Accessed 07/10/2013)
Listen or read Tom Holt’s interview with Heather Gring of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, conducted on August 2, 2012, as part of the Living Legacy project. Hear Holt talk about the early experiences that led him to become an artist. He discusses his most influential professors and friends along the way, as well as his time with Kamikaze Gallery. Holt touches on how he "accidentally" became a muralist and his love of collaboration. Through their conversation, you'll get candid, first-person insight into a generation of WNY artists.
Transcript of the Living Legacy Project interview with Tom Holt
August 2, 2012
Transcribed by Cassandra Chu
HG: Tom, what inspired you to want to go into a career in the arts?
TH: What inspired me to want to go into a career in the arts would certainly stem from kind of always having my life emerged in art. I don’t really consider it much of a choice—not to say that, you know, it chose me or anything of that nature, but more or less, my mother encouraged drawing quite a bit from kind of pre-memory, pre of my own memory, like it really is something I don’t remember a time without, and so there never was really anything else that took my interest more, so it really was just a natural evolution.
HG: Did you draw a lot as a kid?
TH: Oh, absolutely. I was certainly outgoing enough and grew up in a little almost mountain town, you know, climbing trees and playing with kids and whatnot, but in the area where I grew up, there was a lot of kids who liked to draw, it seemed to be very encouraged and there was maybe four or five different friends in the immediate area where that was one of the main activities we would do. We’d sit at each other’s kitchen tables with scrap paper and I’m sure it made our parents thrilled, cause we were just easily tamed with crayons.
HG: Where did you go to college?
TH: I attended SUNY New Paltz from 1998 to 2002, where I received a Bachelor of Science and Visual Arts.
HG: Why did you choose to go to New Paltz?
TH: New Paltz was about an hour away fro where I grew up in Carmel, New York, and at the time I was juggling a couple of college choices—I think at the time it was between SUNY Purchase, FIT, a few schools that I looked at but quickly realized they were out of my financial range, and compared to Purchase and New Paltz, I felt like New Paltz was just a little bit healthier of a place to be, a lot of off-campus life, where I wasn’t seeing that at Purchase so I kind of easily narrowed it down to one choice.
HG: Who were some of your most important influences in your art? Maybe looking back to your time as a college student, were there any professors who really stood out of influenced you along your path?
TH: Absolutely. In the painting department at New Paltz, there was essentially three major figures at the time I was there, and that would be…oh wow, one of the three I’m not gonna remember, but for the sake of good shout outs and people that I respected, there was Cathy Goodell, who is a draftsman and sculptor, and Amy Cheng, who was the head of the painting department, I believe, and she worked strictly in oils, a lot of pattern work, and she was probably the most influential person to me in school.
HG: What about beyond school? Who are some of the influences in your work?
TH: To this day, I still take quite a bit of influence from even some classmates—I’d like to think that I’m not, you know, ripping off anyone’s ideas, but there were certain emotions and certain sensibilities that I appreciated and a lot of my classmates that…many of the things that we had talked about all the way back then is being our definition of the foundations of a good picture…still inform me today. But also I recall—kind of thinking geographically from New Paltz outward—there had been a big graffiti production in the village that featured a lot of prominent New York City graffiti artists. One of them in particular—his name was Ewok—I would spend hours upon hours, as many hours as I was in the classroom, I would spend hours looking at this graffiti production, this large mural, and analyzing the way people produce their techniques.
HG: Would you say that the comradery and the discourse that you found with your classmates when you were at New Paltz was something that helped you? And is that something that is still important to you now?
TH: Yes, absolutely important. I think in some ways, adulthood and responsibility can get in the way of as much time as I would like to spend talking with other artists and hashing things out. At New Paltz, we certainly were not hermits. We spent a lot of time with each other, talking about theory, whatever happened to be topic during, you know, art history classes that would spill out into the studio, and we would all discuss how, you know, we felt about society and the spectacle and what other exciting texts we had to read, most of which I have distinctly tried to unlearn over the years.
HG: Why is that?
TH: In college, and maybe to some extent still today, I’m a bit hesitant to just believe or to take too much…put too much weight in a lot of art theory. I truly, truly believe that there’s a couple things going wrong, or a bit askew in the state of modernity or whatever sort of state of post-modernity we’re in. I feel like it can be a bit impure when galleries—and the way college is now taught in art—that you have to supply your own essays, your own concepts. Your thesis needs to be as bulky of a paper as it is a set of paintings or installation and I feel like that discounts what emotion is. I believe people working, you know, for the last couple thousand years in South America and in Africa, there was not a thesis to go along; these things were incredibly spiritual, emotional. I don’t see why the intellect has to be involved…in the least, not by the artist. I truly feel it’s the curator’s job, it’s the historian’s job to do a bit of psychoanalyzing on the artist’s behalf, as opposed to making them describe why there’s an orange circle here. Some of these things are not in the form of words, and I apologize for rambling, but the whole point would be if I were able to say what I’m trying to say when I paint, I would not make a painting, I would write an essay. If these things are in your head in the form of language, they should stay as such, but for me, I receive imagery in my mind, and I paint that imagery. And I don’t always have the answers as to what it’s about.
HG: Kind of leading off of the point you just made about, you know, curators and historians providing the psychoanalytical insight, do you feel that that can ever lead to a direction where the artist’s intent becomes more skewed?
TH: I don’t know, I think I’ve always been a big believer and I’ll feel guilty for not knowing which artists were initially bringing these ideas up, but it is truly the viewer who is, like, part of and completes the process of making art. Some people can be frustrated in the sense that some of the metaphor that I use can have multiple meanings, and I’m okay with the idea of it having multiple meanings and I’ll often refuse to say it’s about any one particular thing, to not limit people’s perception or their intuition about the image.
HG: I’d like you to talk about your art. I’d like you to talk about what you create and why you create that. Let’s start with just what you create—what kind of works do you make?
TH: I predominantly work two-dimensionally. I rarely sculpt; I have always been somewhat afraid and feel as though I don’t think in three dimensions, at least artistically. Being…saying that, of course, we’re talking more about drawing and painting. I don’t really take photographs. I’ve been a bit pigeonholed to…even drawing, specifically, more than painting. I do a lot of cartooning, illustrating. There’s a bit of graffiti influence. I’d like to think it’s just across the board rendering whatever I feel like rendering on a particular day.
HG: What are some of the mediums you work in most often?
TH: Certainly, it all starts with a pencil and pen—particularly, mechanical pencil. I’m not really sure why, but I’ve always gravitated towards it. I have to admit, I usually sort of have a lucky pencil. A couple years ago, I had to retire a pencil that I used for roughly twelve years…oh no, it’d be more like an eight year pencil, I think. But yeah, eventually it broke and I had to break down and you know, work in a new pencil that I could have the type of relationship with, you know. Some people might have a Linus blanket, I tend to have a pencil that’s my sword that I’ll wield with, but I certainly will supplement with watercolors, gouache, markers…
HG: In some of your exhibitions, what you showed to the public is often these Moleskine journals that you sketch within. Could you talk about your relationship with your sketchbooks?
TH: Certainly. The sketchbooks as a sort of personal phenomenon started in college when my professor, Amy Cheng, was noticing a certain amount of timidness and mediocrity in my painting, and she would see me kind of retreating into my sketchbooks. Sometimes even during painting class I would really just be drawing in a sketchbook and by the time it was my senior year, you know, most artists I think, most of my classmates were finding their vision and I definitely wasn’t, and at a certain point she had encouraged me to just not paint if I don’t feel like painting; there wasn’t much point of forcing it and I feel like she gave me permission to appreciate my sketchbooks and it kind of became a little bit of a snowball effect as I dedicated myself to them and they would sort of multiply in quantity. And then a couple years after I was simply making them to make them, I started looking back at them and very much seeing a diuristic sense despite not keeping a diary, really appreciating how my whole life—my feelings about current events and interpersonal relationships—it became a tomb for these things, and still something very transportable, you know. Places like the airport or in a long staff meeting are some of the best places for me to make art, and in sketchbooks it allows me to do that.
HG: What is the relationship between your sketchbooks and the paintings that you make?
TH: In some ways, that’s been changing, but for the longest time I was very strict about not painting from my sketches. There was always a sense of any time I would try and use a sketch as content, it came off very forced, very fake—though not physically traced, the kind of awkwardness that comes about from creating a second generation image, and so I let the paintings act a lot more like sketches. They tend to be fresh thoughts, or if I do utilize a sketch, I won’t have the sketch present. I’ll simply look at it, try and remember the things that are most important about the sketch, but then have it nowhere near the painting so as to not spoil the freshness of composition and strokes.
HG: I had asked you about some of your most important influences as people, but in a number of your works there are reoccurring motifs, if you will. Could you talk a little bit about some of the imagery that you use in both your paintings and you sketchbooks and how they continually reassert themselves, or what other ones don’t?
TH: In my work, there tends to be tow major driving forces. One of them would be nostalgia, and I would like to think that nostalgia is not necessarily an artistic movement, however I might think that presently, there is a school of painting, and that school of painting could be called the school of nostalgia, this notion of making art that is distinctly meant to—even though it always fails—to give you the feeling of those days when you smell the air and it smells exactly like the air smelled on a random day twenty years back. In particular, a western New York artist, Jan Maigel, often gives me that feeling. Her photographs, no matter what they’re about, they can give me this kind of warmth that makes me feel like I’m six years old in a stream, playing with G.I. Joe figures and I certainly appreciate that in other people’s work, and I strive to do that sometimes. The other major driving force in my work, when it’s not necessarily about nostalgia, would be simple metaphor. I would like to very much stress the idea of simple metaphor. I occasionally get reactions to my work where I feel like people are putting too much intellectual nature into the work. So while I work in metaphor, it tends to be something like if an illustrated character is missing his hands, he is lacking his hands because your hands are the things you control your life with, so in times of anxiety or, you know, let’s say a moment of feeling helpless, I would draw a character who doesn’t have the faculties to control his own life. Or let’s say there’s a reoccurring theme of an Etch-a-Sketch. I simply ask the question, “Okay, what does an Etch-a-Sketch do?” It’s a vessel for creating…certainly an ephemeral creation. It’s something where, you know, when someone plays guitar, every song comes out and it’s just art in the air that’s gone the moment it happens, and so an Etch-a-Sketch can be a…it’s almost not even metaphor at that point, the extent to which it’s a literal example of what I think I do in my daily life. It’s not easy to encapsulate those thoughts in a short format.
HG: Your sketchbooks are certainly very autobiographical. And in your works, in your paintings, it seems to be very much influenced by your emotions as well. Could you—and it’s okay if you can’t—but could you talk a little but about the role emotion plays in your work and your personal emotions plays in the products that you put out?
TH: Not too much of a blanket statement, but I tend to think that paintings are public, where sketchbooks are private. In my work, I’ve been known to—not that I can consider this to be breaking any particular ground—but I’ve been known to be very open about sharing the books and I have to admit I’d like to say in a sense that when looking at a painting, it tends to hang on a wall where multiple viewers that perhaps don’t know each other can all be seeing the painting at the same time, let’s say from approximately four feet away. That would be, in a way, something I would connect with, like, exhibitionism. It’s such a public putting out of yourself, where in a journal, I sort of trick myself into having a sense of purity and honesty by working in a much more safe, innocent way in my sketchbooks. Kind of drawing without the intention of sharing, but then afterwards forcing myself to share and hoping that that sincerity is one of my stronger points of my drawings.
HG: Now, you’ve talked about your sketchbooks and your paintings that you make, but you’ve also made a number of murals throughout the city of Buffalo, and eve recently, you were involved in a project in New York City. Could you talk a little bit about your mural work and maybe its relationship with the larger graffiti scene?
TH: I would certainly think this is a great opportunity to set the record straight, if I may. I’ve certainly done mural work, but I have to admit it’s something that kind of cropped up in my life, almost by accident. As an early artist, early in my career when I first moved to Buffalo in 2002, there was a fresh chance to be the artist I wanted to be without people having known me previously. And in a way, sort of accidentally, it was at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, maybe 2003, 2004, Brian Millbrand and I collaborated on a show happening between major shows. Don Metz had offered us the opportunity to cram in a little mini-thesis within the installation time between significant shows. And at that show, Brian Millbrand and I stayed awake for forty-eight hours making all kinds of art with visiting artists. And during those forty-eight hours, I painted a rather large painting directly on the gallery wall…or museum wall, rather. Not particularly a successful painting in my opinion, but it was large and it was seen, and luckily it was seen by John Massier, the curator of Hallwalls, who, without knowing me, assumed that I always make enormous work, although that work I did for the Burchfield was the first and only large, large work I had ever made, and I was offered the opportunity to show at Hallwalls, distinctly being requested to make large work, so for Hallwalls, I made a large painting. Buffalo News then called me a “voracious scale mural painter,” and the request for murals started coming in and so I didn’t want to lose any opportunity and so the boy who makes little drawings in sketchbooks found himself painting rather large, and…which wasn’t necessarily something I wasn’t interested in. As a child, visiting grandparents in both Long Island and in the Bronx, I used to see quite a bit of graffiti and it definitely was a curiosity to me that late in college turned into a bit of a passion, and so I’ve always tried to do murals that can be community friendly but still pay honor to what legitimate New York graffiti is supposed to be.
HG: In some of your murals, it really comes out that you have a fascination with graffiti-type forms, and more specifically, like, the way letters are represented, right, and the way you depict letters as abstract forms.
TH: Yeah, in terms of the types of art that are on my plate when we look at paintings and drawings, graffiti lettering, you know, turns, like, a burner, or a wild style. These things refer to a large painting that is structured around abstracting letters or symbols, but mostly things that relate to the (inaudible-20:16) alphabet and seeing how far can you twist the foundations shapes, what types of serifs can you add without destroying the legibility of what you’re writing, but creating decorative motifs that are alluring in a dynamic way. Ideally, dark darks, light lights, thick and thin, working in a very standard design kind of approach, where you can let different cultural influences play into the work and that’s a very fun type of work because in my opinion, it distinctly removes a lot of emotion and in some ways, gets to be a vessel for craftsmanship, a vessel for design…really takes into account the skill of painting, the technique. And it’s an interesting medium—as far as I know, there aren’t many mediums that involve not having direct contact with the art or the substrate that holds the art. A sculptor is touching the clay; a painter is having direct contact with a brush with pigment on it, hitting a canvas. And with spray paint, I’ve always been moved by the leap of faith in having the aerosol paint propel from the can, and it leads your control in a way and hits the wall, and it’s been very fascinating to me for that reason.
HG: Is there any other component of your creative process that you’d like to touch on?
TH: Sure, I’d love to share the way in which I create. In some ways, it’s a little bit romance and in some ways it’s a little bit hysterical, in my opinion. I paint and draw from home; I’ve always been very against having a studio separate from where I live. Inspiration for me is not something that I can guarantee will wait the amount of time it takes me to get dressed an go to a studio. I think that would really make art not part of the fabric of my life, but it would be too compartmentalized as a separate place where I go away, asking the question, “Go away from where?” So I definitely have to have my process happen in the same place that I sleep, shower, and eat. That being said, I’ve created a studio that’s a blend of a living room and a studio, and where most artists or many artists will have different musical influences and things of that nature, for the last couple of years, I mostly paint to the background noise of terrible movies. I go out of my way to collect VHS films that are just terrible. Tapes, films…the important part is I distinctly pick movies that are edited in a very textbook format. Take something like Jurassic Park, which is a…let’s say moderately decent movie, but it’s edited amazingly, it’s edited to the heartbeat of the viewer and some of these things can be incredibly soothing, and so that’s my process. I’ll put on a movie that I know I will ignore but will sort of create a good biorhythm, and usually it’ll be that I’ll see the first three to five minutes and then I’ll ignore it until the movie ends and the credits come on, I’ll stop drawing, change the movie and et cetera, et cetera. Or so on and so forth.
HG: Is there anything you hope to achieve with you art?
TH: I’d like to think that if I were asked the question, “What do I hope to achieve with my art,” I’ve already achieved it would be the thing. It’s a funny question to be asked, because I don’t know if I’m a goal-oriented artist. I think the goal happens on a nightly basis. I certainly would like to succeed; I would like to be able to afford art supplies, but I don’t necessarily have expectations beyond that.
HG: Is there anything that you hope the audience will take away from your work?
TH: When I share doing exhibitions in galleries and museums, or in mural format, the thing that I hope the audience gets would be ideally a connection to me. I would like to think that it’s a way in which people will see something and relate to what I was describing. It’s a feeling that moves me when I view other artists’ work. Particularly, I feel the need to mention Felix Gonzalez-Torres, where seeing his candy spills or his paper stacks or a couple of other pieces that will involve pairs of objects dying, I can see that he was thinking about things that I’ve thought about, sort of chilling moments, and the pain of chilling moments, I feel like, can be soothed and reduced when you have a community of people having the same feelings. So maybe art in some ways is just an enormous therapy session for myself and the entire community, where we can kind of talk beyond talking and we can share things a little deeper.
HG: I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk about what you’ve had to do personally to advance your career in the arts, and I’d like to start by asking you are you…do you consider yourself to be a—and I mean this in the nine to five sense, the word—are you a full-time professional artist?
TH: I think by public definition, yes. I’ve certainly been known to—and I don’t mean this to slight art—but I certainly have been known to refer to art as a glorified hobby, only in reference to the fact that I don’t believe a painter or draftsman deserves any more respect than…any more or less respect than a great cook, a great carpenter, or anything else that involves an incredible sense of focus and sensitivity.
HG: Are you able to support yourself on your art?
TH: Absolutely not.
HG: What’s some of the challenges with that?
TH: I think being in Buffalo, New York—which was certainly a choice that I had made—there’s no dealers in Buffalo, New York. I feel as though I have a resistance to self marketing. I think it’s a little bit more than a certain amount of admitted laziness for the business side of art, but when you realize that most art schools, both SUNY and more advanced institutions, they don’t teach you the business side of art. Whatsoever, as far as I know, and I haven’t been in school for some time, but it’s amazing how they’ll teach you to paint, but they do not teach you what to do with your painting, so you’re kind of clueless right out the door from college. I feel like I can…want to touch base on sort of the beginning of your question. So you’re saying something about, like, what does it take, or how…or hopefully were leading into how is it that I made the strides I’ve made in my career, how do these things happen? And for some reason, it seemed very noteworthy in my head to admit the fact that I cheated to start my career. I did something that is kind of an unwritten rule that you’re not supposed to do. That would be showing your own work, essentially—starting your own gallery to…exhibit yourself. It’s something you’re just not supposed to do. It happens often enough with small, artist-run spaces, but knowing full well that it was a little bit of a no-no, a few other artists, including myself, had done that very thing in 2002. We started a small artist-run space called the Kamikaze, where it was a blend of half curated work from people who were not founders of the gallery, but then the other half of that was that we simply gave ourselves shows. We put our own resume items in because we always felt as though galleries will not show you unless you have experience of having shown. But no one will show you without that experience, it’s a simple catch-22. And we figured a way around it by simply showing ourselves, and luckily, local curators saw the work that we were self-promoting and now I, for the most part, don’t have to worry about that anymore.
HG: Can you talk about your time with the Kamikaze gallery in Buffalo?
TH: Sure, it was a…for me, a very, very exciting time in the sense where, after four years of college, I was able to reconnect with some people I hadn’t seen in a long time, but also make some new friends. The Kamikaze consisted of myself, Calder Greenwood, Colin Hargraves, Anna Lavatelli, John Logan, Brian Milbrand, and Jen Ra, and Nick Golebiewski was predominantly the main group. There was a gentleman named Barnes who used to hang out, a comedian, a sort of nonofficial member, but he was a cool guy. But we were organic in the sense that some people had other obligations, and some people were semi folded in. But we were a bunch of artists utilizing a space in downtown Ellicott, where, while not collaborating necessarily on concept, we became a production crew where let’s saw Colin was making an enormous painting, some of us could help him fill in blank areas and help the progress of that painting. Or people like Calder would be making short films and all of us would rally around to help with…well, for me it was usually holding the boom mic. But everyone would have a different job to help all of us accelerate and complete projects, and so it was a great way to let everyone have their own vision, but to have an incredible sense of familial comradery. A very short-lived gallery…it’s certainly worth noting that the Kamikaze ran from late summer of 2002 only up until, I think, January of ’03. It was actually only around six or seven months and we had about six shows. But those six shows were a nice blend of two-dimensional art and performance and video, and we were able to expose our crafts to a relatively large number of people in Buffalo; it really set the stage for my career as well as the other people that I mentioned, who are all doing quite well, mostly in the media industry in California.
HG: Okay, so since the Kamikaze, what are some of the things you’ve had to do to advance your career in the arts to get to where you are now? Where are some places you exhibited, group shows, solo shows?
TH: Certainly, keeping my career active from the early 2000’s to now kind of happened through one production. I’ve always thought that it literally starts with just making things, and ideally for the right reasons, where without deadlines, to be producing work. After that, it certainly became important to have consistent exposure; not necessarily to be showing constantly, but to make sure you’re using each significant exhibition as the…the vaulting point for the next exhibition. There’s usually a fear that you’ll become forgotten or irrelevant if you take too long of a break. Maybe it parallels some things in music, you know; for every album, there’s a certain amount of breathing space, but you need to stay relevant by releasing on a regular basis.
HG: You certainly touched on this earlier when you were talking about the lack of dealers in Buffalo, but aside from that, what are some of your needs as an artist that the larger community can provide you with?
TH: Certainly some of it would be sales, to be honest. The fact is you can’t sell work if no one sees it and I would like to think that I sell my work at affordable prices, but based on my income, without a certain amount of—and I hate to start this answer this way—but without a little bit of financial support from the community, I literally would not be able to afford to paint, so there is a bit of a cycle where if I sell a painting for, let’s say two hundred dollars, and there was eighty dollars of material put in, I really like to describe the idea that when a collector enjoys a piece and wants to buy it, I’m initially moved by their desire to look at it every day. I find that to be a very moving experience, a very great connection with a person, but also, I want the purchaser to know that they’re funding my ability to simply keep trying and experimenting. I would like to think that artists are emotional philosophers, where you know, we go around, and when we have an exhibition it’s like having an alms bowl as some sort of monk would have. And so I believe I ask for very little, and when it works out and someone appreciates the work, that becomes how the cycle continues.
HG: What would help advance your artistic career at this point? I mean you’re a fairly established artist within Buffalo and you are starting to branch out beyond the region as well, but you know, moving forward, what are some of your needs that you see that you’re gonna have to start addressing?
TH: One would be I need to further the way I am accessed digitally, or the way in which people are able to access what I do on the Internet. Over the years, I’ve had a number of websites that were started but rarely updated, and occasionally these sites would simply fall by the wayside, and so it would be incredibly helpful to me to have some support or to learn more about how to maintain a consistent digital presence where people don’t have to be finding out what the newest website is, but to simply have a foundation place to find me. Certainly, accessibility would be huge, and I still don’t know what a good artist resume looks like. I know that mine certainly is not an excellent looking one.
HG: What about resources to document your work? Would it be helpful to have a place where you could go and use equipment to take high-res, well-lit shots of your work?
TH: oh, absolutely. I’ve been constantly in a state of fear where, you know, something like a house fire could eradicate thousands upon thousands of drawings and because of the amount that I’ve drawn, it has been difficult to keep up with scanning, photographing, or whatever way it’s archived, and it would be of incredible help to start the process of properly documenting and having safe storage for that documentation to be used, not just for exposure, but also for opportunities…learning how to make a better-looking artist package to send out.
HG: This is two parts of the same question, but what advice do you have for emerging artists—maybe coming out of college or starting to say, “This is something I want to dedicate a large chunk of my time doing”? But also in the same vein, if you could go back and tell yourself something right out of college, what would it be?
TH: Starting with what advice I might give to people, let’s say, just finishing their undergrad coursework, or whatever point at which they feel like they’re about to launch an art career, the advice I would give is to become part of a community, without the sense of it being where you have to force yourself to be out and about. Let’s say you’re a shy person—and at times I certainly can be a shy person—it does help to meet people, meet engaging people, and even better, meet the people they meet. Buffalo, I would like to think as a mid-sized city, is a place where your web of connectivity can greatly increase if you’re open-minded and interested. And so, I get very upset when I hear a lot of people talk—and a lot of people do—talk about whether or not I’ve only succeeded because of who I know, and I find that to be an infuriating concept and I often like to address it in the sense of if you never meet a variety of artists and curators, there is a simple, simple truth that no one will know what you’re painting, so there has to be a blend of not losing your soul, but understanding what marketing is, and in many ways, it starts with having some presence. A musician will not be heard unless they put out a song; a painter will not be seen unless he tries to share his painting. And to realize that it’s about sharing, it’s not about winning or losing. Art is beautiful, subjective pastime. Oh, what advice would I give to myself? If I had the opportunity now, at almost thirty-two years old, what advice would I give if I went back in time and met myself at twenty-one years old? So we’re looking at ten years…I wouldn’t certainly have any advice for myself about what to make. I would let that process unravel in the same way that it did unravel. I don’t have regrets about what mediums I chose or anything regarding that. I would have been telling myself to learn more about marketing, and to—as much as I have not appreciated it—to simply acknowledge that no one is going to do this for you. And that’s more than the making of the paintings, but the putting of that imagery into the world, and what benefits come from it when you put forth the effort to have your imagery in the world. I see in other people that have worked harder than myself, that for the most part, they have gotten out of it what they put into it, and so I would say business-wise, I have some regrets that I have not been more aggressive. But it feels dirty to market yourself; I feel as though the expectation, being in a region where we don’t have art dealers, you have to push your own work, and it is my opinion that the fact is, there’s a lot of ego involved. You’re making quite the statement when you over market yourself. You are declaring your own importance, which can certainly ruin the essence of making pure art. The second you’re wrapped up in too much self-marketing is the moment when you could possibly delude yourself and confuse yourself as to knowing who you are, what your art is and how you fit into the larger art world, and so in many ways, I’ve almost distinctly chosen to have a smaller place in the art world because of how much I dislike self-marketing.
HG: Do you find, though, that there is the potential for a middle ground? That it’s not either you go live like Van Gogh or you’re a sellout?
TH: I would like to think I’m living the life in between. I’m continually trying to be accessible and to share my work, but I certainly have no copyrighted and put my images on t-shirts, and they’re not presently found at Kmart, while I can simultaneously say I would likely never turn down Kmart if they asked, so maybe that’s the balance where as these opportunities come, I rarely turn them down at the moment I get there, but I’m not necessarily fighting to have these “selling out moments.”
HG: Are you involved at all with sort of the—the more than emerging—DIY and handmade phenomenons that are, like, possible on Etsy or anything like that?
TH: I’ve for the most part, while being incredibly aware of the DIY movement, you know, have not been very involved with it, specifically because of my training and my degree, as opposed to someone who might have a graphic design degree, or matching something like that up with an MBA, I’ve simply learned how to paint. I don’t really know what to do with the paintings. Perhaps they would make great placemats, but I wouldn’t know cause I have very little proficiency. I certainly hope that someday to collaborate with people that have their focus in those areas, like business, marketing, or graphic design, and I think the marriage of what I bring to the table and what someone else would bring to the table could have great fruition, but that experience has not happened yet.
HG: Is there anything else you’d like to add at all?
TH: Jeez, if there was ever anything I was gonna add, I guess it would be, aside, of course, thanking the Burchfield-Penney for the mission that it has been striving for and succeeding in for all these decades, being that I was not initially from Buffalo, but have now been here over ten years, and I have settled down in a home, I consider myself a Buffalonian. So now more than ever, that notion that here’s a place where its driving goal is regional is something that seems to be incredibly unique and important in this region in particular.
HG: Being an artist not from western New York, what brought you to the region, and what kept you in the region?
TH: Right off the bat, in 2002, I knew that moving to Buffalo was not necessarily an advantageous choice, career-wise, as an artist. But the reason why I fell in love with Buffalo and have officially called this my home and will continue to call it my home is because of the caliber of the artists. There’s not enough space on your tape for the list of people that I would list as influences here. People like John Fall, people like John Milcherich, people like Patrick Robado, Adam Weekly, AJ Frieze, Anita Johnson. The list literally just continues on and on. There are hundreds and hundreds of artists—Bruce Kerlan, Justine Kerlan, Charles Burchfield himself, whom I initially was not fond of, but absolutely grew to love, especially with the amount that he drew and logged notes is something I can relate to, and so that would be the real potency and reason why I’m here, is because I feel like if this reason didn’t have a high caliber of art, I wasn’t gonna want to be a part of it. But after seeing the work being done by my contemporaries…just blows me away on a regular basis. In case it’s a note for earlier, amending parts of the conversation, the Kamikaze, I’ve loved to remind people, just out of personal pride, did not end because it closed, it did not end because it was unsuccessful. We absolutely sold out, legitimately, every event that we had. If anything, the problem was that the Kamikaze was too successful, and it eventually created opportunities for most of the members—most, more than half of the members of the Kamikaze—received opportunities for employment in Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, where any graduate of UB media studies, that’s what they’re looking for. So the gallery allowed us enough exposure and enough experience that my fellow members of the Kamikaze had to move and do other things. We sort of knew that was going to happen and that’s why it was called the Kamikaze. It was something that was going to go down in a blaze of glory, which it sort of did and did not, depending on who you talk to, I guess.
HG: Tom, thank you so much for coming in today and for participating in the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.
TH: Thank you very much.