Tom James Resume

My artistic inclinations started at a young age. I was very taken by the illustrations of the books I read growing up in the 1950s. My home environment was also very conducive to art. Both of my parents were artists -- our tables were filled with art books and our walls with paintings by family and friends. My mother was an extremely talented figurative/abstract painter, and my father was an advertising art director for a large Chicago agency. My dad also had a talent for representational/architectural art that blossomed later in retirement.

During the late 1960s early ‘70s, I studied art at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Columbia College in Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My college art career found me surrounded by a bevy of art teachers who encouraged my creativity. “Doing your own thing” was the order of the day. While that provided great freedom to explore different techniques and media, it also meant there was very little guidance on structure and technique.

As a result, my work at this time was fueled by my imagination but light on basic skills such as knowing how to draw. My drawings were centered on fantasy images, using “magic markers" as my medium, with a cartoon-like style, but also incorporating political issues of the time such as the environment and the Vietnam War.

At the same time, I was taking etching/printmaking classes. My work with this medium centered on using stylized architectural elements and images that were more abstract. I also dabbled in using dry pastels, creating abstracts that years later would reappear in my “Opera” series of oil paintings. Many of the themes of my later work had their genesis in these very unstructured but creative years.

I started painting in the 1980s with acrylics. The first series of work that I embarked upon was my “Night Angel” series, which involves a train motif passing through hard-edged fantasy landscapes in acrylic. The theme of this body of work is metaphoric, derived from literature I was reading at the time and also from eclectic music of the 1980s by artists such as the Japanese keyboard player Ryuichi Sakamoto and alternative rock groups such as OMD, New Order and the Buggles.

Over time, my “Night Angel” series evolved to include scenes of distant, remote factories -- a predecessor of work to come. And, still later, the trains disappeared and the landscapes started to include chasms, icebergs and other natural disruptions. I resumed this series in the 1990s, including more vertical and diagonal elements.

During this time, I was teaching summer studio high school art classes in Green Bay, Wis. Over the course of my teaching, I became transfixed by the regional power plant that sat on the edge of the bay where my classes would gather to sketch on field trips. It was this particular power plant that I started to photograph and later paint using oils.

This eventually progressed to paintings of the Industrial landscape of Green Bay and Chicago. This series of work is called the “Age of Endless Grinding.” I was very influenced by the Precisionist paintings of Charles Sheeler and the colors of the Chicago Imagists in creating this work.

This also was a period of great growth and experimentation for me, in which I began working with new materials such as metal panels, fuse boxes and shelving. I covered these found objects with images of helicopters and factories, painting both in representational and abstract styles. The intense industrial landscapes were scenes of a bygone era, highly charged with the literal interpretation of industry and its icons, such as boilers, furnaces and welders. But the paintings also addressed these industrial behemoths on another level, as metamorphic symbols of industry -- the “cathedrals” of our time.

At the beginning of the 1990s, I took my first trip to Europe and was deeply moved by the medieval architecture and the powerful sense of history. A new series of work, called “Rubbing the Ghost,” evolved from this trip using photographs that I took while traveling in France and Italy. A number of these paintings were created on wood panels using brushes and knives, which gave the paint texture and movement. Other paintings were done on canvas and on metal panels. At the same time that I was painting these European churches and bridges, I also was working with more symbolic images of “spirits and angels,” influenced by the Symbolists of the late 1880s.

The late 1990s found my work taking a new, smaller-scaled direction. This work combines collaged maps, acrylics and other mixed media on paper. The image of a map signifies location, encouraging the viewer to contemplate that location as it relates to their own history and memories. “The Maps” series evolved into a body of larger work on canvas called “The Opera” series. This work links directly with the abstract nature of “The Maps.”

Also during that period, I found that I really enjoyed working on wood and using materials such as collage, spray paint and pencil. This led to the creation of a new body of work. Initially, this work, on a series of assembled wood panels, was abstract in nature. But I soon found myself wanting to use the work to reflect and comment on contemporary life, as I had back in my college years. There was no shortage of important topics to address – the violence of the Bosnian War, the Gulf War and other global clashes was in the news every day. This series became known as “Musings from a Toybox,” a series that I have continued to the present day. This series allows me to combine diverse elements of my work, such as collage, cartooning and drawing, with observations on current events, political and social, as well as personal statements.

At the turn of this new century, I found myself becoming more intrigued with landscape painting. At a young age, I had been drawn to paintings of the Romantic landscape. Inspired by the works of Rockwell Kent, the Canadian superstar painters The Group of Seven, Caspar David Friederick and other landscape heroes, I started to create paintings of forests and clouds based on photographs that I had taken. This series is called “From the Edge of the Forest.”

During my career, I have been able to engage in subject matter that is both diverse and constantly changing. My influences range from the Representational painter Rockwell Kent and Group of Seven painters such as Lawrence Harris to the groundbreaking comic book art of the 1960s; and from the wacky political/cultural paintings of Peter Saul and hard-edged industrial landscape paintings of Charles Sheeler to the mystic spiritual paintings of the Symbolist period in European art. The constantly changing stream of artists and movements in contemporary art also has inspired me and continues to influence my work to the present day.

© Tom James 2015