Southwest of the Imagination

Southwest of the Imagination

By Norman Kolpas
Southwest Art Magazine
September, 2013

In a deep sky turning indigo at nightfall, a full moon rises, on the verge of breaking free from the mesa that concealed it. The incandescent orb pulls you irresistibly toward the 16-by-16-inch watercolor-and-mixed-media work by Tom Perkinson, even if you first spied it from across a crowded gallery.

Drawn closer, you almost expect to see the moon rising higher in the sky, so immediate and real is the painting’s impact. Instead, your eye discovers the faint trace of a shooting star. Then, the lights and wisp of chimney smoke from a farmhouse intrigue you, hinting at lives and stories made tantalizingly real by the artist’s uncanny ability to evoke a sense of place.

Yet, reality is a fluid concept in Perkinson’s world. As fully present as his FULL MOON, SUMMER may seem, the landscape it portrays is a work of his imagination, inspired by the Southwest surroundings where he has made his home for almost five decades. “None of these places really exist,” he says of works that have found homes with a multitude of serious collectors and in such prestigious institutions as the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe and the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. “I just make them up as I paint them,” he says.

That statement may at first seem disarmingly cavalier. But, in actuality, it typifies both the inherently modest manner of the Midwest-born artist and the great sense of wonder he still feels as his lifelong instinctive approach to painting continues to lead him to fresh discoveries. “I’m there watching the painting, adding and subtracting things as it grows and evolves,” he says. “The painting kind of tells me what it is, and we work together.”

Perkinson has experienced that kind of creative fluency since his boyhood on a small-town farm in Indiana, where he was born in 1940. “I was just always interested in drawing,” he recalls. “I’d get paper and a pencil and go out and draw things on the farm. It was fun for me to get the lines to do what I wanted them to do.” His talent gained notice from the art teacher who came once a week to the little red-brick schoolhouse he attended. “She’d give the class an assignment, and an hour later we’d all hold it up, and she’d always ask me to come up front to show the class my piece.”

His mom took notice, too, enrolling him in summertime art classes at the John Herron Art Institute of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He continued going there through high school, and after graduation, he went on to study there full time for two more years. Then he continued with another year of studies at the Chicago Art Academy before returning to Indiana to work for two years as an advertising and cartoon illustrator for the Indianapolis Times newspaper.

Wanting to further his professional education, he enrolled in Oklahoma Baptist University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in art in 1964 and stayed on to teach for a year. “At OBU I was the artist,” he says with a chuckle of the largely science-oriented school.

Feeling a need to study more seriously in an environment filled with artists, he enrolled in graduate studies at the University of New Mexico. There, he particularly remembers an advanced drawing class, taught by the noted abstract-expressionist-turned-photorealist John Kacere, as the turning point that Britreally opened him up. “We’d sit around and just start drawing, with no models,” he says. “You had to work continuously, and it all had to come out of your head.” One day, Perkinson had to leave the room briefly, and when he returned, he found that Kacere had taken the drawing he’d been working on and pinned it up upsidedown.“That just completely knocked me out. Suddenly, I saw a whole world in my random sketching. That moment was very profound for me. It threw the doors of my imagination wide open.”

A sense of serendipity began to govern Perkinson’s work, even as he began teaching at the university himself after receiving his master of fine arts degree in 1968. At first, he concentrated on surreal drawings. But more and more he gravitated toward the notion of depicting the landscape of New Mexico, not only inspired by its inherent beauty but also by the haunting memory of early pen-and-ink landscape drawings by Rembrandt, which he’d seen years before as a student back at the Herron Institute in Indiana. “They were quick sketches that had a wonderfully loose quality to them,” he says. Somehow, their style resonated with Perkinson’s emerging approach to art and his adopted southwestern surroundings—which, he says, have always inspired him with their “color and light and drama and mystery.”

After two years of teaching, around 1970 Perkinson decided to leave the classroom and devote himself full time to painting the New Mexico landscape. “I simply found out that I couldn’t teach all day and then come home at night and paint,” he says, noting that the internal, subconscious “decision maker” he needs to do good work as an artist was worn out after a day in the classroom. Soon, a distinctive, sprung-from-the-imagination style he came to describe as “romantic realism” began evolving. And Perkinson wouldn’t be averse to adding to that description one more “r” between the other two: regional. “I consider myself a regional painter,” he says with pride, noting the inspiration he has found in great American regionalists like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and Andrew Wyeth. “I paint New Mexico.”

After more than four decades now as a full-time fine artist painting New Mexico, Perkinson very much has a method he follows. He rises before dawn most days and heads to his home studio after he’s read the paper and had his coffee. He paints all morning and then devotes the rest of the day to walking, gardening, frame-building, business matters, and a contented life he shares with Louise, his wife of 44 years and a respected jewelry artist.

Although Perkinson will occasionally work in pastels and oils, watercolor has long been his preferred medium because it suits his preference for spontaneity. “Some happy accidents come in watercolor,” he explains. “When a sheet of 300-pound paper is lying there flat with some water on it, you can guide the paint a little bit, but it also goes where it wants to go. Especially with liquid watercolor, which just explodes when you drop it onto clear water. I try to retain that spontaneity and energy, from the first few strokes to the very end.”

It’s easy to see the inspiration Perkinson finds in the works of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, renowned for his almost abstract-expressionist watercolor studies of sunsets. “He can bring about such mystery,” Perkinson says. He’s equally influenced by 19th-century American tonalist painters like George Inness and James McNeill Whistler. “I love the mood of their paintings and their quiet command of color,” he says.

Once his watercolors have dried, Perkinson adds finishing touches of pastel pencil—which is why some of his works are referred to on their gallery labels as “mixed media.” The pastels, he notes, “dance on the surface of the paper and create nice vibrations and a beautiful illusion of depth.”

That vibrant depth can be witnessed most dramatically in a recent, continuing series of works, now numbering about 10, inspired by the Bosque del Apache, a national wildlife refuge along the Rio Grande, some 90 miles south of Perkinson’s hometown of Corrales, which is just north of Albuquerque. A diverse landscape of riverbanks and bottomlands, forests, mesas, and mountains, the Bosque is home to an incredible diversity of migratory birds as well as many native animals. In its way, it offers a microcosm of the landscapes that have seized the artist’s imagination through the years.

One such painting, WHITE EGRETS AT SUNSET, would be instantly recognizable to a fan of the Bosque, despite the fact that it depicts an assemblage of landscape features you’d be hard pressed to find there in the real world. “I build the landscape in one of these paintings just like the set for a play,” says Perkinson. “I make sure that the set will stand on its own. And then I bring in the birds. They’re the actors in the play, and the star actor here is the one that’s in the air.” Perkinson had particular fun adding a wide cast of supporting players, too. Look closely and you’ll possibly spot, in addition to the congregation of white egrets, a small siege of sandhill cranes, a gaggle of Canada geese, a solitary quail, a few rabbits and turtles, and a deer. The delightfully diverse gathering came about as unexpectedly as the stageset surroundings. “They just happened on the scene,” he says with a laugh, explaining a process that clearly surprised and delighted the artist as much as it does the viewer.

Those kinds of surprises keep Perkinson avidly creating, with no desire to slow down and no end in sight. When asked where he may evolve from here, he speaks with the same air of happy abandonment that seems to govern every one of his works. “It’s going to come from the paintings themselves, and they’re always moving forward,” he says. “I’m just keeping my eyes open and waiting for the next chapter. And I’m anxious to see what it is!”

Norman Kolpas is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes for Mountain Living and Colorado Homes & Lifestyles as well as Southwest Art.