Kevin Tolman grew up in northwest Detroit, attended Cass Technical High School, and graduated from the Art School of the Society of Arts & Crafts, now The Center for Creative Studies. After leaving Detroit in 1977, he lived in Texas, Kansas, Los Angles and a Navajo Reservation before settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he built an adobe home and studio in 1987. In Kevin Tolman: Recent Work, at the Robert Kidd Gallery, he looks back on four decades of work that had its early beginnings in traditional still life, landscape drawing, and representational work. Over the years, he experimented with a variety of mediums: pencil, crayon, ink, collage and paint.
The exhibition features relatively large non-representational abstractions with quiet and often serene fields of color. These pastures of layered color partially cover a personal lexicon of symbols and markings. He relies on these layers of thinly applied acrylic paint, accompanied by splatter and brush strokes to make a personal and subtle impression.
The spatial and poetic sensibility of Tolman’s tranquil and subtle paintings attract the viewer from afar with a broad first impression. Closer inspection reveals a collection of personal markings that produce an unintentional primal experience, resulting in a kind of universal appeal. The work’s mystery gives an impression that could easily be ever changing.
I sat down with Kevin Tolman at the gallery for a conversation.
Ron Scott: Tell us about your early interest in art?
Kevin Tolman: Well, I think like any kid, I did a lot of drawing and coloring, and I was excited about books that taught you how to draw, but I also had a great mom who loved the art museum and I enjoyed that very much. In grade school I got a lot of attention for my ability to draw and I had some good teachers that gave me encouragement and recommended me for the classes on Saturday at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which were held in the Rivera court. I attended Cass Technical High School for a couple of years, but when my family moved to Livonia, I opted to attend Bentley High School, and luckily they had an amazing art department.
RS: How did you decide where to go for college?
KT: Honestly I don’t exactly remember, but I think it seemed like I had always thought of myself as an artist, even by that point, so I made an application to the School of Arts & Crafts, and I got a grant from the State of Michigan that helped pay the tuition. I also should mention that I had had major encouragement from not only my teachers but also both my parents to pursue art.
How was your experience at the School of Arts & Crafts?
I thought that school was phenomenal at the time. I had some great instructors. It was basically a classical training in figure, drawing, design and painting classes. I had some ceramics classes. The trips to the DIA for art history classes were pretty amazing and memorable. I took some classes in graphic design and illustration. I figured I could possibly use these skills to work in the real world. Overall, I guess it felt like a very well rounded artist training.
What was your play like during your early formative years?
Well, that touches on something that I have been thinking about lately, and that is the relationship between how a child sees and the work that I am currently doing. It seems that as a child, you are in a different time frame … you move slower, you see all the little details, you’re smaller and closer to the ground, you play with bugs, rocks, twigs, etc. and you see many things that blow right by adults. For instance, when one sits in an air-conditioned car with the windows rolled up, your sense of nature has been diminished considerably, you have become out of touch with it literally. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, as a child, you are outside all the time, immersed in it, one with it. I think for me, that point in time, that childlike way of perceiving, is a touchstone. My love of hiking, camping, being outdoors … I even have a large outdoor easel where I often work. I think that is all an underpinning of how I see the world and what I paint now.
What was your early work like after undergraduate school?
As a child, I remember that the first thing I painted with a new set of watercolors was an apple tree in our backyard, and even back then, I felt this attraction, this pull by nature. During my early school years I recall learning about the impressionists and that work was very interesting. Nature has always been important to me. I painted landscapes and from still life objects. Early in my twenties as I read about artists, like Marcel Duchamp, and the music and process of John Cage influenced me. I am attracted to Brian Eno, the I Ching, and Carl Jung, all of which was validating the idea of chance, and opening a door to the subconscious. Brian Eno used this process of selecting cards at random, each with different directions, to make music. I found all of that intriguing, and it very much influenced my way of working.
Do you recall when you embarked on abstraction?
Yeah, quite honestly, abstraction was not really very interesting to me early on. Probably around 1976, I was in Paris for six weeks, and I saw the works of Claude Monet at the Musée Marmottan first hand, and I was completely enamored of the gestural abstract qualities of the water lilies and all that late work as he was losing his sight. Those paintings seemed to embark on abstract ideas and he was this interesting cross-over from impressionism to abstraction for me. My work has essentially morphed from painting landscape, and then abstracting landscape, to where you see it now.
Are there abstract painters, in the past that you are attracted to?
Paul Klee was someone who I was interested in quite early, and Picasso was interesting, of course. Later in my life I realize that he gave me license to draw or scratch into the paint. Possibly every painting I have ever seen is an influence in some sense. When I think back about early visits to the museum, Francis Bacon pops into my mind because they were incomprehensible to me, and in the Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel, there is this overall field, a patterning that happens. I liked Arshile Gorky’s work, who died around the time I was born, and a person who influenced many abstract painters, and was at times using nature as a touchstone.
What is the process you use to create your work?
I found my way here, not by thinking about where I want to go … I do not plan. Two things have influenced me greatly. Layering paint was something I came upon by painting over an old painting (of mine) where I really enjoyed what was going on as I layered over this earlier work, but still saw some of the older work showing through in places. And I also used cardboard at one point years ago, to sort of mono-print wet paint from one canvas to another, and I started noticing how interesting the accidental layering on this tool, this piece of cardboard, was becoming over a period of many uses. Those two processes underpin everything you’re seeing in this exhibition.
If I had to list the materials you use, what would I list?
Canvas stretched on aluminum bars, gesso, modeling paste that is sanded, and many layers of acrylic paint with some crayon, pencil, charcoal and marker thrown in. And sometimes collage elements. I have an assistant who will start out with gesso, then apply some modeling paste, do some sanding and even add the first layer of paint before I come to the canvas, and it gives me something to play off of or against. This becomes another way of courting chance.
How do you determine the scale?
I think scale is one of the most difficult things that painters deal with, by virtue of the size of our hand and arm, and those movements do not change in relation to the size of the painting much. I work with a variety of different canvas sizes and proportions, and frankly, I don’t have much of a preference.
What is the nature of your markings in your work?
There is a language of symbols. Some are found along the way, and some are interpretations of existing symbols, usually coming from what I find in nature. I like the idea of interpreting or inventing symbols that come from nature’s events like the solstice, or just being playful with what comes to mind as the result of some event. It could be as simple as seeing a dragonfly that makes some sort of diagram-like impression that might find its way into a piece that morning. I am also very interested in interpreting visually what I perceive with all my senses.
Do you listen to music when you paint?
I often work in silence, but I have a wide and eclectic interest in music. I listen to Classical music, Bach to Shostakovich, and also to 20th century jazz, etc., but I do not like the radio or music with words when I work. That can be a distraction. In the summer I like nothing better than the sounds of wind and nature coming in the window or when I work outdoors. Sometimes when I am at an opening for an exhibit of my work, and someone is scratching their head wondering what a painting is about, my best example to help them is to compare it to a piece of music.
Do you know where the work is going? Say from piece to piece?
No. I very much enjoy not knowing. The process of painting is like planting a garden, where one starts something and yet you’re not really sure of how it might go. Many factors might influence it. I start the painting and it often speaks to me along the way. I do find doing the work is calming and meditational … and I trust that I will find a path to follow. There never really is a plan for where a piece may go or for the next body of work either. I realize that there are influences in our lives that we are not exactly aware of, just below the surface … and from the art world, I think everything from cave paintings to whatever exhibit I saw yesterday might be an influence. All the things that I experience, and enjoy the most; my love of the natural world for instance… it’s all there, all those feelings and experiences, stored inside, to then later surface during the process of making the painting.
Kevin Tolman: Recent Works runs from November 9 to December 19, 2013.
Robert Kidd Gallery
107 Townsend Street
Birmingham, Michigan 48009
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.