In-Sync with… Tom Torluemke (interview)

From left, Yanina Gomez, Tom Torluemke and Sergio Gomez.
From left: Yanina Gomez, Tom Torluemke and Sergio Gomez.

This post continues my series “In-Sync with…” aimed to get a closer look at contemporary artists and art professionals from Chicago and abroad. Read it, enjoy it, share it, and get in-sync with artist Tom Torluemke. Do not miss his personal recommendations at the end of the interview.

I don’t remember how or when exactly I met Tom because it seems like I have known him forever. All I know is that I have always had a strong admiration for his work, attitude, authenticity and work ethic. Tom is the kind of artist who just never never never never stops making things. Did I mentioned never enough times?  He is not afraid of changing gears, trying new things and exploring the possibilities of the art making process. His show at Lynda Warren Projects last Summer was an exhilarating and fun experience.  In many levels, Tom’s work encounters, discloses and undresses the viewer of the many fears and struggles we find ourselves entangled with in contemporary America.

This interview is specially exciting because it is only a few days away from a big solo exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. I had a chance to visit Tom’s studio last year as he prepared work for this fabulous show. You really do not want to miss this one!!!  Enjoy the interview and see you in Hyde Park!


Sergio: Where did you go to school (college/university)?
Tom: I went to the American Academy of Art where I received an associate’s degree. Not too long after I graduated from there, I had been asked by several institutions to do demonstrations, and I realized that I liked doing that. So I thought it would be of benefit to design a syllabus and lesson plans, for painting and drawing classes. So then I got hired by the North Shore Art League to teach life drawing and painting. Then lucky for me, a teacher had backed out of a watercolor class, being offered at Northwestern University’s Norris center, for continuing education, so they called up the place I was working, and they asked for a recommendation for a watercolor instructor. So I got that job for the semester, then I realized that I needed to use these two jobs I had to try and get a better teaching job. I’m telling you this, because it ties into my education. The American Academy the school I graduated from, was looking for a somewhat progressive, cutting edge teacher, of course that term is relative. I was still quite conservative, but not compared to most of the faculty at the Academy. So then I got hired at the Academy, and after teaching there, near ten years, things changed in the teaching world quite a bit and the school had to become accredited for a bachelors program, I was asked to help put that together, but I wasn’t going to be allowed to teach those classes. Unless I went further and got my bachelors degree, so that’s what I did. Shortly after that, a couple years later, I quit so I could be freer to make more work and try to get public projects and organize shows and stuff like that. A little more of an artist and arts advocate as opposed to an artist/educator. However, I still teach once in a while.

Sergio: Do you feel art school prepared you for the art career you have now?
Tom: Not in the modern sense as in cutting edge, post-modern, conceptual artwork. The conservative school I went to taught me how to paint and draw representationally. So when I went as a visitor to the MCA like I did, and I found myself mesmerized by Jeff Koon’s vacuums and later Mario Merz’s Igloos at the Guggenheim in the mod 80s thrilled me also. I realized I was behind the times and had a lot of catching up to do. So I had to learn everything I could about modern art and change my practice so I might be able to be relevant some day.

Sergio: What is one thing you wish you had learned at art school?
Tom: I wish I had learned more about the inner mechanics of the high-powered art world in New York, Berlin and England. I would go to New York frequently when I was young in the late seventies, early eighties and I was just too green. My artwork had some potential so I was told, but I really wasn’t there yet. So I wasn’t able to navigate through that type of atmosphere.

Sergio: What is your website?


Sergio: What inspires you right now?
Tom: I really try to leave myself open. I come to my empty paper or canvas not knowing ahead of time what’s going to happen. Generally, I am inspired by something from the outside world or something from inside myself that I feel may have resonance with the viewer. I really do try to affect the viewers in a positive way, even if the work sometimes depicts unpleasant ideas or stories. I do want to mention however, even though my work refers to nature, people and things we have made, I also make paintings that at a glance seem completely abstract.

Sergio: How did the concept for your upcoming exhibition Fearsome Fable – Tolerable Truth at Hyde Park Art Center come about?
Tom: It came about in two ways. Last year, I was commissioned to make a mural for the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, I set out to make a real people pleaser. The title of the mural was “Simple Pleasures”, comprised of 19 separate murals depicting things we can do to enjoy ourselves and spend time with friends and family, like playing cards, going camping, or taking your grandmother out to eat. The other component, which also inspired my Simple Pleasures mural, was my socio-political visual blog Torluemke’s Daily Punch. I was so upset by all the crazy things that were going on in the world but mostly the United States. So I did a different satirical socio-political illustration if you will, every day for a year. Those two things gave me the idea, that I could illustrate in a mural style, two-sided painting this epic illustration of a dystopia/utopia scene along with accompanying sculptures, fierce and threatening and sad. With that grand theme I would be able to cover a lot of ground and be pessimistic and optimistic at the same time, which seems to be what I do anyway, maybe a little heavy on the pessimism, but hey, things are pretty fucked up, aren’t they?

Sergio: What is a typical day in your studio like?
Tom: My studio is my whole house. Generally I get up early, exercise, eat, and read for about an hour. I try to get in the studio somewhere between 8 and 9 a.m. If I have something started, I just continue. Generally I will paint until about 1, have lunch and some coffee and then go back to work. I’ll work until dinner between 5 and 6 then generally work for a couple more hours afterwards, working somewhere between 10 and 11 hours. Most of the time, I will watch a movie at night and then read for another hour. Sometimes I won’t watch a movie and just draw, then read. So that’s the layout, and if I wake up and don’t have something started, I’ll generally draw, try to work my ideas out, mostly through visual picture writing, if you will. But not always, sometimes I write my ideas down. Often my drawings or writings wrap around a theme. I just keep going with that theme until I’ve worked through a bunch of angles of the theme. I then may just start painting on a large canvas or I may make little watercolors or sculptures or even a big drawing. Whatever my ideas need to communicate to the viewer is what I’ll choose. Sometimes paintings go fast, sometimes they go slow. I usually try to work start to finish on a piece. That’s not always because I want to do that, I really only have one large painting wall. I don’t have the luxury of spreading around 5 or 6 large paintings all stretched and ready to go that I work on when the urge strikes me. I work on unstretched canvas, roll them up when I’m finished. To me it’s just a nuisance to keep doing that, so I just leave it up until it’s done. So if I have to leave it, I may work on drawings or sculptures at a table. I want to surprise myself every day. I want to look back at my day’s work and say, “How the hell did I do that?” Sometimes it’s as if somebody else painted it.

Sergio: What type of mental/practical activities do you do when facing a creative block?
Tom: Fortunately, I don’t really have creative blocks. I think the reason is, I set myself up pretty young to allow myself to do many different things creatively, different styles, different mediums, I pushed ahead with that idea, even though it wasn’t popular. But it has enabled me to get up every morning and make art in whatever category I want. I think that’s why I don’t get stuck with a block. It seems as though Picasso did that, I mean to do whatever the hell he wanted to every day.

Sergio: Do you find social media to be a distraction or an asset for you as an artist and how do you deal with it?
Tom: I’m fortunate that I have a studio manager who happens to be my life partner, Linda Dorman, who handles all my promotion and social media presence. However I do on a daily basis, sit side by side with her and go over all the new social media happenings and answer people’s requests or correspondence.

Sergio: What is your biggest challenge as a contemporary artist?
Tom: My biggest challenge is to analyze the whole sea of continuing new art being made all over the world and trying to identify what is truly good, sincere, and important and in the end, positive for mankind. Once I think I’ve figured that out, then I just have to proceed with confidence that my guess at what I’m contributing to the whole mix might be important some day and maybe now.

Sergio: How much does the art market influences your art production/output?
Tom: I think it influences me quite a bit. Not as much by money but that I would prefer my work not end up in garage sales. Or one of my guiding little antidotes is that I want my artwork to be able to be identified as artwork a hundred years from now in a trash filled basement of some abandoned building. So over the many years, I have made a considerable amount of artwork, like maybe some drawings that I did on dirty paper, with some slices in the paper, heavily erased and scratched, quite small, maybe 8 x 8” and I realized that if that drawing ended up in someone’s basement somewhere it would be hard pressed to be identified as art a hundred years from now. So I guess the art market does guide my output. I’m very often conflicted, modern and cutting edge for a more exclusive audience or something a bit more popular and recognizable, touching non-artists more than artists.

Sergio: What’s next for you?
Tom: I will be in a group show curated by Tony Fitzpatrick at La Luz De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles in April and I am going to be a TEDx presenter at TEDxPurdueU in West Lafayette this spring.


Sergio: What excites you or what do you dislike about your local art scene?
I think the world wide web combined with all the ARTNOW type books makes it hard for people to keep all the barrage of images at bay, and be sincere and searching from within. It’s just too easy to art direct yourself right now and set yourself between fashionable styles.

Sergio: Do you believe gallery representation today is as important as it has been in the past?
Tom: Yes I do, if you want to climb up the elite art ladder and compete with many of the very famous artists of today. Now if you don’t want to do that, there are plenty of ways to live a very fulfilling life as an artist without gallery representation, but I do think it really helps if you are trying to make your living doing it. That’s a whole other set of skills you need in order to make the commitment and follow through with making your living, raising your children and setting yourself up for being old, all from selling your art. So if you have a gallery or two that really adds to the income.

Book… Ben Shahn, Shape Of Content
Art movie or documentary… I am just always mesmerized by the Picasso movie where he draws on the glass; he keeps changing his image until finally I think he ends up with the rooster. But I haven’t seen it for a long time.
Art museum… Metropolitan Museum
Contemporary artist (other than yourself)… Werner Tübke (he died a few years ago, but I still think of him as a contemporary artist)
Place to be inspired by… Nature I paint regularly from observation out in nature.
One sentence advice for an art student… When you make your art, aspire to affect the most amount of people in a positive way.
Chicago cafe/restaurant… Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar & Medici on 57th
YouTube video…


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