It was the day after Labor Day in 1954, where I found myself sitting in a first-grade classroom. Being a “Baby Boomer”, it was common to have at least 40 or more students in one class. This was terrifying and overwhelming to say the least, so much so that the boy in front of me wet his pants. He was so embarrassed, and the entire room felt empathy towards him even at that young age. All our nerves were shot, and then came the Alphabet.
I did well for the first few letters, but I found I couldn’t keep up with the rest of my class. As you can imagine, panic ensued, and I quickly learned to just fake it; stay under the radar as much as possible. With these challenges that I didn’t quite understand, I began to think about things outside of my classroom, and that is where I was stuck with the “Art Spirit.” I began to draw things during class, which brought me to my first punishment. In my first grader brain, “All I was doing was drawing my mom in her undergarments,” which she walked around the house in. If you knew Billie, it would make you laugh, because my mother had a huge personality and spirit and did not worry about modesty.
The only thing that kept me drawing was the need to feel good about myself. Being unable to read well caused me to fall behind more and more. At the time, no one understood why I had a hard time in school, so the assumption was that I didn’t care. Art was the only thing that I could do on my own terms; it kept my spirit alive in a time that I had little to be proud of. It wasn’t until 1980 that I was diagnosed with dyslexia.
The early 1960’s were my turning point, this is when I found my “North Star”. My passion hit me like a bolt of lightening when I first saw a man doing an oil painting demonstration in a department store. Right then, in that moment, I thought, “Now that is for me!” I started learning about art, and my heroes became the great illustrators of the past and present. I never had heroes in sports, so I knew I found something special to me.
Upon graduation from high school, I was accepted into a private commercial art school. There were only 55 students in the entire school. Each and every teacher was a working professional who taught us one on one—no books! I graduated early, got married to my wife of 55 years, Jonna, and from there my career took off. I knew so long ago that I had the “Art Spirit” in me, and at once I began my fantastic career as a designer and illustrator.
My evenings, weekends, vacations, and any free time I could manage were spent on oil painting. I found Master painters to teach me their ways, since my career focused on commercial art. I knew oil painting was my true passion, and I pursued it while working in corporate America for as long as I could. Jonna and I supported our family, and in 2001, Jonna’s support led me to a life decision that changed my trajectory forever.
On a cold January day in 2001, I walked away from the corporate world, commercial work, and all of the money. My dream of being a full time painter was here. I worked so hard to get to this point, and it began to pay off. I was showing work coast to coast, traveling the country while getting inspiration for my impressionistic paintings from all of the beautiful nature my family and I were able to experience. I drew inspiration from water, from the mountains, from the woods and the desert. I found myself spending more and more time in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is such a magical place to me and many other artists alike. It was a town thriving on creativity and art. There were so any galleries in Santa Fe and so much promise, that we decided to live there and show in galleries all over the West. That was until 2008, when half or more of the galleries closed, including mine.
After the galleries closed, Jonna and I returned to our beloved Kentucky and we found success on our home turf. I started doing workshops at various venues and art clubs in Cincinnati, and I began to take groups to France and Italy. I have done studio work and plein air work within my workshops, and teaching became a huge passion of mine. I would encourage anyone who feels a passion for art to pick up a pencil, brush or whatever medium you prefer and just try it, it can only make you better to try doing something you love, as I did.
I am always trying to learn as well, by practicing new tricks and continuing to learn from the masters, some I can even call my great friends. When doing plein air, I use an “Easy L” portable easel, but I am a bit older now, so I do prefer to work out of my studio and perfect my craft even further. I paint mostly on canvas, as I can stretch my own, and I use regular oil paints, as well as Griffin Alkyd white by Winsor & Newton. I am proud to say that I “work” almost 7 days a week, but to me it’s my freedom, not my constraint.
Fundamental to our success is my wife, Jonna. She handles the business end of things, as we say “everything but the paint”, so that I can stay in my right brain. She is also my best critic, and will encourage me to push myself into creating masterpieces. I paint only what interests me, and sometimes when I paint from photos, I will paint upside down so that I stop my left brain from interfering with my right. This was shown to me by artist and long-time friend, C.W. Mundy OPAM. More often than not, I enjoy writing stories for my paintings. Sometimes they are a bit more open verse, but it adds another dimension to the art that allows the viewer to expand their visual experience.
Something that I have enjoyed doing is commissions, which I like to call “Legacy Paintings”. Being able to tie a person’s or family’s story and emotion to a beautiful landscape gives me such a full heart. It is a win, win, win experience for all involved, and these paintings become instant family heirlooms. To know that generations to come will be admiring my artwork fills my heart with such joy, its crazy to look back at how I got here.
I am so fortunate that the Lord gave me the ability to make a living doing what truly feeds my soul; I make art, I have the pleasure of bringing beauty into this world, from this world, and share it with family, friends, and strangers. Of course, we are only strangers until I can shake your hand, give you a hug and offer you my heart and soul on canvas.
Stay tuned, I am sure the best is yet to come, thanks be to God.
Tom Bluemlein OPA