Tom Monahan: Portraits on the Retro-Spectrum

Tom Monahan is a painter from Rhode Island whose work was exhibited at AS220’s Main Gallery this past July. Before taking up painting, Tom had an illustrious career in advertising and was a member of the ASS220 board. His paintings serve to “encompass a classic and raw finish that still fall[s] within the parameters of modern society.”

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Can you tell me about your relationship with the Providence Art Club?
I’m kind of a new member there, even though I’m an old guy. I joined three years ago. And I may be wrong, but I think there are 350 artists. The people tend to be old. I’m actually on the young side at sixty-seven years old. Whereas at AS220, I’d be on the old side. It’s just a community just like AS220 is. And it’s been around for 137 years, so it’s a little different in that regard, but I paint there on occasion. I mostly paint in my studio, which is at home, but I paint there on occasion — either with the workshop instructors or with a group. The groups have no instructors; they’re just people sharing ideas about painting or politics or food.

Back to New England, what’s your relationship with this part of the country? Do you like following the sports?
Well, I was born here. I wasn’t into sports as a kid. I didn’t play organized sports, and I went to Red Sox games like twice a year or twice in my first two decades, I forget. But you know, I was kind of a Celtics fan as a kid. They were a dynasty — maybe the most successful dynasty in the history of major league sports in the U.S. I’m also a Patriots fan. And I don’t get bored when they’re winning, mostly because I was fan during the 1-15 season. So yeah, I’ll take all the winning we can get because we sucked for so many years.

If sports weren’t your thing growing up, what was a big part of your life as a kid?
I took painting lessons when I was 10 or 11, only to put the brush down and not take it up again for another fifty-somethin’ years. I was always creative and somewhat artistic, but my art manifested itself as music. I had a lot of bands. One was a funky band that used to play at college campuses, including Brown, Yale, Harvard, Providence College, RISD, and URI. It was called the Providence River Swimming Team. In fact, Umberto [“Bert” Crenca] managed the coffee house on Thayer Street that my band played at. And he remembers something that I don’t, which involves me jumping off a little balcony to get the crowd’s attention. The band was just a silly concept band made up of PC, Brown, and URI students though.  I wrote half the material, so I was just always the creative guy in the group. I did the graphics for the drums or the graphics for the posters, which were hand lettered or hand drawn “psychedelia.” It was a pretty stupid band. Even the name, the Providence River Swimming Team, was stupid because the river back then was so polluted.

But was it kind of campy?
Oh yeah, totally. It was called a “jug band.” If you’ve never heard of the term, it’s a band that encompasses a lot of homemade instruments that you blow in to create the sound of a, uh, jug. And I remember I played a “window screen”. You know those iron window screens that you put inside of a window and then open up? I would play that like an accordion. I was also a singer and a percussionist and played a Gibson electric banjo that was made in the 30’s. The banjo sucked, but it was just so cool as an instrument.

One theme I’ve noticed in a lot of your paintings is the juxtaposition between the old world and the new world. Like in your painting with automobiles and everything-
My painting has evolved pretty quickly. When you start painting in your early sixties, you’ve got a lot of catching-up to do, so that’s why I get bored with one thing. Like I started doing still lifes until I got bored with them. I tried landscapes and got bored with those. I found portraits and discovered I was pretty good at them, frankly. And not only was I pretty good, but I was also getting paid ahead of time! With portraits, people commission you and you get paid half in advance and half when you deliver it. I honed my skills, and this exhibit is a turning point in my creative path. I put the show in my calendar because you put in for a show two years in advance, and like a year ago, the gallery coordinator or director, Neal, told me I was gonna do it next July. But this April, as I was looking through my work, I realized most of it is portraits. Yet I wasn’t really doing portraits anymore and was just starting to experiment. Looking at all my stuff, I realized my best stuff was shiny and somewhat retro — the ’48 Chevy somewhat retro, the saxophone somewhat retro — you know, like a little old cheeky saxophone. I did a couple of saxophones, I did a couple of cars, I did some espresso pots that had a shiny European feel, and I discovered that I like shiny objects. And I started thinking about other shiny objects to paint. One thing I remembered when I painted cars, was that I said painting the bumpers was the best part because that’s chrome. So I went on google looking for reference material, and what came up was a bumper car. It was retro, it was shiny, and it was campy. I found one of those that I wanted to paint and decided I was gonna do like twenty of them. Well, I got bored, of course, and I didn’t even do the second one. But I liked that campy carnival thing. So I started looking at carnival rides, and I happen to find a kiddie ride called the Star Zapper…a name I actually just made up. But it was a rocket ship that I put in space in my painting, realizing you can put anything in space. I looked for other retro things to put in space after that. And I got the old radio, I got the old hair-dresser machine, the old hair-dryer machine, and so on. I had about twenty different ideas, and three of those made the trip to the gallery. That concept of things floating in space is wholly my idea, I like to think.

Does that idea include the Space Debris series?
Yes. You know why? Because there was this one dead rock star named Warren Zevon. And when he was dying, he was on Letterman and Letterman asked him, “Do you have any advice for us for those that are gonna keep living?” Zevon said, “Yeah, enjoy every sandwich.” So this guy I know in has a sign that says “Enjoy every sandwich” in his office. But he told me he’d rather have Monahan’s painting of a sandwich in space. So we have this thing hovering above Earth, with potato chips floating off the plate.

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What about the orbiting olive?
I started doing small pieces, and those soon evolved into the olive orbiting cheese piece you’re talking about. Why cheese? I don’t know, maybe because the moon looks like cheese; there doesn’t have to be a reason for everything. And another one is a martini glass which, even though it’s very contemporary, feels retro. And that martini is orbiting an olive. Because why not? Why can’t the olive be both the orbiter and the orbitee? I’ve got another one of a mouse orbiting cheese. It’s so cool. It’s a wedge of cheese with the mouse orbiting it, and that’s gonna be at my exhibit, I think.

With respect to the Space Debris series, do you think that art needs to have some big intention or some profound meaning attached to it?
It doesn’t have to. I don’t think that stupid mouse circling the cheese is a great piece of art. But it’s a fun piece of art. There’s nothing profound there that I know of, even if someone else might find some profundity in it. My wife came up with the name for the series Space Debris. She said, “You know, there’s a lot of debris in space.”  I didn’t even realize that there’s a lot of jettisoned rockets and booster rockets that are just floating around forever, rockets that are never going to go anywhere and that don’t rust. I’m thinking the real debris is in the ocean. I should do a series on ocean debris because that to me that would be a statement.  I had an idea a number of years ago that involved painting generic football players. They were big, muscular guys. They were just portraits, but I was damaging the portrait. In fact, I was going to do an exhibit on concussions and head injuries. I was going to take perfectly good portraits and damage them. Just the head part of it though. Not the cheeks, not the nose. I thought of doing that. But no, this series, there’s nothing profound about it. That I know of, anyway.

What about your approach to portraiture?
I try to capture character beyond the aesthetic. You can have everything right and still not capture the individual. But you can have some of it wrong and still capture the essence of the individual. That borders on caricature, but I like to do what I think of serious portraits that carpet character. So people who don’t know the person can get some insight into who they are. That’s what I try to do.  

So what kind of work will you be exhibiting next month at the gallery?
Almost all of it, with maybe an exception or two. There might be a portrait of a public figure. But it’s mostly going to be this space debris stuff. If not space debris, I’ve also got a couple of saxophones. And a couple portraits of HP Lovecraft; he’s just got an interesting face. In doing one of the portraits, I was a slave to his features. And in another one, I just went with his essence.

This is a big question, but what really prompted your transition from an advertising creative director to an artist?
Well, the art part came when I began thinking about retirement and my wife said to take up art. She told me that since I drew pretty well, I should get some paints. It’s funny, because I took a ten-week course that was seventy-five bucks, and I sucked until week number eight. But I wanted to get my seventy-five dollars worth, so I would paint in the class and then go home and apply some of the same lessons that I got about color theory and mixing paint and contrast and value. I was learning the basics very late in life. I mean I knew intuitively, but I was learning the nomenclature and how you break down painting. And what I painted at home was much better than what I painted in class.

During your work as an advertising creative director, you interacted with artists of all sorts and stripes. You worked with graphic designers, comic book artists, people who worked in all different mediums, photography-
Yeah, people who were going into that. Sometimes, for instance, you have to have something illustrated in an ad. One of the art directors I work with not only just got a graphic novel published like two or three years ago, but now it’s being turned into a major motion picture with Kate McKinnon from Saturday Night Live. [McKinnon] is going to be the lead character. And my friend, the art director at the ad agency, didn’t do a lot of fine art illustration. But her layouts were great. They had great character since she’s a really good illustrator. And now, she makes her living as an illustrator. I’ve worked with both filmmakers who went on to big stuff and artists that do art simply to make a living, but I’ve learned from all of them. To me, art, music, film, and advertising are all just communication.

So it all contributed to your idiosyncratic art-
Everything is idiosyncratic; everyone in the world can’t help but have their own take on things. I feel bad for people who copy other artists, like cover bands or artists who strictly do things that look like Van Gogh. I feel bad because you are sacrificing your uniqueness in favor of using your talent to express someone else’s uniqueness. You know, I feel bad for those people, because everybody has something to say — even if it’s just something stupid like a mouse orbiting cheese. Inevitably, everyone’s uniqueness sublimates itself.