Non-Sensible Art Of Tom Holland
An exclusory interview with one of California’s most important living abstract artists
By Robin Jay
Author Samuel Butler once wrote, “Sensible people get the greater part of their own dying done during their own lifetime.” It’s a philosophy that could very well explain why painter Tom Holland has done so much dynamic living – and why he’s considered to be one of the most important living artists in California.
What, you say?
Sometimes what most people consider to be “sensible” isn’t so practical if, that is, you want to make a significant mark on history – particularly in the art world. When 18-year-old San Mateo native Tom Holland contemplated college in 1954, his father, a businessman, told him, “Son, do something sensible.” So, the obedient young Holland set out for Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, intending to study industrial design or architecture.
On a whim, he signed up for a watercolor painting class. “It was an epiphany,”Holland told South Florida Opulence. “I started painting all the time. I couldn’t stop.”
With Oregon’s picturesque landscape, the budding artist would go to the coast or the countryside and “paint, paint, paint.” Would his father have called that sensible? Perhaps not. But Tom was following his passion. Interestingly, another bit of “non-sensible” behavior proved the next catalyst in Holland’s future career.
“I got into trouble for drinking beer with some friends at the Capitol in Salem – and drinking alcohol was strictly against the rules at my faith-based college. My buddies were expelled, but I got a second chance because I hadn’t been in trouble before,” Holland explained. “Mark Hatfield was the Dean of Men at Willamette University, and he was running for Secretary of State. He asked me to be his driver during his campaign speech tour. I agreed. We’d go from Salem down to Portland. I’d drop him off at a venue and then drive his car to the coast or the countryside and create my watercolor paintings. I’d pick him up after his speech, have dinner with his family and go back to school. It was an amazing opportunity and he was a remarkable man. Hatfield won the election and, incidentally, was Holland’s first paying customer.
The seascape painting hung on the wall in Hatfield’s Secretary of State office as a symbol of their friendship.
Soon after, 19-year-old Holland transferred to an art school in Los Angeles – but still, to study something “sensible” like design. Holland’s uncle in New York, intrigued by his nephew’s interest in the arts, sent him a plane ticket to visit the Big Apple. He told him to bring along a stack of his watercolor paintings and arranged for him to meet one of his friends – none other than Monroe Wheeler, then curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA.)
“Mr. Wheeler looked through my paintings and said, ‘Tom, who is your favorite watercolorist?’ I said it was painter John Marin. Wheeler responded, ‘I know John Marin well.’ Then he said, ‘Your watercolors are interesting, but they say to me, ‘I’m good…and nothing else.’
That was a profound moment for me. What Wheeler meant was that an artist’s work must be more than good – it has to be something new. Today, I still live by those words.”
The Moment of Truth
During that visit, Holland walked up the stairs of MoMA. A painting at the top of the flight stopped him in his tracks. “It was ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’ by Henri Rousseau in 1897,” Holland recalled. “Rousseau was a good friend of Pablo Picasso and other notable artists, but he was considered an ‘outsider painter’ because he was uneducated. Rousseau’s painting set me ona whole different direction because I, too, felt like an outsider. It dawned on me that I didn’t have to imitate what was already successful; I could – and should – create my own style.”
The determined artist went on to University of California, Berkeley, as an art major, where he met his wife Judy and studied with David Park – one of the three
figurative main painters of the Bay area at the time. He earned a spot as Park’s studio assistant. “I learned so much from him – he was very wise,” Holland said. “Once whenI was nominated for a student award,I didn’t win and was very disappointed. David said to me, ‘Tom, if there is one thing you don’t want to be, it’s a golden boy for people who have already established their careers.’ That spoke volumes to me.”
In his senior year of college, Holland grew tired of school. He applied for and won a Fullbright Grant to paint in Santiago, Chile. A year later, he and Judy returned to Berkeley and had the first of three sons. To make ends meet, Holland worked five jobs: teaching children’s art classes at Richmond Art Center; gardening for residents in Berkeley; illustrating for the Paleontology Department at Cal Berkeley; teaching night classes at the San Francisco Art Institute; and creating his own art.
Raising His Own Bar
At his studio, Holland found himself bored by flat surfaces. “I wanted more of an irritant to deal with – like three dimensionality that had parts jutting out.” He fashioned canvases over wood frames in the shape of animals, waterfalls and automobiles, and then painted over them with oils. “I had my first successful show in a gallery by Stanford University. They were strange pieces, but I loved them. Many well-known artists and art critics attended the exhibit opening. They had their backs to the paintings and I overheard one of them saying, ‘these paintings of Holland’s are so bad that they’re almost good!’
“Some young artists might have been offended, but to me, it was a compliment. I sold 38 paintings that night, made $5,000, bought a parcel to build a house, and splurged on a used sports car – a white 1957 Jaguar with red leather interior,” Holland said.
About that time, Holland was offered to teach at UCLA – making as much money as a professor as he did at his five current jobs combined. He accepted. But, yet again, the artist yearned for another innovative medium. He thought about paper but found it too easily destructible. Instead, Holland found a factory in Santa Monica that made fiberglass panels for greenhouses and bought a few to serve as canvases. “The only paint that would stick to it was epoxy, a resin industrial paint. I’ve been using it ever since.”
This was the start of Holland’s most popular – and most non-sensible – genre. The novel artist rivets together pieces of the fiberglass – and also aluminum – to erect both wall-mounted and freestanding masterpieces. His studio is a former truck company garage, with 11-foot ceilings and six garage doors so that he can easily remove finished pieces if he chooses to make an oversized 3-D piece he insists on calling a ‘painting’ rather than a ‘sculpture’ because it is still all about the paint and shapes.
“The constructions themselves are interesting – but I need color – I have to get them dirty with vibrant paint – lots of it,” Holland said. “I’ve never worked with an assistant because I wouldn’t know what to ask an assistant to do – I don’t know myself what I’m going to do until I do it. I don’t make sketches or models first – I just get in there and start cutting and riveting and building to my heart’s content.”
Does the ‘follow-your-gut’ artist accept commissions?
“Yes, but if you want a red sculpture to match your red couch, that’s not what I do.” If it sounds like a mad scientist in his lab, so be it. The global art world has taken notice. Holland’s painted 3-D conglomerations are in the collections of some of the most prestigious art museums in the world – such as the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, St. Louis Museum of Art, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Denver Museum, San Francisco Art Institute, Los Angeles County Museum and dozens more.
What does Holland’s wife make of her artsy husband?
“Judy has a political science degree and is not an artist – thank goodness – that’s probably why we’ve been happily married for 57 years!” Holland said with a grin.
Tom and Judy have three very successful sons – an oceanographer, a professional hospitality consultant and entrepreneur in the California Wine Country – and, yes – much to their chagrin – an artist. Proving that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, when Holland learned of his son’s aspirations, he didn’t at first find it sensible, “You want to be a WHAT?!!” he responded.
The couple now has five grandchildren (who love to paint with Grandpa). They enjoy fly-fishing and spending time on a parcel of rough scrubland they own. “I constructed the shacks on the property myself, including a stone bathroom. I cover them with manzanita bushes so that nosey Google Earth types can’t see them if they fly over,” Holland said with a snicker.
A Humble man
Ask Tom Holland what he thinks about being named ‘California’s most important artist,’ and the salt-of-the-earth man shies away from comment. But, make no mistake, Tom Holland is one-of-a-kind. The owner of a prestigious New York gallery once traveled to see him when his children were young. They offered him enough money to live handsomely in New York City and send their children to private schools and top colleges. All Holland had to do was drop affiliation with his other galleries and move to New York to be among a top group of elite artists. He politely declined. “I didn’t see myself fitting in,” he said. “Most art critics can’t figure out how to categorize me – as a New York artist, a California artist or a European artist. And I like it that way just fine.”
Be sure to visit the exhibit “TOM HOLLAND: NOW…. and a little bit of history” that runs through June 29, 2015 at Samuel Lynne
Galleries in Dallas. This editor has seen it first – hand – and it’s truly an amazing must-see! For details, go to www.Samuellynne.com.