Angela’s Interview with Maine Artist Tom Hall

For the 18 years that we had our studios, shop and business on Congress Street in Portland, Maine we had the luxury of sharing that building with Tom Hall. Tom was a featured artist in our new Studio Showroom. His work transforms the spaces it inhabits and layers on a depth of soul that whispers a subtle air of solitude and wisdom, inspired by the landscape that has captivated him his entire life – the Maine woods.
Tom’s work is his life. Tom’s life is his work.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom about his work, his life in the Maine woods and how he balances his multitude of talents and passions.

Would you please describe the setting you are in right now?

I’m sitting in my office at home, on a hillside of trees…mostly oak and beech…overlooking Sebago Lake, Maine’s second largest lake. This is the landscape that I grew up in as a kid…since I was three months old. So it’s home, in the truest sense.

How does your home influence your painting and drawing? How does your painting and drawing influence your home?

Well, first of all my house is quite small…1000 sq. ft…and that includes the basement. Having worked in many studios.

In my life I knew what I wanted in terms of work spaces. And then like a boat I had to maximize every nook and cranny in the house. I call it…to paraphrase Le Corbusier…the great Swiss-French architect…a ‘Machine for making Art.’ I live alone so I can maximize my energy, and can focus on making the work. I see it much like a monk serving a greater good.

Tom Hall artist Maine Sebago in studio

You made a dream come true when you bought land on Sebago Lake and in a matter of time, you designed and built your dream house, tucked into the landscape surrounded by nature in all her glory – all year long. You experience the seasons in minute detail up there, aware of the animals, birds, foliage, lake temperatures, thickness of the ice, sounds of summertime. How has your relationship with nature evolved in this environment and what have you learned by it?

As a young boy, growing up in SW Maine, I was struck by the landscape. Old rolling farm lands, at the foot of the White Mts, a lake here, a pond there, and the Saco River cutting it’s way through it all to the sea. How could you not fall in love with it? I was fortunate to have grandparents who were passionate about the landscape…in a sporting way we learned to hunt, fly-fish, and camp, and be comfortable in the woods. We were schooled in the quasi-religious beauty of Nature, the flora and fauna, and that we had a responsibility to the landscape. Living here has only re-enforced that passion and responsibility.

 om Hall artist Maine Sebago in studioOne of the things I admire about the way you have designed your life, is that it is totally dedicated to art. You have made sacrifices to do this, but you have done so in such a beautiful, multidimensional way. Most people know you as a painter. But you have also written several books, you are a printer, a musician and an architect. How do you decide which art form/media you will focus on? How does that evolve throughout the year?

Great question. One of the first things one learns, as an artist, is to control your focus and energy…to keep the creative fires burning, so to speak. Next is having a story to tell. And in order to tell that story to the best of your abilities you have to know your medium. Then you have to work. Work hard. And then work some more. Believing is the most important thing…the rest is just work.

Like many people, I’ve accumulated passions as I’ve lived…ones that have found me. From the architecture came the painting, the printmaking, then the writing…five Maine novels, of which I’m very proud…and then the music. I mean, you can’t paint all day, every day…so if you’re a creative person you have to have other outlets. I revel in ideas, in creating things, and then making them. Making Art is the great joy of my life. There’s a few regrets, but no going back now. I’ve built a boat and thus I sail.

Tom Hall artist Maine Sebago in studioCasco Bay Bridge | 66″ x 66″ | $28,000

You have a rich family history in Maine, growing up in Bridgton. When did you first realize you are an artist? Is your family artistic?

I suppose I was the ‘difficult’ one…the middle child…always moody, gangly, probably not a pretty sight. Bless my parents for putting up with me, and ultimately, for being my biggest cheerleaders. I always thought that the Maine woods would be a part of my life passion…a game warden? landscape architect? logger? But to your question…both grandfathers were Maine farmers and out of necessity were good with their hands. My dad was an accomplished woodworker. He taught high school woodworking. He built much of the furniture we lived with. Joe Sayward, my great-uncle, is a ‘listed artist’…a painter from Kennebunk…1920’s. I never met him. His impressionistic paintings filled the walls of my boyhood and made me wonder about painters. Really wonder. His work, directly out of Homer and Ryder, had a dark light to it, and part of that has stuck with me…after all these years.

Will you please share some of your favorite artists?

Favorite artists? Well, there’s an all-night discussion right there. I’ll start by thanking you and Sherwood for being an inspiration to me all these 20 some years we’ve known each other. I’m proud to know you both and count you as friends. Lucky me. You both always seem to be doing wonderfully creative work, pushing the boundaries in both furniture and textiles, and…telling the Maine story. So Bravo! back at you.

That said, I remember taking art and architecture history courses in college. It was a magical time of inspiration…as it should be. I had great teachers. I thank the University of Oregon for that. They gave me a glimpse of the possibilities. And I found my passion. Not half-hearted either…I was captivated by architecture. Here was a bottomless well of inspiration. A thousand stories with daring feats and countless characters. Le Corbusier! Frank Lloyd Wright! Louis Kahn! Then came the Art…Rembrandt! Homer! Whistler! Hartley! deKooning! Each one, and 100’s of others, all teachers in their own way.

Tom Hall artist Maine Sebago in studioGreenville #1 | 60″ x 42″ | $24,000

You have been compared to some of the most famous landscape painters in American history, including Church, Homer and Welliver. What is it about the landscape that inspires you – aside from the natural beauty?

Two things…

First is the primal thing. Louis Kahn, the great American architect, always yearned for ‘volume zero’ of the history books. The ‘before’ that hadn’t been written yet. I was schooled in this search for the ‘fundamental’. To me the Maine woods have that sense of beginnings.

Second is the Maine thing. Lawrence Durrell, the British writer, once wrote, ‘We are all the children of our landscape.’ Isn’t that a beautiful thought? It goes back to the story…about the time and place we live in…and about our landscape which, I believe, sets us apart.

Your paintings are not about natural beauty to me, so much as they are about a raw, emotional connection to it. I have always thought you painted the soul of a landscape, with all of it’s glorious beauty and pain woven throughout it. And you’re a tall, lean man. A tree of a person. Do you relate to trees or the landscape in a way that most people don’t?

‘A tree of a person.’ Never thought of that, but I like the image. As a kid I grew up on a dead-end street…both sides were lined with big maple trees. We numbered each tree to facilitate our games and intrigues, as only ten year olds can do. Those trees were a huge part of our every day…climbing up, falling out, tree houses in all shapes, reading books in the highest limbs. Across the street from our house was a large apple orchard filled with the most wonderful scraggily van Gogh trees. At the end of the street were acres of undeveloped woods that we kids could disappear into with our imaginations. Back then mothers didn’t worry about kidnappers or terrorists…as long as we were back for chores and meals we roamed freely.

om Hall artist Maine Sebago in studioYour home is a painting studio, a printing press, a music studio and an architectural office. How do you organize your time and inspirations? How do you keep from being overwhelmed by all of your ideas?

I’m overwhelmed only by the fact that the days are never long enough. And, most importantly, that life is short. Got to do it now. Maybe because of that I’ve always been disciplined, and I’m passionate about what I do. Passion, belief, and hard work…with that you can do most anything.

I usually work in 1-2 hour spurts. If one medium is going particularly well, or an opening is coming up, or a deadline, I obviously focus more on that. These last 20 years my architectural work has been done at Carol Wilson’s office in Falmouth, Me. A small office doing the best residential work in Maine. I’m honored to work there and to be involved in such great Maine architecture.

I love hearing you talk about your neighbors. There aren’t many of you that live out there all year round- and in such a remote place. I love how you look after one another. How have your relationships with them informed your work and/or life?

I live on a the end of a ten mile long peninsula…jutting out into Sebago Lake…in amongst a summer community of 40 or so cottages. This is where I grew up as a kid…summers on the lake. A few of the iconic pre-60’s cottages still survive. Nowadays the summer months on the lake are a circus…dangerously so. It’s the big boats and their thoughtless owners. The rest of the year we have our neighborhood to ourselves…us 4-5 year-rounders. A number of which are old timers, so to speak. I love their stories and their passion for our beautiful lake. The deep Maine winters find us huddled over drinks and big meals, trading stories…warming up before going back out into the snowy night.

What advice would you give to someone that is trying to create a life for themselves that is dedicated to art?

Don’t do it. It’s lonely. It’s financially irresponsible. And it’s difficult. But if you have to do it…and that’s the only reason to be an artist…that one has to do it…then do it for the passion and the belief. Do it to lift up others. Do it to tell the story.

Tom Hall artist Maine Sebago in studioWhat are some of the biggest lessons you have learned as an artist?

The power of Art. No question. And with it the power to change the world.

Is there a medium or hobby that you haven’t yet tried, that you would like to experiment with in the coming years?

Well, time is running out, but I’d like to play the piano. Twelve years ago I decided an acoustic guitar would be more practical…cost, mobility, size. And, of course, if you play then singing is the next logical step. With just a guitar and a voice all things are possible. I love to write, so doing my own songs was obvious. And, like the painting, it becomes possible to tell the story…from another angle. Kind of like a quilt…all adding to the whole cloth.

You’re having a cook-out at your house on the lake and you can invite 4 people. Who’s it going to be?

I have a reclusive nature…had it since I was a kid. I was always trying to ‘get away’…I think it has to do with creating a void…to sense myself better and the world around me. That said, the gathering would be small…one or two others. Let’s see…I just finished a bio on John Steinbeck, and am reading one, now, on James Joyce…so I’ll invite them. The wives? Carol and Nora…both indispensible to their husbands’ genius…will beg off…citing better things to do. John will enlighten us on the life cycle of the California red abalone, and Jim will chorus us with an Irish ballad or two. Me? I’ll pour the drinks…to the great thirst of both visitors. So, a gin on ice, burgers with fixings, lots of local veggies. And talking Art.

Is there a written passage that you would like to end this interview with? Yours or someone elses?

Boy, that’s a nice question. I kept journals for 25 years…a habit that I learned in architecture school…small sketchbooks of pen and ink drawings, filled with poems and quotes from all the great artists…quotes I could scan back to in times of question or waffling belief. Here were the greats in all their struggles…just like you and me…with their ups and downs, success and failures. Proving that the journey of life is a humbling adventure for everyone.

My favorite? The last page of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. You’ll have to look it up. It’s 1920’s America. It’s a look back and a look forward, filled with a hope and wonder. It’s that big hope and wonder that only masterpieces have. Good stuff.

Thanks Tom, You’re doing it Dude!