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17 February 2009

A Questin and Answer with Tom Laukkanen

The following interview was recorded between painter Tom Laukkanen and David Frank on 21 January, 2009. Tom resides in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

I’m curious about the first, I guess you could say, sparks that ignited your interest to begin putting paint on canvas?

My dad being an art teacher, he brought home markers all the time, so he would give me a blank tablet of paper to do whatever I wanted on. The first memory I have of painting, my dad and I went out in the back yard and sat on our picnic table facing our neighbors house, and we did a watercolor of an apple and crabapple tree. As I did the painting, I remember looking to my dad for guidance and he would do the brushstroke, and I would emulate it. I don’t have that first painting, but I do remember the process, and I remember at one point my dad put a little red in for the apple trees and I said, "That doesn’t look like an apple." The apples were in full bloom at that point, and he said, "It doesn’t have to look like an apple." Then I remember taking the red paint and making the same stroke as my dad and thinking, "This is interesting."

It planted in my brain that there’s something else to putting down on the paper exactly what you perceive an apple to be. I wasn’t deep in thought about what that red stroke meant, but that was the first spark that really stirred something in me that I can’t explain. I try to capture that today in my work.

When did you first consider yourself to be an artist?

I always considered myself an artist from an early age. I always spent time drawing and throughout high school I spent an immense amount of time on it. In college the focus shifted onto the classroom setting and partying and all this...
Were you going to school for art at the time?
No, I thought it was something separate. I never even considered it. It was just something I did. I always had my paints with me in college, through unsuccessful attempts to finish paintings, I always kept it around. I think it was in my mid-to-late 20's that I remembered I was an artist. Not when I became, but I remembered it. It always stayed with me but was always put on the back-burner. It just became clear there was something missing in life that I always enjoyed, and it was art. It wasn’t always necessarily the end product but it was the production, the introspection involved in knowing yourself when able to do art, really figuring out what art meant to me and trying to strive towards that.
What was that void that developed and on what level does art reside now in your life?
It wasn’t a void. It was being lost; it wasn’t missing. It was just disorientation. I feel with my art I can become orientated with myself and strive for what’s better for myself and I can let go of those things and turn inward towards myself and figure what’s going on in my life, kind of like meditation. Then the void isn’t necessarily filled but it’s centered to a knowledge of what that void is. So when I act out towards other people, you know, in love or hate, I find that in my work I connect with those feelings and if I can express that inwardly I can come out of the experience being able to express that better outwardly towards other people in my everyday interactions because I’m not letting myself go. I’m not letting go of what’s important to me and that way I can relate better to what’s important to other people as well as myself. I know that feeling that void is just being disorientated for myself and other people.
Is this disorientation something you deal with, or feel, or sense quite a bit even since that time where you re-found your art, or is it something that once you grasp hold of it you have it locked firmly in your grasp? Or is it something more of a struggle?
It’s always a struggle. I find myself losing grip often with keeping things in the right perspective with how I want to live my life. I find that to be a constant. It’s not something I necessarily dwell on, but I know it’s there. There’s times when I’m caught up with work or other people, and I lose sight of the art and then it will call. It will call to me - I need to paint. It seems when I get back to painting and producing I connect with myself and therefore connect better with other people. It’s not necessarily something I always have a hold on, but it’s always within my grasp.
What mediums do you work in when you travel? And why do you work in those?
I started out working in acrylics. They have opacity and the coverage is great. If you make a mistake you can paint over it. Another thing is, it dries quick, since it’s water based. It’s clean. Unlike watercolor you can paint over mistakes.

I had two experiences with acrylics that were disappointing. One time I was in a real dense fog in Kelly Island State Park in Ohio. I felt like I was capturing things, and it was going great, and the fog turned into a light mist, and the painting had nearly everything washed off the canvas. In Arizona a year or two later: the weather was perfect, the sun was shining, 85 degrees, but it was so dry the minute my brush hit the canvas the paint was gumming up, and I couldn’t work with the product. It didn’t matter how much water I put in it. I talked to some people about it and decided I would start using oils.

The first time I used oils was in New Mexico. I brought both acrylics and oils along and some canvases I had borrowed. They were pre-ground in raw sienna, and I started painting over these ground canvases with my acrylics and apparently they had been ground in oil because my paint was beading up. I took out the oil and started working and haven’t looked back since. There are other difficulties - dry time is always a factor and it’s messy. But I can work in snow, I can work in a light mist. It’s never failed on me.
Where do you see your art progressing? What are your ambitions for your art? What challenges are you facing now?
My art will go wherever I go. We travel not only through space but through time. I think sometimes the word ‘travel painter’ speaks of someone traveling through space, but we forget we’re also traveling through time and whether I’m stuck in the same place, if I’m stuck here, time is still moving on, and my painting will follow. I paint the river bottoms near my house, and I paint the people in my life and the experiences that document my place in time and not just my space where I’ve been and where I’ve occupied, but the moments I’ve occupied. I hope my art follows me through time. That’s the one thing that’s constant. My space is forever changing because time doesn’t allow it to stay the same, it doesn’t allow me to stay the same. Whether I’m stuck in a studio, I think I’ll always be a travel painter because it’s time and space. Here I am, here it is. Here it was. That’s it. Hopefully I can keep it honest to myself and not try to dictate to other people what my art should be.

If other people can see something in it that connects with them, that’s great, but I’m not trying do anything but carry it with me. Sometimes I carry my art with me, and sometimes it carries me. It’s my magic carpet. It takes me through time and I take it.

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