A Call to the Curious

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23 August 2010

A Question and Answer with Tom Laukkanen

The following is an interview between David Frank and Tom Laukkanen covering Tom's seven week solo trip to New Zealand January/February 2010. This was his first trip overseas.

Photo taken at Albert Park in Auckland, NZ

I want to start with something you said in your last interview. You said that, “There’s times when I’m caught up with work or other people and I lose sight of the art and it will call. It will call to me, ‘I need to paint.’” Before this trip was there a call, and if there was a call, what was it?

Before the trip the call had been there on a nightly basis beckoning me to not necessarily travel or go to New Zealand, or to paint, but to do something. It was not subtle. It was something inside that needed to be answered. I guess, it’s almost a question of your own happiness and your own sanity. What’s going to happen if you live in this world that is upon you by refusing the call? It’s something that can motivate and drive you and eventually you have to answer it, or you will go insane. What keeps your sanity through the whole thing is using it as motivation. Doing the 9 to 5 has value because it gets you to the point to take that trip or answer that call, whatever it may be. The mundane becomes a lot more gratifying when you know it’s going to something that is actually going to bring you happiness and take you into the unknown and unexplored.

How did you settle on New Zealand as your destination?

I don’t know why, but I had a fair amount of anxiety about traveling solo overseas.

I chose New Zealand for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s stunningly beautiful. Secondly, because of my lack of travel experience, I didn’t think that thrusting myself into a third world country was appropriate for me and I thought NZ would be a good place to start, safe yet still provide me with challenges I’m not used to. Lastly, I chose NZ because it so damn cold in Minnesota during the winter.

Your previous travel to this trip had been to different regions within the U.S. and Canada. Now you’ve gone to someplace completely foreign and outside this range. What were the major differences for you?

I found out quickly that the anxiety over traveling abroad was over nothing. There weren’t what I would call major differences between NZ and anywhere I’ve been. Culturally, they are pretty similar. The main difference for me was being alone for seven weeks with nobody to answer to except myself, it’s a really freeing experience.

Was there anything in New Zealand that surprised you, that you weren’t expecting, that left you baffled or stunned?

Honestly, the surprise of some people, from the local people, that someone was out there painting. They didn’t seem to have a lot of people that painted from life. I know it’s been done there, but they seemed pleasantly surprised. They’re interested in you, especially when they find out you’re foreign, and some would ask, “How come you’re here painting my country?” Of course, the landscape itself was very stunning.

The thing however that stunned me the most was the hospitality of all the people I stayed with, got rides from, and helped me along my way. They’re guidance and companionship is something that will live with me forever.

Photo of my friend Andrew and me

What gear did you bring? In terms of painting supplies what was your kit?

My usual case will carry an 18” x 24” canvas and I was intent on bringing it but at the last minute, a couple days before my trip, I decided to buy a smaller case. I was sure I couldn’t carry it on the plane, it’s made of metal and heavy, and I didn’t want to carry it the whole time. So I bought a lighter case that would still encompass a 16” x 20” and a 14” x 18” canvas.

I had my oils. I didn’t carry any turpentine, I bought that while I was in New Zealand. And I brought a small easel. I bought a camping cutting board and carved my palette from that, that way it fit in my case carrying my paints. Other than that, a few brushes and a roll of canvas.

How did your first painting come about?

I got my first painting done while I was in Rotorua.

Rotorua is a city?

Yeah, it’s a city in the center of the North Island with hot springs and geysers and smelled of sulfur. It was really kind of touristy and expensive. It was worth checking out, but I wouldn’t have felt bad to bypass it.

My first painting was at a place called Champagne Pool. There was a bunch of steam coming off this pool and some crazy colors, something I’ve never attempted to paint and I figured let's just try it. It was really...not my favorite place in the world, but it was an exciting part of the trip because I was getting my first painting done, in a new environment, doing it in a big crowd of people, which can get inside my head and make me nervous sometimes.

Were you happy with your first painting in Rotorua?

Technically, I wasn’t impressed with the painting, but doing it is a feeling I’ll remember. I’m happy with every painting. There’s a feeling of numbness and exhaustion, yet elation. I’m sure if you set off to run a marathon, you put a lot of preparation into it, similar to painting, there’s some preparation whether its scouting or getting your breathing right and the act of doing it. There’s an exhaustion and numbness at the same time. It’s not a precise feeling, just a good overall feeling.

After you finished?

Yeah, whether the painting's bad or good, you’re pleased overall and not with the painting specifically but with the process you’ve undertook. A painting is special not because the way it turned out, but because of the experience. The experience dictates the feeling much more than the technical success or failure of a painting.

Did you end up looking for certain things to paint? Did you develop any sort of pattern with your painting?

For the most part I look for things I enjoy. At the same time, in the back of my mind I think I have to capture this in the best way possible and it might not be what I’m comfortable with. I did plenty of what I’m comfortable with to no regret. Landscapes inspire me by the natural beauty without obstruction of man-made things. At the same time, there are different people, different things. In New Zealand there are boats everywhere, and I didn’t paint a single boat. I wish I would have. I’m constantly trying to push the envelope for what I’m comfortable with, and sometimes I do it and sometimes I don’t. If I just stay with what I’m comfortable with it starts to get boring and becomes less of a challenge. If I can let go of myself in situations where it’s crowded or someone is really annoying or obnoxious then I have control of myself. It’s something I work on wherever I go and doesn’t matter if I’m home or away. It’s taking small steps forward to allow yourself to change but not feeling a need to rush. I take it as I want, in whatever increments I want, without feeling badly about it or any pressure.

Do you have plans on a gallery to showcase your work on this trip or previous travels?

Yes, since 2004 I’ve been painting in the U.S. and I don’t know if it will include my experience in New Zealand, or if it will be from the era of experience traveling in the U.S. I plan on doing it outside of the industry, which will probably involve renting my own space and having my own show.

Are you interested in selling your work?

Not at the moment. Painting for me is just a way of documenting my experiences, which are much more rich and full than any one painting by itself. I feel it’s important for me to keep my work together to illustrate this bigger picture, one’s life experience.

Do you have short-term plans to show your work?

I’d like to have a show, but where? I’ve shown my work in coffeehouses and libraries and other venues that are unjuried and I appreciate that. The only problem is that the reason for one being there is to get coffee, or check out a book, or deposit money in a bank and the artwork there is secondary. For the time being I don’t know where this is going. I’m a novice at this, and my feelings are subject to change, but right now I feel like the industry is turning artists into craftspeople. I want to find a different venue that says the expression is free, a place where the art is there to impact the viewer not in the sense of its monetary value but in terms of shared experience and where art is the primary reason people are there. That’s why I’m here on this blog.

What is it you’re striving towards with your painting?

To be at one with myself, to be at one with the world, and to let go of fear and desire and really be a part of myself, society, the world, the universe. To be active and to be involved.

During one painting a lady came up to me, and I’m not having an easy time painting, between comments from people walking by and the amount of people, and she said, “You’re a painter.” I said, “Yeah, although I’m struggling at the moment.” And she replied, “That really isn’t the point, is it? You’re out here, aren’t you?” She really hit the nail on the head. It isn’t the point. As long as I know I’m a struggling painter, I can let go of myself. I can embrace the struggle. It’s universal.

What plans for future travel do you have, whether specific or not specific? What are your plans for travel painting?

Being away I met so many people from so many different places and I’m so fresh from being back from my trip, I want to go to everyplace on the planet at once. I know that’s not logical, but travel’s definitely in my future and it’s something I’ve just accepted as being a part of my life. I want to progress towards things that are more difficult than New Zealand, things that are less comfortable for me, and things that will push me in a direction headed towards the unknown where I’m forced to rely more on my instincts and less on external pressures.

As far as my painting goes, I’ll do it until I don’t enjoy it anymore.

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