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Interview with Thom Whalen

The Work Is Something Like a Mirror

John Paul Jaramillo

A few hours to sunset at artist Thom Whalen’s. A man who has evolved from the farm kid from Morrisonville, Illinois, to award winning community college professor, father and mentor at the pinnacle of a fine arts career in canvas, print-making and sculpture. This meeting is near his retirement from teaching and yet also at a beginning.

The walls around us are filled with some of his most intimate pieces, and I have so many questions on his aesthetic. He brings out some printouts and then his laptop to show me some of his past work, and I marvel at the craft and design. Sitting at the dining room table the walls around us are a calming green and he tells me about his process with a soft, gravelly voice, “I just work randomly. You know like free writing. These are all like free painting. Each one of my paintings or sculptures takes about two and a half to three months. It’s a monastic lifestyle. A labor of the fruit.”

Soon wife Jane sits to talk and snap green beans, and Thom tells me about his Catholic School and farm upbringing. As Thom puts it, “the Molotov cocktail” mixture of religion, Illinois agrarian, and American popular culture that was his youth.

Thom explains, “I was always different. Felt different but didn’t know why. I come from a farm community of 1200 people. Jane and I both. Just 40 miles from here. My mother was of Italian background. She was a Sunday painter. My oldest brother was the pride and joy of the family. My sister was a renegade. My next brother was a farmer—to this day a farmer. My father wasn’t a drinker but he would come home and say, ‘Woman, bring my dinner’ and then go to bed and shut everything down. My father would go to bed and we had one television and three channels and my mother would let me watch Creature Features.

“From an early age—fifth grade—I was aware of stuff like Watergate because of Mad Magazine and I would sketch and copy Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Not even knowing who they were. I would watch the news about Vietnam at the dinner table. Drag Queens weren’t crazy to me because of Klinger from M*A*S*H. And I knew what was going on because of Mad Magazine. I was just really into monsters and Alfred Hitchcock.”

As a kid, Thom continues, a nun told his mother he had talent and should get him in art classes.

He puts his hand to his face and tells me, “My mother and I were best buds. She was responsible for me. Took me out to museums. I started painting landscapes with an art teacher she got me and then I moved on to weirder and weirder subjects. I didn’t want to paint fucking landscapes. I wanted to paint what I saw in Mad Magazine, Rock comics or the Hairy Who. R Crumb and Zap Comix. Or what I saw on television. Mad Magazine, Cracked and magazines like that were responsible for my socio-cultural views and radicalism views on different races and politics and racism, you know. We had this pharmacy in town and I remember I bought magazines they stocked for me—Hit Parader, Zap Comix and Mad Magazine. Cracked Magazine, all that stuff. My mother would get me subscriptions for Christmas.”

He tells me, “Later when I started painting and drawing weird shit. Everyone was in awe. My mother and grandmother would say, people would say, ‘What are you on?’ and I would say, ‘Everything I’m on you gave me.’”

He explains to me the mix of reverential and theatrical contexts in what he calls the influence of “very low brow” humor and satire in his work. He tells me, “I don’t mean to make fun of religion. Just contemporize it. Like Mad Magazine or National Lampoon. And to this day I have the sense of hallowedness. My Granny would take me to Saturday Mass and I would marvel at the eye candy of the ceremony and the ritual then we’d watch roller derby, Hee Haw, Lawrence Welk, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

“His grandmother and her sister would sit around in their bras—black bras—in the summertime and play cards and smoke cigarettes, you know,” Jane says laughing. “Good Catholic family.”

Thom says, “Alter boys got out of school and five dollars. They would hire you for funerals. I could sling the incense. I was good at it. I liked music and the theatrical aspect of it. I could sling holy water with the best of them. Did you ever read John Grogan? The Longest Trip Home? It was my life. That’s basically how I grew up.”

He says, “In my home town growing up you had white Catholic and white Protestant and that’s it. So like I say I was always fascinated with the different.

“I’m in St Morris Catholic School and I remember Sister Joachim? teaching the fifth grade and she was in front of the oscillating fan and I said, ‘Sister, What’s the matter are you having a hot flash?’ and the nun … she took me out in the hall and beat the shit out of me. Called home and my mom she’s laughing as I’m explaining and the nun’s hitting me. All really confusing.” He laughs and says, “That’s where I come from.”

“I don’t do realism anymore,” Thom later says as he shows me a piece called Jesus, GTO’s and John Deere. The painting is of a car show hot rod with Jesus lounging in the passenger seat. “This is an old one. It was all about the hot rod apocalypse and bar codes and the Borgia Jesus all mashed together with Pikachu to bring us back down. Western versus non-Western culture. And the style,” he tells me, “is something for you to figure out. I mean, I don’t expect the watcher or the viewer to get it.”

About painting as a career, Thom says, “My brother is a doctor and was always trying to save me. Saying, ‘You have to do something with your life that’s worthwhile. You’re never going to make it as a musician or an artist.’”

“Never going to make any money,” Jane adds.

“My mother and father would listen to him,” Thom continues, “so I tried the medical illustration route. But I found out pretty quick I have a weak stomach. So I couldn’t do it. So then that’s when I said forget it. It’s all or nothing. I am just going to do this. If I have to work skinning cats or whatever I am just going to do that.”

Thom gives a quick lesson: “Two types of art work: one is rendering and one is mark-making. Rendering, or drawing like in the Italian Renaissance tradition, a closely observed drawing style like recreating something in a photograph. I can teach anyone to do that. Or there is—which is what I like—non-western, mark-making, more like Aztec or Mayan and New Guinean. Shit that had no rules but just had form, rhythm and pattern. This is where I’m at. This to me is fun. This to me is laborious. Breaking every rule you can iconically.”

In his garage between two Harley Davidsons, he shows me Before the Wall, a piece on his perspective on Mexico. “It’s my perspective on the beauty and lushness of Mexico. Soybeans here representing me as a farm kid and I really think of it as a theatrical piece. I just see the world and the work making all these associations. As many associations as I can. Adornments and jewels as beautiful as Mexico, I believe.”

In a back bedroom he shows me a painting from his time living and working in Arizona he titled The Flex. He says, “From when I was breaking away from realism. It’s like a Japanese tatami room. I lived in Arizona and couldn’t find a job back then. I didn’t know Arizona was a right to work state. I came from Seattle making good money and so the only job I could get was landscaping. In Arizona it’s like 120 degrees and I’m working with Hispanics who didn’t speak English and around saguaros and thought they looked like people as I shoveled rocks or whatever. And my boss would say, ‘What are you looking at, man?’ And the pattern is soybeans influenced from where I come from and I just animated a cactus. That’s a pretty one.”

HE SHOWS ME his latest work in progress and explains, “This one is titled Wormwood. Do you know the revelations story of the death star? It’s a star sent by God to destroy the world. I make the dialogue as I go in this one. This is a missionary part bionic and these demons are coming around him. This is a colon and they are squirming around and shitting on each other. All these freaks and no one can help one another. It means nothing other than it’s apocalyptic.”

He says about the piece, “I love black and white. They’re just tapestries. There is no focal point. I’ve heard from a lot of people and they tell me they best match my personality. I love the detailing. It’s a fetish.

“I bring it in to Jane and she’ll say, ‘Are you done here and here?’ and I’ll say, ‘Fuck!’

“I always work with oil. I shouldn’t paint that way. I should’ve been a tattoo artist. But this kind of stuff really drives me.

“One thing people tell me that really bothers me is when people say, ‘What drugs are you on?’ and I always say, ‘I know a lot of people on dope and they don’t make paintings.’ You can’t make this on drugs.”

Later he explains, “One of my biggest influences because I played music too and more than that I worked in record stores and everything so I was obsessed with Lou Reed. And more than the music it was the lyrics. I mean I was a Lou Reed freak. In fact, I have a painting called Statue of Bigotry inspired by Lou Reed’s song called “Dirty Blvd.” and the lyrics ‘give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em’. So my work was always a social reaction.”

OVER HIS living room couch is a work inspired by Lillian E. Smith’s 1944 book Strange Fruit, the book that inspired Billy Holiday’s classic song protesting racism and lynching of African Americans. Thom explains, “I thought about the subject of lynching so much it made me question the cosmos, the terrestrial and the celestial, where I come from, nature and just why did this shit have to happen.”

The work is oil on linen and depicts totems hanging from trees connected with broken red threads pulled over an Arcadian landscape by an immense ethereal bird.

He tells me, “When GI Joes came out with the life-like hair, you know. All the kids had them. In the whole town I had the only black GI Joe I think and I remember going over to a family friend’s with my Joe as a kid and the kids were like, ‘Let’s lynch’em!’ I had no idea what that was at that age.”

The canvas now belongs to his wife, Jane.

He says, “This work is all very private. I mean my empathy on the subject. Eventually I hope to become completely non-objective.” “With age,” Thom lingers and says, “and I’ll be 57 years old in a week, I hope it will be all about the beauty. And not the ugliness. Like music. Like something without lyrics. The work is something like a mirror.”

The images are used here with the artist’s permission. Visit his website.

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John Paul Jaramillo is the author of House of Order (stories) and a novel in stories, Little Mocos. A new novel, Carlos Montoya, will be published by Twelve Winters next year. He is Professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College.

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