Greenwich Art Society, Greenwich CT

A CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST TOM BRENNER

Shauna: First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us about our upcoming show, “Merriment, Magic and Music” at the YWCA and your role in judging

it. This is part of an on-going discussion about the challenges and joys of judging a show and, as with our earlier interview with Dede Young who judged our

Bendheim show, we’ll have a conversation before you adjudicate the show and after. It seems to me that there are as many ways to judge a show as there are judges, and I am very interested in the process. As you are both an artist and a teacher at the Greenwich Art Society Studio School, I am particularly interested in your point of view.
 
Let’s start with you and your art. I know a little bit about you from your faculty bio on our website: that you paint in a realistic style, work in graphic design, animation, illustration and package design. This strikes me as a wonderfully pragmatic approach that has kept you *employed as an artist. Not easy! Tell us about the artistic path you took that brought you to where you are now.
 
Tom: Well, I majored in fine art at Yale as an undergraduate. Realizing that I was going to have to take one of several paths to make it a viable career, I studied illustration at Art Center College of Design. The school is a rough equivalent to RISD and is located in Los Angeles. Very demanding. Shortly after finishing my studies there, I was invited by some friends to join a small animation studio in Cos Cob (and later in Stamford). I became a partner there. We did mainly commercials, openings for HBO etc. At a certain point, I was hired away by Guy Gilchrist, one of Jim Henson’s (of Muppets fame), art directors. He was just starting his own group of characters that were being used for toys, publishing and all sorts of things. I was his Senior Art Director and was with him for 6 years. I left him to becomea freelance illustrator. It was during the time I was working with Guy that I started teaching – the early 80’s. My first teaching was for Greenwich Art Society and Greenwich Continuing Education. I’ve been teaching at Silvermine for about 10 years and at various campuses of Gibbs College for 6 years. I have taught computer graphics, and right now I’m teaching fashion – Photoshop and Illustrator. I also teach Early Education Pedagogy. (teaching art teachers how to teach art to young children) at Housatonic Community College.
 
Shauna: What was it that initially interested you about commercial art?
 
Tom: The real reason I went out to California to study illustration was that the education I received at Yale, whichwas great, was not oriented toward realism which was what I was interested in. I wanted to continue as a fine artist in a

realistic style and needed rigorous training in a those techniques. Art Center College was the sort of place one had to go for that. I didn’t really have any idea where it would take me as a career choice. I was just honing my technique and

working on disciplined training. The animation studio found my skills to be perfect for what they had in mind that and launched me on the commercial part of my artistic life.
 
Shauna: Tell me a little about your fine art.
 
Tom: During my studies, I continued painting and drawing and did some serious traveling in India. I did a lot of drawing there. When I returned to the East Coast, I began showing through the art societies and within a year a so, started to do

some commissioned portraits. As I improved, I found some galleries that were interested in displaying my work. Right now I am still represented by galleries in Massachusetts, Westchester county, Bridgeport and Darien.
 
Shauna: What is it that attracts you about a realistic style?
 
Tom: To tell you the truth, my father got me interested in photography at a very early age. I was using a darkroom at age 7. A lot of my subject matter springs from the sort of stuff I shot even when I was very young, specifically people in urban settings. That’s a subject that can be handled in many styles but the artists that I always admired the most (Hopper, Degas, Vermeer) frequently dealt with that subject in a realistic style.I think I gravitated towards them because they have a very strong relationship with light and dark which obviously is a central concern in black & white photography.
 
Shauna: Do you like other styles of art?
 
Tom: YEAH! Absolutely! I get annoyed when people dismiss a work as ‘just the emperor’s new clothes”. Say, like an all white painting or whatever. I look at it and, even though it isn’t the sort of thing I paint, I find myself interested in the surface technique, the subject matter – whatever is intriguing about the piece. A lot of people dismiss realism and that annoys me, too. Narrow mindedness doesn’t have a place in art. Many of the same issues are at play regardless of style or medium.
 
Shauna: Are there particular issues that interest you more than others?
 
Tom: Yes, but they are so broad it sounds ridiculous. I love color. Surface quality is very important to me. That’s why I often work in pastel. Balance too, a vague term but I would think most people know what I mean by it 

Shauna: You told me before that you have judged about a half dozen shows before. What did you find challenging, interesting, fun, about judging those shows?
 
Tom: Well, it’s challenging in that you have to strike a balance between using your own criteria and being broad-minded enough to embrace styles that you don’t personally relate to. In my teaching, I often ask students to bring in paintings that they don’t like in order to look at, and learn from, them. It’s amazing how much that process opens the mind. As for fun, I take the process of judging artwork seriously. Fun may not be the right word. Sometimes it’s actually not fun. Sometimes you come up with 3 pieces to which you want to award first place. But you can’t do that and must decide. I don’t like that part. As a teacher, I really emphasize constructive encouragement. I am painfully aware that in judging a show there are many people who will not be rewarded, and I never want to do something that could potentially discourage anyone.
In developing the course about teaching art to children, I became very aware of my own personal philosophy: You draw out more through encouragement and nurturing than through harsh criticism. I’ve had many tough times with art directors. There are many people out there who are just negative, and I know what dealing with them did to me. I like to go for the positive. So, I love giving first places! I just don’t love not giving them. But, the job is to try to reward “the best” -- and you just do it.
 
Shauna: What would you say are your criteria?
 
Tom: Purely formal issues such as the manipulation of color, the compositional balance, the draftsmanship, technical skill. That is one component. Another is expressiveness. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are not always inextricably linked. But if it is neither expressive nor skillful, you might be on the verge of losing me a little bit.
 
Shauna: How do you go about it?
 
Tom: Most shows have 5 to 6 categories and it’s generally not that difficult to select the 6 to 8 standout pieces from each category. That said, I always take a second look at the ones that I initially excluded to see if I missed something. Then I winnow them down based on which ones succeed the most. “Which ones succeed the most” could be a whole book but, as I said before, I generally look at artistic skill and expression.
 
Shauna: Any advice to Greenwich Art Society artists about entering their work in a show?
 
Tom: I think people should just put in their best work and go with it. You can’t second guess what the judge will do. Your time is better spent working on your own art than trying to figure out what this or that judge is going to think. I once had a piece that received best in show in one show and in the next it wasn’t accepted at all. Go figure. All I can say is, as a judge, I don’t let anyone know what my license plate is!
 
Shauna: Good advice, especially that last part! Thanks for your time, and I look forward to our next interview and hearing about how judging our spring show actually rolled out.

 

Tom Brenner Painting
Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Apples & Pears

by Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Cows in Burgundy

by Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Morning Shift

by Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Silent Moment

by Tom Brenner

 

 

 

 

 
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