Kevin Tolman, at work in his studio
Flutter/Outono, acrylic and mixed media on canvas,
72" x 72", Karah Ruhlen Gallery
Signpost featured artist of the month: Kevin Tolman
Having your heart in it
In a state populated with artists—part-time artists, dabbling
artists, would-be artists, and their entourage—Kevin Tolman
is the real thing. He makes his living at art, as he has done most
of his life, and is represented at the Albuquerque Museum, the State
Capitol, and a half dozen galleries. Since childhood, he has never
wanted to be anything but an artist, and for at least fifteen years
he has painted every day, six days a week, like a regular job.
Only it’s not a job to be an artist, exactly, in that there’s
no job description, no organizational flowchart, no billable hours.
To step into Tolman’s studio is to taste the nebulous activity
that occupies him from morning to night, in the absence of any guidelines.
Indeed, to be an artist full-time consists largely of writing those
guidelines for yourself every day.
The object, of course, is to create objects. But what is the goal?
For Tolman, it seems to be about refining the process of art-making
itself: noticing what interests him in the world and then “distilling”
it, as he puts it, onto canvas or paper. This is not the cliché
of “inspiration”—which hardly arrives at work
with his morning coffee—but the discipline to “constantly
turn the crank” in the act of painting, inspired or not.
His project, these days, is large canvases—three to six feet
per side—awash in earthy acrylics and layered with drips,
squiggles, dots, and scratches that reveal layers of painting underneath.
Warm, lively, and harmonious rather than frenetic or cerebral like
so much abstract expressionism, Tolman’s paintings are continuously
compelling: They draw you into looking over and over, edge to edge,
without ever being really knowable. Almost always, their source
turns out to be the close study of nature.
Again, this is not inspiration as we think of it—representing
nature’s beauty in a landscape (although he did start out
painting impressionistic landscapes)—but distilling that beauty
through the eyes, hands, and mind of a craftsman who seeks the essence
of a mark, like a Chinese calligrapher, to emerge effortless and
true. Tolman likes to tell the story of a dragonfly that flew into
his studio and preoccupied him for some time, leaving its influence
only in a cryptic squiggle across the top of a drawing. He is similarly
captivated by clouds, leaves, rocks, the way that nature wears on
“I try very hard not to think too much while I’m painting,”
he explains. Whether or not you see his squiggle as a bug’s
flight is of no consequence to him—Tolman paints for himself,
he says, in a private dialogue, a personal effort to arrive at forms
and relationships that satisfy him enough to stop.
Often this involves working on several pieces at a time in the
adobe home he built twenty years ago in the North Valley and has
since converted to a studio. Moving from one canvas to another helps
with detachment, he says, in “an elaborate improvisational
game” that alternates between the deliberate courting of chance—nature
in its constant unfolding—and periods of concentrated looking
and decision-making, layer upon layer.
Large canvases compete for wall space in his former living room,
while a shaded patio in back accommodates even larger canvases on
a permanent easel. In the bedroom, works on paper are stacked in
drawers under the bed; in the driveway, a vintage Pontiac Grand
Am with flat tires testifies to his origins in Motor City.
Born in 1949 in Detroit, where he graduated from the Art School
of the Society of Arts & Crafts, Tolman got the travel bug in
his late twenties—spending time in Ireland, Texas, Kansas,
and Los Angeles, usually as a result of a personal relationship
rather than career planning—before ending up at the Ramah
Navajo Reservation in New Mexico in 1981. He has since been to Portugal,
France, Italy, Spain, and Sweden, and looks to travel to recharge
his batteries with new impressions. The rest of the time, he makes
a home in Corrales with his wife, gallery owner Sara Smith, who
also represents him.
Slight and soft-spoken, calm and unassuming, Tolman is wary of
being quoted or posing for a photograph; he seems to prefer keeping
the focus on his art rather than risk misrepresentation by other
media. In a half-dozen artist’s statements written in as many
years, he states and restates, as in his paintings, what it means
to him to be an artist.
Art, one learns, is mostly about working—maintaining continuity,
sincerity, and focus from day to day and year to year. “If
you have heart in your work,” Tolman says, “you can’t
go wrong”—eventually it will resonate with the public.
But more important to the artist, what keeps him going is that there
isn’t anything in the world he would rather do.
“I paint because I am in awe of it all,” Tolman writes.
“I suppose making art is my way of celebrating, and explaining
to myself, what this incredible beauty and mystery all around me
is. … On a daily basis, never is this anything but interesting,
even at its worst. This is great fun.”