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Visiting Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum as a student, I discovered a small painting on wood panel by Francesco Pesellino, dated 1445. I was immediately attracted to Pesellino’s imagery of workers constructing a temple, a subject that appeared almost secular, which is an anomaly for early Italian painting. I determined to emulate Pesellino and other Trecento (14th-century) painters, as a way to reimagine contemporary life in my own work.

Francesco Pesellino (1445)

Construction of the Temple of Jerusalem

Tempera on Panel

For the next few years, my earliest paintings eschewed traditional perspective and scale, relying instead on flat planes of color and simple forms to portray modern subjects, including scenes of construction and building. Only in hindsight do I realize this was a way to integrate the internal struggle I experienced as a young artist: to pay homage to the utilitarian culture that provided my family’s livelihood, while leaving that culture behind because the pursuit of art was unheard of.

Construction III

42" x 78" 

Oil on Canvas

1982

However, after decades of exploring a full spectrum of painting, I’ve come to understand that the act of building in some form is linked to my desire to create. I was raised in a family of skilled craftsmen, mechanics, and fabricators, and my painting process incorporates an acknowledgement of this tradition of practical labor and functional application, recognizing it as an important element of self-expression.


For this reason, I’m most engaged when construction is either incorporated into the painting process or when I’m designing the environment in which the paintings are ultimately displayed. Working at the intersection of painting, collage, and relief sculpture, I don’t believe that the literal building of the pieces can be separated from the “loftier” endeavor of painting; rather, I believe that process is content.


Painting is how I communicate on a sensuous plane in order to share a visual experience. It’s a way to invite the viewer to see and feel what I see and feel, even if it’s a single passage in the work. It might be something as simple as how a brushstroke fragment, when juxtaposed with a solid color, collides in opposing energies, or how two accidental forms “rhyme” and connote a third when placed in proximity. In some pieces, I alternately compress the painting’s visual space to its surface and expand that surface to three dimensions, holding the picture planes in check through relationships of color, gestural marks, and transparency.


I also describe abstracted experiences from my environment. A cityscape is implied when flowing lines and forms are suddenly interrupted by the hard edge of a saw-cut panel, or when a slice of color is wedged between two planes layered with graffiti-like marks, suggesting the view between urban towers.

I construct my pieces by applying paint to large plywood sheets that are cut into workable-sized panels. To begin a piece, I arrange the various painted panels on the floor as a collage and continue cutting them as the painting progresses; any valuable scrap is recycled for future work. The loose components are assembled in a shop and returned to the studio, as an object with its own gravity, occupying a different visual space than a painting on canvas. Because of the assembled surfaces, a portion of the painting’s spatial illusion is transformed into a tactile three-dimensional form.


Although I continue to paint on the pieces after they are assembled, I experience some sense of completion – and even reward – the moment they arrive from the shop. It’s a fulfillment of that primary need to build as well as communicate through painting, the content realized through its fabricated form.


T.S.