It seems to me that life is one big search party. We search for ourselves, our purpose, our loves…we discover who our friends and family really are. Growing up, no one ever tells us that most of the questions that we ask as youth are unanswerable using someone else’s words. As we all end up learning, we need to find these things for ourselves.
It should come as no surprise that as an artist I prefer imagery over words. I often struggle to unearth the right words to explain how I feel, which is especially evident right now during the tumultuous time that we find ourselves in. (And yet I start writing a blog *eyeroll*). Even answers to simple questions such as, What are you working on, When is your next exhibit, even How are you, have been escaping me. The creative professions, specifically the fine arts, are impacted differently than other fields of work when the world is turbulent.
What does an artist do to keep a positive vibe in their work when the world is burning, or during a bitter cold winter, or during a time of great personal struggle? Some artists turn to dark art, changing the direction of their work. That may work for some artists. But hello? Have you seen my work? I am Peter frickin’ Thaddeus, painter of vibrant artwork full of life, love, and pride. I see in color. How could I possibly turn this body of work into something as angry as the world that surrounds us? What does an artist with an upbeat artistic vibe do to protect against the darkness around us?
I think it’s physically impossible for me to create dark or angry art. Believe me, I’ve tried. The darkest I've gotten was a black and white (ish) series of paintings years back. What began as deep brooding paint strokes on canvas turned into a series of Old Hollywood celebrities like Hedy Lamar and Jean Harlow…from that fabulous photo shoot of her with the vase of what I believe were hydrangeas. Sure, they aren’t colorful like most of the work I’ve done otherwise, but they are far from “dark”. I love me some old movies. Silent horror is amazing. The visuals without knowing what is to come because there are no audible words—brilliance they probably didn’t even know they had. If I tried to paint these scenes they’d view more as “Young Frankenstein” than “Nosferatu”.
More recently than the Old Hollywood celebs, I've started using a rain motif in my work. I love the rain. Not at an outdoor art show of course, but I’ve had some of the best times in the rain. It’s also a sign of renewal and life. Once your hairdo is already ruined there’s really no sense in fretting, right? I use rain as an overlay in some of my work—imagery I really wanted to paint, but the rain adds one more element, one more challenge if you are predisposed to see it that way. That said, my rain motif is meant to be, and I think generally seen as an added element as opposed to something sad or dark. At least the way I paint it.
It’s my nature. I’m predisposed to the positive, whether I like it or not. Of course I don’t always feel happy. I can’t even count the number of times just this week that I wanted to throw in the towel. Or throw that towel at the wall, or out the window. Or wrap that towel around a rock, set it on fire, and throw it through said window. To be certain, these are tough emotional times for us creatives who spend our lives exploring our own expression in all times, good, bad, and otherwise, only to make the final product visible to a world that may or may not feel a connection to it.
With all of this swirling in my mind, I have to say that if I’ve been successful at anything in my 20+ years as a professional artist, it’s keeping my work bright, upbeat, and unique.
So what’s my secret? I have a few.
First, I have created my own world. I’ve done my best to create studio space that is another home…a creation station where I can block out the world for specific periods of time to focus on forming my visuals of expression and send them back out to the world as I rejoin it. During winter I spend long hours in the studio creating and planning. The short days never bother me, because my hours are so long I often never see the gloom of the outdoors (with the possible exception of a walk to and from the house, as my studio is on the second story of my detached garage). I store my vibrant collection of paintings partly on the walls of my house to keep my mood up when I'm there, and the rest I store in my studio…within eyeshot of the painting area. This distance is close enough to give me energy from the work, but far enough so as not to influence my next piece too much.
Influence. That’s a question I get quite often. What famous artist influenced me? Judging by the looks on the faces of folks who have posed that question over the years, I never seem to have an acceptable answer to it. There really isn’t an artist that my work is “influenced” by in terms of style. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the work of many artists, and can even sometimes find commonalities in other artists work when I think about it. I love the color-play of the Fauves, the simple brilliance of the art of Keith Haring, and the comic intrigue of Roy Lichtenstein, but I’ve never thought to spin off of any of their styles. I’ve always frowned on the idea of recreating others art (except during the learning process of course). This is part of me creating my own world. I would much rather craft something in my brand than model my collections after an artist already famous for their style. This has been the key to the uniqueness of my work. Even if it means I’m starting from scratch in getting the world to see and understand my work. I’d rather be authentically fresh in my approach.
What is another secret to keeping my work upbeat? Constantly being conscious of the difference between my input and my output…my input being how I feel, and my output being what the world sees. Just because I’m angry when I paint something doesn’t mean it will look angry. Often times my strongest emotions, when paired with a paintbrush, create a focused vision on canvas. My input changes as my mood shifts while creating a piece, and by the time I get towards the end, I’m more conscious of what that piece is portraying to the world (my output). What feeling or emotion is this output evoking? It varies from painting to painting, but most often I hear “happy”, “powerful”, “wow”, and the like. More recently I’ve gotten tears…from happiness or poignancy, either way, I still consider those “positive” tears. As I approach the point where a painting becomes more complete, I consider its output and decide whether I can imagine others feeling such feelings. If so, I continue to complete the piece as planned. I want my pieces to portray progress, both in style and substance. Jumping down a dark rabbit hole is not what Thaddeus Art progress looks like. I didn’t even like writing that sentence. Most of this thought process is second nature to me now.
Aside from all that, and maybe most importantly, I’m able to keep my artwork upbeat during the down times because I try everyday to surround myself (virtually or otherwise) with those people who make me feel that there is always room for more good in this world, the kind of good that is beautiful, that is healing, that is fun.
We may not ever get all the answers we seek and as barriers pop up along the way, every one seemingly worse than the next, it's worth reflecting and remembering just how we were ever able to see clearly in the first place. To me art is not only a snapshot of any given time, but it is a beacon, leading us to our next discovery.
“What inspires you?” Is a question I’m often asked, and I never seem to have the quick response that some people are looking for. It’s more complicated than saying “rainbows inspire me” or “queer people inspire me”. Those things may be true, but they come out sounding shallow and silly in comparison to what has actually inspired my art over time.
I started painting heavily around age 12. I’ve been “arting” for as long as I can remember, but I began painting seriously around age 12. I started with tropical themes, because I loved the beach and sunsets so so much. The colors of the sunsets, tropical flowers, lava, and the ocean are all vibrant and bright, so that’s the palette I used (and it stuck!). They were true to my subject, and besides, those colors made me happy, so why not? I used vacation photos and pictures from Hawaii calendars for images to work from. This was my main body of work from middle school and into high school.
The tropical theme was great and I've revisited it over the years, but I wanted to paint people. Not just any people, though. I wanted to depict the people that I wanted to depict (crazy for a teenager, right?!). I wasn’t very good at it, but that didn’t matter. The idea of painting certain people made me come alive. Let’s come back to this.
In my early high school drawing classes we didn’t draw the human form…it was mostly still-life’s and horses…ugh the horses. I learned to draw a horse skeleton before I had any formal training on drawing the human form (which I largely taught myself over time). At home I drew women. Many, many women. Women in dresses. Dresses with fringe and feathers. And those hats! Great Judy Garland did I love to design women’s clothing! I drew other things of course. Floor plans and renderings for houses, hotels, restaurants, entire islands…I loved to design EVERYTHING. I taught myself to draw many things, but painting…painting is different. It’s not only an advanced skill level but painting on canvas just felt more permanent. Something I’d have to show off. A canvas painting is too big to tuck away, I can’t just toss it in a sketchbook.
Back to people…there’s something about painting a person that inherently tells a story. It says a lot about the artist, as well as the subject. Ok, fashion…I loved that, but I also wanted to portray something more. Something more passionate, more raw, more (let’s face it, I was a teenager) sexual. I wanted to paint gay people. I didn’t know exactly how I would go about it at that point, but I wanted to. What’s something adjacent? Hmm, passionate, raw, sexual, AND something I can have out on a canvas for everyone to see... Ah yes. Marilyn Monroe. Classic. Not the skirt-blowing scene from “Seven Year Itch”, but shiny gold dress Marilyn (I did pencil drawings of her in many outfits but that shimmery gold dress was the winner).
It was during these painting exercises when I began to realize why gay people loved Marilyn, and Lucy, and Judy, and Liza, and Princess Diana, and all the divas so much. The stories they exuded through their iconic imagery alone was enough for me at the time. Their real stories were attractive too. They drew me in, so I drew them. Princess Di could be seen in situations from high fashion pageantry to physically embracing people dying of AIDS. That meant a lot. Both of those things. The imagery. All of it. And besides, I kinda had a crush on Prince William. I looked up to Lucy. She was an enormous talent, funny yet fashionable...amazing. I wanted to be like her but my own version. I didn't know of many publicly gay people at that time. Few queer celebrities for me to look up to, to paint, to model myself after. I did love Christine Jorgensen, as I had seen "The Christine Jorgensen Story" from 1970 several times. Her image made it to the idea board in my room, but I never portrayed her in art. Transgender is still under the rainbow umbrella, and I just wasn't ready to paint anything under that umbrella, as much as I wanted to.
I wanted my own brand of realness. If I couldn’t have it for real at that age and stage of my life, then I would paint it. So, I edged closer. I created a small 8 inch by 10 inch painting of two people headed in for a kiss…two men…silhouettes in the night. Surely no one would guess that they were two men, right? I mean, they are just silhouettes. The thing is, while I had an abundance of passion and drive, I was sorely lacking courage (I once rocked a Cowardly Lion costume...no acting needed!). After I took a good mental picture of the two men, I painted over one of them to make him look more feminine. There. It still has the meaning behind it for me, but no one will ever know. I didn't even sign this travesty of pride expression...I've always signed my pieces, even the ones I thought weren't great. Not this one.
Eventually we painted people in a high school painting class…a self-portrait. Great. Do I paint in the acne that is all over my face, or nah? I chose nah. I preferred the abstract Peter. I painted a version of myself with wild, super tall hair in red and blue color scheme. Abstract was better. Abstract allowed for the imagination to go wherever the visual journey takes it. My next foray into painting art including gay people was my “People of Color” series. You see, these were literally people of different colors…red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. They had triangle heads, and the whole idea was that they could be representing people who were black, white, brown, etc., but most importantly for me at the time, they could be any gender. I played with the masculinity/femininity of each character and would laugh to myself when people would refer to a specific person as a “man” or a “woman” when I had a different thought in mind while painting. They weren’t necessarily wrong…they just had a different vision of the character, than I did. In this way, I’ve learned a lot about people’s backgrounds and worldviews from exhibiting my artwork over the past 21 years. What one sees in a painting says as much about them as it does the piece they are looking at (I don’t judge though-I promise!).
Eventually I got me some courage. It took a while. I tiptoed into LGBTQ art with rainbows and other subtle imagery, but no longer. In the last 25 years since I began painting heavily, I’ve been passionate about beaches, and fashion, and architecture, and nature…it just makes sense that who I am, who my friends are, who my allies are, who my family is, would eventually find a way off of my inspiration board and onto canvases, and walls, and computer screens for everyone to see.
About 8 years ago I started volunteering for Youth Outlook, a local northern Illinois LGBTQ youth group. My teenage self had attended this group around the time I was painting beaches and figuring out how to paint two people who are gay, but only to a gay eye. I see the youth once a week, as a leader for one of our local drop-in sites. I created my Pride series because of them…because we tell them every week that they can be their authentic selves. In turn, they are a reminder for me to practice what I preach.
I haven’t changed all that much in the past 25 years…I’m still inspired by several items from the life buffet. I’ve always had a high art drive, and while I’ve honed my skills, and my knowledge and experience have expanded, on the inside I’m still inspired by many of the things I was as a teen. The difference as an adult is that I’ve fully embraced my community, which has helped to give me the courage to create authentically in a way I never could have before.
No one has time for this answer to the inspiration question at an art exhibit. For me, the answer is less of an individual flame and more of a smoldering ember that sparks my fire along the road. That takes time to explain authentically.
As an acrylic painter, I use my soft bristle brushes to tell a story of love and pride in vivid, contrasting colors and strong whimsical line work. I portray a love for life and the magnificent creations this world has to offer, and love of the diverse array of people that occupy our spaces and the relationships they enter into. In my work I celebrate pride in the communities we come from and live in, and pride in ourselves, embracing who we are in bold fashion.