By Gussie Fauntleroy
How Tom Lockhart’s art career finally found fruition in the same Colorado town where he grew up
Tom Lockhart likes to say he came to landscape painting through the back door. No wonder, when all the front doors he tried seemed stuck. First he failed at high-school art. In college he turned to music, but his rock ’n’ roll dream soon dissolved. He considered, then rejected, a career in teaching. A professor steered him back toward art, but the painting courses he took seemed aimed at funneling him into the then-hip world of abstract expressionism—in his case, toward a nonobjective style with the memorable moniker of Slimonism, named after the professor who espoused it—and this did not suit Lockhart’s more representational aspirations.
Meanwhile, he found back doors that beckoned, opening easily and leading to other ways of expressing himself with paint. These eventually converged in the sunny front room of a successful art career that’s now dedicated to award-winning landscapes in oil, watercolor, and pastel.
Here’s how it all played out: Lockhart grew up in the farming community of Monte Vista in southern Colorado’s unspoiled San Luis Valley. At age 9 he tried his hand at oil painting with a kit from the Montgomery Ward catalog. Next step: a teacher, a silver-haired lady with a painting class whose other members were all adults. In junior high and high school, she encouraged Lockhart’s artistic talent—until his sophomore year, when she left and was replaced by another silver-haired lady, much less supportive than the first. One day early in the school year with this new teacher, Lockhart decided her empty office was a good place for a private moment with his girlfriend. “I looked up at the wall and saw a painting by the art teacher, and it was terrible! I knew at that point she did not know how to teach art,” he recalls.
“After that I constantly butted heads with her. I became a challenge to her, and I flunked art.”
Another art event during high school left a more positive impression. The principal, a farsighted man, arranged a day trip to Taos, NM, for all the art students. Paintings by Nicolai Fechin, Ramon Froman, and other Taos School artists opened Lockhart’s eyes to what representational painting could be. This visit planted a seed that remained with him for years. “Because of that trip, even in college I could still imagine myself in a gallery in Taos someday,” he recounts.
His path would take some turns, however, before that day was to come. One night, sitting in a bar near Emporia State University in Kansas, Lockhart was commiserating with a graduate student who found teaching junior-high art so depressing he couldn’t muster the energy for his own artwork. Pondering such a fate for himself, Lockhart thought hard about a piece of advice offered by his despondent friend. “Your family owns a business,” the grad student reminded him. “Why not go back home, work with your dad, and teach yourself to paint?”
Lockhart did just that. For 10 years he worked at his family’s retail furniture business in Monte Vista, spending evenings and weekends studying art books. Later he took workshops with artists such as Ted Goerschner, Ray Vinella, Skip Whitcomb, and Clyde Aspevig. After one of his first plein-air workshops 12 miles up a canyon from Sedona, AZ, Lockhart loaded up his gear and then realized he’d locked his keys in his trunk. With no money to pay the locksmith who drove up the canyon to retrieve his keys, Lockhart pulled out what he considered his first successful plein-air piece and proposed a trade. “Are you gonna be famous someday?” the locksmith asked. “I hope so,” the artist replied. The deal was done. “That was really the thing that kicked me into gear,” Lockhart remembers. “I got home and worked and worked.”
After that back-door sale, the artist’s final important doorway turned out to be the front door of his father’s furniture store, which Lockhart turned into a surprise entry into the art world. He became president of a local artists’ group, then began organizing annual art shows in the store: The concept was that paintings could be viewed there in a home-like setting among the furniture. Art sales soared. The show grew each year, and regionally renowned painters were brought in as judges.
Finally, in 1984, Lockhart held his own first one-artist show. Featuring 65 of his acrylic and watercolor paintings, it sold out on opening night. When his success was repeated the following year, his father called him into his office the next morning, handed Lockhart his final paycheck, and resigned himself to the fact that he’d lost a good employee.
Now 52, the warm and affable artist owns La Casa de Luz, a gallery and studio in his landmark 113-year-old home on Monte Vista’s Main Street. Converted to California mission style in a 1930s renovation, the home stands out with its thick white walls, red tile roof, and wrought iron. Large north-facing windows light the artist’s easel and oil-based palette in the main studio and gallery. His separate watercolor and pastel studio upstairs has equally good north light.
Yes, two studios and three mediums (plus occasional work in acrylics), employed with equal levels of proficiency. This versatility is the result of years of honing his skills and feeling out his artistic voice. He also trained himself to excel in wildlife art, earning best of show for birds of prey at the 1993 National Ducks Unlimited show. In the past few years he’s narrowed his focus, giving most of his attention to oils. A signature member of Oil Painters of America, Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the Northwest Rendezvous, he continues to win recognition. Recent awards include the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters Award of Excellence and Oil Painters of America Award of Excellence, both in 2005.
Lockhart’s subject of choice these days is the landscape, which is one reason his hometown still suits him well. Sitting at the edge of an expansive, largely unpopulated, high-altitude valley, Monte Vista is a jumping-off point for some of the most paintable places in the West. On many days the artist packs up his paints and camera to head for the nearby San Juan Mountains, or to venture south into northern New Mexico, or west to the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley. Closer in are aging farmhouses and quiet rural scenes.
In Lockhart’s paintings of the latter, the old clapboard houses remind us of an earlier time and speak of the coexistence between nature and man. “Those old houses that were part of our heritage are almost extinct,” Lockhart points out. “That’s one reason I paint: I feel almost a personal responsibility to give people images of what I hold dear in my heart.”
One of Lockhart’s favorite seasons—visually, at least—is winter, with its drama of icy sunlight and shadows on snow. january morning depicts an area near Monte Vista where irrigation ditches generate mist on a frigid dawn. On days when the strong Southwest sun takes a break, Lockhart delights in painting under a semi-overcast sky. “I like that feeling, and there are very few days like that,” he says. “The values are different, and rather than reflected color, there’s more saturated color. It gives you completely different challenges to work with.”
Other, less agreeable challenges have reared up on Lockhart’s path in recent years. In the late 1990s he found himself allergic to solvents and had to clear his studio of turpentine and petroleum distillates. In 2001 he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Surgery followed, for the cancer and then for knee and ankle problems. “It slowed me down,” the prolific painter acknowledges, “but it didn’t stop me.” Through each health challenge he continued to paint and earn awards for his work. Meanwhile his wife, Sandi, helps run the business. “She’s been my support system all along,” says Lockhart.
Then came the day last September when he was in his garage reaching for the furnace pilot light. The stepladder slipped and Lockhart fell, seriously injuring his shoulder. The surgeon told him his rotator cuff appeared to have been injured years before, but the artist had been unaware of it. This time, painting had to stop. With his right arm in a harness for several months, he experimented with using his other hand to paint, which kept him from going stir-crazy during the long, unplanned time off. Throughout the winter and into the spring he’ll be in physical therapy.
Then, if all goes well, Lockhart will pack up his paints on a summer day and head out with no thought but for nature’s gifts. “It’s all out there in front of you,” he declares. “Painting from life has lifted my soul to another level, and I’m constantly yearning to get out there and paint.”
Lockhart is represented by La Casa de Luz Gallery, Monte Vista, CO; Wild Horse Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO; Cogswell Gallery, Vail, CO; The Squash Blossom, Colorado Springs, CO; Wild Spirit Gallery, Pagosa Springs, CO; Elk Horn Gallery, Winter Park, CO; Birdsnest Gallery, Bar Harbor, ME; and www.lockhartfineart.com.
Featured in February 2006