Tom Flanagan never thought being an artist was possible. Now he’s living his dream as a working artist in Maine
There are certain things that stand out about our Wicker Park art gallery. One is the lively neighborhood in which it’s located. It’s never quiet on North Ave, which is one of our favorite things about it. Another is our long roster of artists, allowing us to offer work in a range of price points. Finally our huge windows. They let in a flood of light at all hours and they attract pedestrians with what they reveal. And in our “Momentum” exhibit, it is the acrylic paintings of Tom Flanagan that are the siren song of Springboard Arts Chicago.
Flanagan came to the arts at a young age. Growing up in Pittsburgh, he realized he had a talent few of his peers shared.
“As a child I learned that I could do something other people around me couldn’t…draw. It kind of set me apart and tuned me into the world without knowing it,” he said. “I still consider the concepts of drawing to be the most important way to develop my work.”
He knew he wanted to be an artist, but he still wasn’t convinced it was possible in the real world.
“I never thought being an artist was something someone can actually do,” he said. “It was more like a dream life to me.”
That feeling didn’t last long.
“After college and graduate school I saw being an artist as a calling,” he said. “I was going to do it without regard to career or a concept like success. Some things never change.”
A career in the arts
Flanagan now lives and paints in Maine. For the last several years he has worked in a 19th century mill that has tall ceilings and big windows that face a river.
“The mill is filled with other painters, sculptors and artisans. It’s beautiful and I’m very lucky to be there,” he said. “I have come to think about my work like that river, always moving and changing and sometimes in powerful ways.”
Flanagan said it’s hard to explain where inspiration comes from, but that doesn’t mean he’s ever stumped for things to create.
“I don’t really wait for inspiration,” he said. “When it happens it often comes from something that happens in the studio that surprises me.”
“I try to stay open to what’s next,” he continued. “But if I were to pick [what inspires me] it might be sound, movement, nature, quiet and of course other people’s work that I admire.”
Flanagan works on one piece at a time.
“The only thing I choose before I start a new piece is the size of the canvas,” he said. “I rely on my sensibilities and follow where the work takes me.”
With this improvisational approach, it’s no surprise that music is important to how he works.
“I’m thinking about sound and movement more and how both of those things would look if they had physicality,” he said. “It’s sort of like trying to catch something that can’t be caught.”
Art is a calling
Flanagan said making interesting work that others enjoy is the greatest challenge he faces as an artist, but it’s not a challenge he can’t overcome.
“Sure, I want to show my work, have it written about and sell it, but when I’m working on a piece – all that goes away, he said. “It’s the one time I’m most comfortable with myself.”
“I often think ‘why am I doing this?’” he continued. “I always come back to the same answer. I don’t have a choice. It’s why I’m here.”