Friday, January 11, 2002
Tom E. Wilson captures the fantastic side of nature in library exhibit
A setting can profoundly affect a subject. Wildlife artist Tom E. Wilson serves as living proof. The Chelmsford freelance artist, with roots in Carlisle, combines his talent for drawing and love for the environment as a commercial illustrator.
"There is a lot of wildlife art out there that's photorealistic," he says. "You can't even tell if it's a photo or a painting." Wilson calls his style "more decorative than observational." Working in either watercolor or ink, he says he takes a "dreamy approach and exaggerates color." The mousy brown, faded green, and pale blues of nature translate into vibrant shades of mocha, emerald, and aqua. His fine brush strokes interweave the shades to lend them a mystical aura.
You can view Wilson's creative interpretations at "Nature Images," an exhibit at the Gleason Public Library. This show, the fourth in the library's Visual Arts Program, runs until March 2. The exhibit includes eight watercolor paintings and two ink drawings. Prices range from $200 to $1,000, with a portion directly benefiting the library.
On the banks of the bog
Wilson considers himself from Chelmsford although his parents lived in Carlisle when he was born. Soon afterward they moved to Chelmsford where Wilson has lived for over 30 years. Wilson still has links to Carlisle. His maternal grandparents, the Storers, lived at the end of Prospect Street for almost 40 years until the early 1980s. His Carlislean grandfather inspired and cultivated in him a love for the outdoors.
"I have strong connections with Carlisle, so it was nice that the Gleason provided the opportunity to show my stuff," says Wilson.
As a child, Wilson was always sketching and drawing. At the age of ten, he first visited the Cranberry Bog and has found it a major source of artistic inspiration ever since. He uses it as reference for native fauna and observing animals.
After Wilson graduated from Chelmsford High School, he went on to formally study art. In 1990, he earned a B.F.A. in visual communications from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore. On Wilson's return to Chelmsford, he began building a name for himself as an illustrator.
Making a career out of interests
The adjectives commercial and environmental don't go together too often but they apply to Wilson. His jobs as an illustrator vary widely from week to week and client to client. He does promotional prints for a variety of companies, and spot illustrations for environmental groups.
"It's a lot about self-promotion, and getting your stuff to editors," Wilson says, and added humbly, "It's a very competitive field, and there's a lot of great talent out there." In recent years, the illustration market has gone digital, and many graphics are computer-generated. Wilson calls himself a traditionalist and prefers to use watercolor paints and brushes.
Wilson spends about five hours a day working as a freelancer. He usually has a specific assignment, and rarely has time to just paint. He does research using personal observations, photos, videos, clippings, and the Internet. He'll then draw a rough composition. He makes a final pencil version and fills it in with watercolor or ink.
Wilson currently serves as a property steward in Chelmsford for the Cranberry Bog. He clears trails and oversees property use. He often visits the bog with a camera to capture ideas for future artwork. His home computer even has a photo of the bog as a screensaver.
"I remember Carlisle as being so rural," Wilson recalls. "You'd see a car go by every twenty minutes. It still is rural. Carlisle has been smart in checking growth, and I hope the town keeps that character."
Wilson also belongs to several watershed organizations where he does volunteer work, including water-level testing on the brook that feeds the bog. "It's drinking water for us [in Chelmsford] and it's habitat for all these critters," says Wilson who calls himself an "avid angler" and attributes his being a Scorpio, a water sign, as the source of his affinity to water. To round out his earnings as an artist and cover his time spent doing volunteer work, he works for a pool contractor in the summer.
Nature lover favors hunting
In his treks around Carlisle, Wilson has seen the number of animals increasing rapidly. "Prey density, like mice and squirrels, has really grown and brought in carnivores and predators," he says, "A lot of the old pastures have grown over and given critters a place to hang out."
Wilson points out that the numbers of beaver, coyote, and deer are larger now than they were 50 years ago. He notes these animals are skewing the natural balance with other creatures and foliage.
The artist supports hunting, and approves of limited trapping of beaver and muskrat. He adds, "I don't believe in hunting predators as a whole. They're too valuable and they don't reproduce and have litters like a beaver. An otter will have two or three, and some die so then there's only one. My interest in otters is that they are great indicators of a healthy ecosystem. Otter in the area means that you have good fish numbers and good habitat.
"A Disneyesque approach to animals doesn't help anybody," he concludes. "It doesn't help the animals, and creates a false impression for us. The lives of animals are brutal. When we remove ourselves from being hunters, we are the top-end predators, we remove ourselves from the circle of life. Of course, to be cruel or inhumane, there's no room for that. Man has a role to play as a predator, and that includes taking some animal lives."
Looking ahead to books
Wilson devotes his life to art and the environment. Nonetheless, he has other interests, the main one being a new wife. He married Kathleen Tennant of Chelmsford in October. She works in freight billing for a technology company. He also plays both the guitar and the harmonica. Wilson has a few pets at the moment, two tree frogs and one snake that he collected in the wild. Discussions with a local naturalist, Jan Conover, who moved from Carlisle last year, led to the exhibition at the Gleason.
"I don't see myself as a fine artist," Wilson admits. He hasn't exhibited since college, as he has had little time to devote to painting. He finds that works of this type require a lengthy commitment. For example, it took him a year to complete his most recent painting "Coyote Field."
Wilson points to his early influences as classic children's book illustrators. He loved fairy tale illustrations, and considers his style more akin to Tolkien literature than Harry Potter. He says, "That's what I'd really like to do -- illustrate books." Indeed, Wilson's slightly fantastic depictions of nature do seem straight out of children's literature. A passing librarian at the Gleason comments: "I'd say he's got a very good shot at it!" If a setting can influence a subject, Wilson definitely has his work in the right place.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito