A colorist with an unbounded love for the land, abstract artist Tom Hlas finds inspiration in the rural surroundings of Northwestern Connecticut, as well as in the memories of the Iowa farmland where he was raised.
You might say artist Tom Hlas has come back to the land. He was born and raised in a small rural town in Iowa, where he was the eighth of ten siblings. He took up residence in big cities like Miami and Philadelphia, and his journey continued as he moved to Maryland to study drawing and painting, before finally coming to rural Connecticut, where he has settled in Norfolk.
His path from the farm landscapes of his childhood to the countryside of the Northwest Corner was not a direct one. Along the way, he picked up a Bachelor’s degree in Vocal Music and did postgraduate studies in Philosophy and Theology. He worked in marketing, graphic design, and art reproduction; and was awarded two month-long artist residencies in Vermont. This circuitous route has led him to a place he now calls home, a place that brings success, recognition, and contentment.
Tom has been painting full time for about ten years, but he was always creating art. Since the age of four, he knew he wanted to be an artist. The wide open skies and the patchwork designs of the Iowa farmland from his childhood years can be seen as an integral part of his paintings.
Tom Hlas creates vibrant abstract paintings that reflect his world with a rich boldness in both color and composition, and it has a resonance that is universal. He says his art is informed by his memories and currant thoughts, as well as by “being inspired by the colors and sights around me, especially the ever-changing sky and rural landscapes. I refer to my paintings as a geography of the heart and mind.”
His paintings are about balance, color, shape and movement. A sense of place is what one feels looking at Tom’s art. It draws you in and tugs at your heart. And one can’t help but notice a recurring element in much of Tom’s work: the circle. It appears in many shapes and sizes, in subtle forms as well as through repetition and pattern. “The circle is a primal mark denoting creation, infinity, unity, and wholeness with its sacredness and sensuality,” says Tom.
It’s worth noting, however, that living in the Connecticut countryside has had an impact on Tom’s work. On his blog, he says, “As I look back at the art I’ve created the last couple months, I’ve noticed that while my use of circles has continued, squares and rectangles have appeared in a strong way.” He also points out that his paintings are not depictions of actual locations. “Rather my intent is to create spaces and places where the mind can travel, where one can daydream, where one can mentally rest and enjoy a sense of belonging and a sense of being at home.”
Recently, Tom had an exhibition at the Norfolk Library. Out of thirty pieces, about half were sold. We had a chance to speak with Tom about his work and process.
How did you become interested in art?
Tom: As far as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in art. One of my earliest memories took place when I was about four years old. I was playing on my parents’ bed and my older sister was in the bedroom ironing clothes. She asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied I wanted to be an artist. She said, “You won’t make any money!” But that didn’t stop me! I remember watching the Jon Gnagy show on television and following his along using large sheets of paper as he taught that anyone could draw using the four simple shapes of a ball, cylinder, cube and cone. Imagine my delight when, as a small boy, I received an official Jon Gnagy “Learn to Draw” Kit from Santa Claus! In hindsight, I see that gift as a huge vote of confidence from those most important to me.
Are any of your siblings interested in art? And what role did you have in such a large family?
Tom: Both my mother and the younger of my two sisters loved to draw and were quite good at it. It was an activity they just did, rather than pursue. I grew up the eighth of ten children. My role, as I see it now, was a peacemaker. I always wanted people to get along. That is as true now, as it was growing up.
Tell us about your Czech heritage. Has being Czech
influence your work?
Tom: I grew up in a very ethnic Czech extended family. Daily life was marked by the foods, music and traditions of my ancestors even though we were a second and third generation immigrant family, my parents and elders held on tightly to the Czech language and a proud heritage. We were a farm family. Everyone my family knew or socialized with were farmers. My family totally identified with being “Bohemian”. That heritage ran through our veins in every aspect of life. It was years later that I realized that Bohemians came from an area (Bohemia) that is now a part of the Czech Republic. I can no more separate myself from my ethnic heritage than a fish can from water. My heritage may not always show up visually in my work, although sometimes I use Czech words as a graphic element, but childhood memories, boyhood daydreams and the Iowa farmland with its big, open skies are a huge source of inspiration.
You have a degree in Vocal Music. Do you still sing?
Tom: When I went to college, I thought I would double major in both art and music. But those two majors are very time consuming with studio hours and requirements. In the end, I decided to focus solely on my degree in vocal music. For years and years I was involved in liturgical music both as performer and choir director. But my life has moved in a different direction and I no longer sing publicly.
You create small works on paper that are 6×4 or 7×5 inches. Apart from the difference in size, how do you approach these small pieces in comparison to your paintings? Are they sketches for larger pieces?
Tom: I do not use my small works as sketches for larger paintings. In fact, I never create sketches for my paintings. I approach my small works as I do any sized painting and they are works unto themselves. In fact, often times a small work will take longer to create than larger works due to their diminutive size.
My style of painting is responsive and intuitive. Once I determine a painting’s finished size, I lay down a layer (or multiple layers) of paint to cover the substrate whether it be canvas, wood panel or paper. Then in a organic, spontaneous manner, I work and develop the painting without any prior sense of what it will look like in the end. I primarily create mixed media paintings using acrylic paint, graphic pencil, torn painted paper and fabric. My creative process is a give and take dance or exploration. I place a single stroke or element onto the painting and then react to that placement with a responding element, always keeping in mind the balance, color, shape and movement within the painting.
Who are some of your favorite abstract artists and
Tom: As far as the famous artists of yesteryear, I find inspiration in the paper cut-outs of Henry Matisse, the color field paintings of Mark Rothko, the way John Singer Sargent handles paint, the mixed media work of Robert Rauschenberg and the vibrancy of Joan Mitchell’s paintings as well as her print work. But I find perhaps even more inspiration in many, many contemporary painters and print makers who are working today.
How long have you been living in the Northwest Corner and what brought you to the area?
Tom: My partner, Paul, and I moved to Norfolk, CT in October, 2012. Paul was born and raised in Connecticut and we’ve had a small cottage in NW Connecticut for several years. So it seemed like a logical move after living in large cities for over 25 years.
How has living in rural Connecticut influenced your work?
Tom: I find living in rural Connecticut totally inspiring. I would have never guessed it. But moving to a rural area has awakened memories of growing up in rural Iowa. Since moving to NW Connecticut, abstract rural landscapes, often depicted from what seems like an aerial view, have crept into my work.
Are you represented by a gallery?
Tom: I am not represented currently by a gallery. The last three galleries that represented me (through no fault of my own!) have gone out of business. The art market has changed drastically, as have many other business markets, since 2008. Many, many galleries have closed across the country. I guess it’s a sign of the times. But I haven’t lost heart and hope to be represented by galleries soon. My web sites show many of my works. One can’t buy my original paintings directly online, but some of my small print reproductions of works on paper are sold online.
How do you spend your day? Do you paint for a certain amount of hours every day or is it more fluid?
Tom: My work day is very fluid. Since I use acrylic paints and gels and work with one color at a time, I work in short bursts to allow the paint to dry between applications. So my creative process is paint, wait, paint, wait, paint, wait. During the waiting periods I’m able to do all the tasks involved in daily life: shopping, cooking, correspondence, housekeeping, and of course, volunteering. My day covers all my waking hours. I don’t keep to a work schedule. I may work into the night hours as likely as the morning, afternoon or evening hours.
What is your role at the Norfolk Library? Are you very involved in your community?
Tom: I am a member of the Library Associates, a group of volunteers that works to promote the library and enhance its programming. I serve on both the Events Committee and the Fundraising Committee. I am also an active member of our local artist guild, Norfolk Artists & Friends. Shortly after moving Norfolk, I decided to jump into volunteering with both feet as a way to meet folks and get to know the town. Needless to say, it’s worked.
What else do you enjoy besides music and art?
Tom: Both my partner and I are good cooks. We like to eat well, socialize and entertain. In fact, I’m surprised how busy our social life is after moving to NW Connecticut. I also like to knit, although I haven’t been clicking my needles much this past year. My knitting passion is knit lace. I like to knit circular shawls with larger-than-usual-sized needles.
Tom Hlas will be showing his work in a solo exhibition in
Bridgewater this coming November. Check our GOINGS ON
section in the upcoming November issue to get the details.