Tom Anderson: A Painter Influenced by Everything

tom anderson olympia painter - featuredBy Alec Clayton

The painter Tom Anderson makes his paintings with hammers and big metal sheers and industrial materials and other unconventional tools, plus the usual tools of brushes and paint. He says he’s more likely to get his materials at Home Depot or a machine shop than at an art supply store. (But when he does need traditional painting tools, Olyphant Art Supply is right downstairs from his studio on Washington Street in downtown Olympia.)

Anderson says he is influenced by everything in life and in nature. He draws inspiration from everywhere and refers to himself as a Jack of all trades.

He spent his early youth in California and his formative years in Portland and Vancouver. His father was a musician, and he says there were always musicians and poets and artists around him when he was growing up. “My parents’ friends were artists, and their influence was profound.” He says the Southern California custom car culture merged with the surfing culture and the beatniks and hippies, and that whole gestalt influenced and shaped him to become the artist he is today.

“Ed Big Daddy Roth was one of my earliest influences,” Anderson says. Roth, who passed away in 2001, was a custom car maker and an artist whose ’60s underground comix drawings and paintings have graced many T-shirts and posters. Anderson was also heavily influenced by rock music posters and album covers as evidenced by the many posters from that era that fill the walls of his studio – posters for Hendrix and Janis Joplin and all the greats of ’60s rock and jazz.

As a kid he worked on a farm picking berries, and then he did construction work and house painting and electrical work. He also talks about a very large painting someone gave his father. It had cans and bent car parts and all kinds of junk stuck on it. “It was really an assemblage, like a Rauschenberg. I didn’t get it at all.” Yet it must have influenced him a lot because there are elements of that kind of art making in his own art, and in our brief interview he dropped the name Rauschenberg at least three times.

tom anderson olympia painter - featuredAfter high school Anderson went to Clark College in Vancouver where he took technical drawing and color theory and photography and “every art class that was offered” in their two-year program. Then he sold his vintage woody station wagon and used the money to buy an airplane ticket, and went on a pilgrimage to Europe for a while, visiting all the great museums and cathedrals. The experience of seeing art in the original that he had previously seen only in photographs in books and magazines was stupendous. “The first time I saw Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ it was overwhelming,” he says, and he says he cried the first time he walked in St. Peters and saw Michaelangelo’s “Pieta.” The scale was overwhelming. Rembrandt’s painting is around 12 by 14 feet and Michaelangelo’s sculpture is much larger than life size. Plus you can’t really get a feel for texture in a reproduction.

Modern American artists and musicians who have had a big influence on him include Robert Motherwell (born in Aberdeen, Washington), Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Miles Davis. “They all redefined American art,” he says.

After coming home from Europe Anderson went to The Evergreen State College, and right out of college he teamed up with Bill Hillman, Ken Hill and Tom Lind to open Mansion Glass. Anderson says that in his years of studying art in college none of his teachers ever said a thing about how to make a living as an artist. Nothing about building a portfolio or marketing your work. He’s had to learn that by trial and error. Since graduating college in the early ’70s he has supported himself with his art, sometimes having to do odd jobs along the way such as electrical, carpentry, house painting – all of which have helped him hone skills he uses in his art.

tom anderson olympia painter - featuredAnderson’s paintings are abstract. He works mostly on sheet metals such as aluminum and copper and various found or recycled materials on plywood panels or on hollow-core doors. He burnishes, varnishes and scratches the surfaces and draws and paints on them with whatever materials are at hand. Often he includes images of leaves or similar references to nature, but for the most part his paintings are purely abstract. “Replicating nature doesn’t interest me,” he says. “What I am trying to convey is a sense of atmosphere and emotion. I don’t do narrative.”

Conceding that it is somewhat clichéd he adds, “The process is what engages me, the dance and choreography of what’s happening.”

“I am usually not thinking so much about a finished work, but am inspired, accepting and mystified by the process of creating it. What inspires me is the outcome of materials at hand and their relationship to each other. Also the willingness to be spontaneous and the compulsion to make something that expresses my own life’s experience as well as reflect to the viewer the dynamics and emotion of their own spirit.”

tom anderson olympia painter - featuredAnderson says he has had 120 group and solo shows in 35 galleries including Childhood’s End in Olympia, Kimzey Miller in Seattle and the Lawrence Gallery in Portland. His work can be seen in many public spaces in the Olympia area including The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, Providence St Peter Hospital, Ramblin Jacks Restaurant, Harlequin Productions and Panorama City. He also did the well-known sculpture for the Park of the Seven Oars and has works in the Marriott Hotels in Poland and New York City, and in Bill Gates and Shaquille Oneal’s collections among many others.

Find out more about Tom Anderson at


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