interview NANCY GORDON

Artist Tom Paiement.
Disjointed Discourse Between Two Art Critics
Grizzled Vet
Interaction 1
Interaction 2

"Tom Paiement is an extremely intelligent and curious person. Not surprising, given his perspective as both an artist and a mechanical engineer, that scientific and philosophical quandaries are vibrantly present in his body of work. His intellect and curiosity are matched by a great sensitivity to the beauty and the mystery of the worlds around, within and beyond us. As a result, Paiement’s range of subject matter is quite broad and diverse. I think one constant across Tom’s oeuvre is a certain fearlessness to his approach that’s coupled with his compulsion for exploration. Tom dives in deeply, with regard both to content and to the possibilities inherent within the variety of media he has mastered. Paiement’s unique vision and his bold, highly authentic and fiercely imaginative take on whatever subject matter he finds himself enthralled with are equaled by his talent and skill level.

“[His] work is charged with a palpable energy that, for me, evokes a David Foster Wallace quote that I love: ”What the really great artists do is, they’re entirely themselves. They’ve got their own vision, they have their own way of fracturing reality, and if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.”

—Kelley Lehr, co-owner/co-director, Greenhut Galleries and Cove Street Arts

. . .

I spoke by phone with Tom Paiement to find out more about his background, his process and what drives him to create. During our conversation, I felt like I was getting not only his story, but also a guided tour of a mind that sees the world in big pictures made up by vivid and unforgettable details.

Then I asked four of his portrait subjects—friends and neighbors, it turns out—to talk about what it was like to sit for Tom and their favorite paintings of his. In some cases, their comments are much like eavesdropping at a Tom Paiement opening.
—Nancy Gordon

. . .

A visit to painter Robert Hammer’s studio redirected your life. Tell us about this experience.

I had been an aerospace engineer for two years (not unhappy with the work, at all) when in 1967, at 25, I was introduced to artist Robert Hammer in Hermosa Beach, California, whose studio was 50 yards from the pier. That experience changed my life.

I was raised in Brunswick, Maine, from lower-middle-class parents; my experience with art was nil.

What Hammer was doing in Hermosa Beach, I had never seen anything like it before. First off, it looked like unbelievable fun. Big chunks of bright colored tissue papers that he was pasting onto these 8-foot-wide by 4-foot-deep wooden panels. Big huge beautiful brightly colored abstract shapes. I had never been exposed to a painting like this. It really did just throw me for a loop. And I’m still looping.

There was also an experience in 1980 at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art that had a profound effect on you…

Yes. So in 1967, art strikes me down. I am hooked. I continue to paint as a hobby for years. But a serious hobby. My intrigue with drawing and paintings is as strong as ever.

In the fall of 1980, while building my house in Maine, my girlfriend, from Iowa, decides to go back to the University of Iowa and finish her graduate degree. Come around Thanksgiving I get a call from Karen in Iowa City: “Why don’t you come visit me over Thanksgiving break?” When I get there Karen tells me about these drawings she saw in the university’s Stanley Museum of Art that reminded her of my drawings. I see [Mauricio] Lasansky’s “Nazi Drawings” and I am blown away by them. They are simply powerful, big, 72 x 40 inches or 50 inches wide, done with simple oil wash with turpentine and ebony pencil. I decide to try and contact Lasansky to see if I can pose for him, for one of his figurative pieces.

I call him up. Can I pose for you? Nope. Can I come and hang around your studio? Nope. Then he says, who are you? I tell him of my strong reaction to his drawings and that I want to meet him. Said I was going back to Maine in a few days.

He says, “Maine! I have a place on Vinalhaven. We summer there.” Then he tells me to meet him at the printshop the next day. I go over with my small portfolio. We chat, I find him very likable and funny. He asks to see my portfolio.

 “Look, this is what I think you should do. Go back to Maine, put your things in order, and then come back to Iowa in January and join my MFA program.” I say, “Sounds terrific but I have only a dozen or so art credits.” He says, “That’s not a problem. What was your major?” I tell him mechanical engineering. He says, “That’s even better!”

Thus begins my five years in probably the very number one printshop in the entire country.

Those five years took me to new levels. (A pun because of what the acids do to a copper plate takes the plate to “new levels.”) One does need, all jokes aside, a sense of humor in this game.

I think that was the connection that Lasansky and I made. We laughed together.

Now, after so many years as an artist, how have you made your mechanical engineering background part of your art?

The thing I understood immediately from Lasansky’s comment “That’s even better!” when I told him of my engineering degree was that art certainly required that analytical contemplation as did any engineering problem. That was the other hook between us. We had great analytical discussions about art. And life, too. He seemed very wise.

So to answer the question. One is really the same. To its nature. If you follow.

You often get ideas for paintings from dreams. Show us a painting or series and tell us about the dream that inspired it.

One dream influenced two years of work. It was about a guy that my son and I had met at McCabe’s famous guitar shop in LA. The visuals I had in the dream were vivid with the use of the fret board as the base for the paintings, with loose interpretations. It became the “Fret Series.”

Can you tell us anything about the secret project that I’m not supposed to mention?

Often times an idea strikes me so forcefully that I am beside myself with excitement. I think it absolutely brilliant. So I jump into the action of realizing this gestalt.

Well, at this stage of the game, my top-secret group of paintings, too secret to discuss, is going nowhere. The gestalt is nowhere to be seen. For the moment. But, there is great hope and optimism.

As Samuel Beckett said:

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

It is a mantra of sorts.

Often, in the development of a piece I reach a point where the excitement, beauty, energy of it is destroyed by some action I have made and makes it a bit of a mess.

As frustrating as that is when it happens, the FREEDOM that is gained at that moment is very exciting. No longer tiptoeing around the piece, a big brush is reached for and I blast away, working intuitively, trusting that mantra of “no matter, try again, fail again, fail BETTER.” It is the fail better that is the key.

There is always a residual, a patina, a buildup of the marks that one has previously made that makes the piece even richer and have more depth. The new marks made with such freedom because you have nothing to lose as you have blown the piece is what re-establishes the power back. That’s when I want to kiss ol’ Sam on the lips and say, “Thanks again, Samuel!”

“Elegance + Chaos,” your latest show at Greenhut Galleries, featured a series of portraits. Was portraiture a departure for you? What inspired it and what was your objective?

No, it was not a departure. I always drew people. I seemed to have a flair for portraiture.

In February of 2019, I was in Venice Beach, California. LaLouvre Gallery was showing David Hockney’s new work.

Downstairs were a dozen or more large, colorful, intriguing paintings. Upstairs are 15 or so large portraits (3 x 4 feet). Done in Cray-Pas, top of head to bottom of shoes. All sitting in a different chair. The drawings were very simple, direct, fresh and not overworked. Using ebony pencils, my personal favorite also. They made me want to get back to drawing again.

My objective was again to feel the joy of drawing. And there is great satisfaction in drawing from life. The complexities, possibilities … drawing from the figure gives one many many options. Move and build as you go, one mark leading to another. Or to be erased, new one found, to be erased, on ad infinitum.

The initial marks are always critical as these are the freest. The energy that emanates from that type of mark is strong. Visceral even. I build around those marks.

Why did you choose Bob Keyes, Tina Ingraham, Guy Marsden and Janet Kehl—all of whose comments follow—as what you term “Sitters”?

All four of them are art lovers and understand the process. The interactions between sitter and myself, I find very zen. They seem to be engaged to the same degree that I am. This is an intimate communication. I like the bond that it builds.

With Guy Marsden’s electrical expertise, the LED pieces are stunning. What inspired the use of light?

LEDs did seem to force their way into my face when I started the “Fret Series” of guitar pieces. It seemed a natural next step to have the various key structure notes lit up on the fretboard and be sequencing through the many key variations. From then on, LEDs were part of my portfolio. One of my visual tools. A way to convey an idea.

Optimism and craft make a wonderful combination. How have they played for you?

To start any piece, one must have an optimism. Otherwise why start? But because one has developed a certain craft expertise doesn’t always pull you through when you are searching for those more mysterious, art aspects to the piece. So even though craft and optimism might make a good combination, the impulse, gesture and artistic move are certainly where the power is.

Craft and optimism only go so far. The strength is in the unknown. The mystery. The artist as shaman.

Are you still a Bob Dylan fan?

Bob Dylan has inspired so many artistic souls; it is a mystery in itself. And I bet ol’ Bob is as baffled by it all as we are about it. Dylan is my contemporary, a year older.

Dylan came to my rinky-dink University of Maine in Orono to give a concert my junior year. Since then, Dylan has always been a part of my life. Good times and bad times. Dylan was there.

The artistic movements Dylan has gone through in his career have been an inspiration for millions. There is a reason he is at the peak of the pyramid. His truth simply shouts out.

So for sure, Bob Dylan remains one of my very few guiding lights.

You, and you and your wife, Maret, have spent some time in the Caribbean…

My wife and I have lived in the Caribbean numerous times. For months on end.

In college, I took a year off and worked with Mike Burke of Windjammer Cruises in Miami Beach sailing throughout the Caribbean, spearing fish, living with the Caribbean people and loving the quality of their lives. As a young man those experiences broaden you and were certain to have an impact on my work.

What marks this current phase of your art career and how does it differ from the past?

The older I get, the freer I have become related to my art. When artistic ideas enter my head, I try to actualize them. At least start the process. Often it is a dead end and I abandon the pursuit. Ever try, ever fail.

But the freedom to explore has always remained solid in my work.

What do you hope to give people with your art?

If one is inspired to pick up a pencil or a brush and make a mark, that would make me very happy. Other than that, if the piece brings them joy and engagement for the moment, that is very meaningful. If it makes them think outside of their own box, that too is very meaningful.

The making of art is, as everyone knows, a solitary sport. The solidarity of it jumps to real communication when the piece evokes a very real response. An engagement. Forcing one into the moment. Awakening the viewer into a new awareness. That is very cool.

Represented by Greenhut Galleries in Portland.

. . .

Favorite …
That’s a good question. When I walk down the snack aisle there are hundreds and hundreds of snacks that are grabbing for me. I like too many snacks to have a favorite. But my favorite of the moment fades fast when I overeat it!

Janet Kehl

The way Janet sat in the chair, her whole bearing made it unnecessary to concern myself with the details of her face. This was a portrait of Janet. Anyone who knew her would know her in this piece. I liked the drawing a lot. One of my favorites. 
—Tom Paiement


How long have you known artist Tom Paiement? Personal friendship or professional friendship?

Tom has been one of my husband’s dearest friends for at least 15 years. Over those years, I have listened in on countless conversations, learned so much in our talks about art and about his work, at our home or in my many visits to his studio, and most recently watched him do multiple sketches of my husband in preparation for a striking portrait. We count him and his wife, Maret, among the blessings of relocating from New York City to Maine.

Are you an artist as well?

I would never claim to be an “artist.” I have, however, been taking drawing lessons for several years and in the process have learned to see the world and works of art with new eyes that appreciate so many more components of a work than they ever did before. I now also understand, all the more, how much work, skill, perseverance and resilience can go into producing a drawing or painting.

How was the experience? How long did you sit?

I think I was there for only about half an hour intoxicated by the wonderful smells of a studio. We talked, as I remember, about the chair series that I could see lined up on the wall behind Tom. We also talked about adding to the series a drawing of an empty chair. Little did we know at that time how many chairs would be left empty in the pandemic or what a powerful symbol an empty chair would then become in his paintings about the virus.

What do you think of the finished work?

He definitely caught me in the tilt of the head and the posture. Amazing how less is more in the face.

Choose a few of Tom’s paintings or series that you particularly like and tell us why they appeal to you.

Entropy I
Entropy II
Entropy III
Boardwalk South
Pink Hotel
Venice Beach 4
View from Above
Big Wall

I’ve always been drawn to Tom’s series, to multiple works as a whole.

The three huge paintings of Entropy appeal to me for their three distinct styles and the concepts they represented for him. They immediately brought to my mind Dante’s Divine Comedy: the excesses, crimes and fires of his Inferno; the human dimension and struggles (up the hill) of his Purgatorio; and the geometric abstraction and transcendence of his Paradisio.

I love the Venice Beach series with its series of initial sketches and its paintings, which in some cases, incorporate elements from those sketches. I also love the riot of bright colors, the contrast of the architecture with the figures, and what I guess I would call the blocking of the colors and shapes. Energy!

The WALL (my title) in Tom’s studio has to be one my very favorites. Sadly, it no longer exists. Covering a huge wall at the end of his studio, Tom had hung, like an immense collage, what was, in effect, a retrospective of his work. You could see there all of his different periods and see how varied his work was. The way he had hung the paintings was, in itself, a work of art. They were not hung chronologically, as one might expect, but were hung “randomly” but obviously with great thought and care to enhance each work and at the same time to work together as a whole. It was overwhelming and ultimately very moving to see all of those years of work become a work in their own right.

Bob Keyes

The background of Bob’s piece has scribbles that were on the wall of my studio. Over the 20 years I was in the studio, I would jot down random thoughts, notes from a talk I was listening to, etc. Bob being a writer, I felt it appropriate to work this into the background.  —Tom Paiement


How long have you known artist Tom Paiement? Personal friendship or professional friendship?

Both, actually. I met Tom in the early 2000s, soon after I began writing about the arts for the Portland Press Herald. Wes LaFountain, who was then a curator at Greenhut Galleries in Portland, introduced me to Tom so I could write a story about an exhibition of Tom’s that Greenhut was hosting. I guess we hit it off pretty well.

I actually do not remember the interview, other than he mentioned going to school in Iowa. I had just moved back to Maine after spending almost 15 years in South Dakota, which borders Iowa, so that sort of piqued my curiosity. Then I found out he was a fan of Bob Dylan, and we’ve been good friends since. I am a huge Dylan fan, too, and Tom and I have attended a few Dylan shows together.

I don’t know Tom’s age offhand, but I suspect he’s a decade older than I am. I’ve been lucky to have slightly older artists as friends in my life, wherever I have lived. I’ve benefited from their wisdom and perspective and being able to talk with them about how they see the world.

How was the experience? How long did you sit?

It was very easy and comfortable. I think I sat for more than an hour and we did take a break. The session did not feel stiff or difficult. It felt like we were sitting in the studio talking.

Did you notice Tom’s personal wall of scribbles used as the backdrop of your portrait, intentionally meant to call attention to your writing profession?

I don’t know what those scribbles say, if they are even legible. But I am glad they are there. They remind me of my notebooks.

What do you think of the finished portrait?

I think he nailed it. It’s not that it looks like me, it’s that the painting feels like me. The feet and hands are the telling elements of the painting. I felt relaxed, and I think my feet and hands convey that sense of ease.

Tell us what you find most appealing about Tom’s paintings.

Generally, I like Tom’s use of shapes and lines in his work. He uses a lot of materials, including newspapers, which I particularly admire. I like that he is socially aware in his work, and I also appreciate that he is a humanist at his core. Tom’s art is full of life and humanity, including the struggles and the joys.

I can’t give you any titles, because I am not sure what they are called. My wife and I own probably four or five of Tom’s paintings. One I inherited from my mother, after she died. It’s a relatively early abstract painting. My mother had a modest art collection and Tom was part of it, which I love.

Tina Ingraham

Tina is a very fine artist with a long career of serious work. We decided to swap portraits. She sat for me for two hours. I sat for her for 15 hours!

Her portrait of me is absolutely beautiful. Old school, layer after layer after layer using tons of paint, scrape out, repeat process ad infinitude.

It was such a pleasure to watch her process. I was very impressed. She is a wicked sensitive artist. I learned a great deal watching her paint. Portraiture as intimate communication.  —Tom Paiement


How long have you known artist Tom Paiement? Personal friendship or professional friendship?

I met Tom professionally through our gallery representation at Greenhut Galleries. I became affiliated with Greenhut in 2004 after my return from working in Italy for three years. I can’t remember the first time I met him, but it was in the first few years of my exhibiting there that I became interested in Tom’s work, particularly his use of color, and we were introduced during one of the gallery openings.

We both had studios in Bath, only a block from one another, and I asked him to visit my studio to look at work I was developing for my 2009 exhibit, “Observations.” We sometimes bumped into one another at Bath’s YMCA or library. When there was time, we stopped and chatted about the art profession in general, and sometimes about the work we were involved in. I’m certain it has been at least 15 years since we first met. His wife, Maret, and I are friends.

Did he give you any instructions and/or directions?

His only directive was to come dressed in what I wished to have my portrait in. He had specified that I choose a piece of clothing that had pattern. But I don’t wear patterned fabrics. I did bring a jacket or two to wear over the blouse, but chose to wear the black shirt I love the most. I noticed his portraits were full body, so I decided it was very important I wore the lace-up black boots I’ve worn for many winters. They make me feel exceptionally grounded and are sturdy and warm. His only instruction was to sit on the chair that he was using for every sitter.

While we were chatting, as he set up his palette, he turned and caught me in the pose he wanted me to keep and he said, “Hold that and don’t move.” He commented that I sat on the chair differently than most people. I did not relax in the seated pose. I tried to keep the spontaneity of it.

How was the experience?

The time, approximately two hours, was filled with rather serious conversation about my history, and I remember he offered a bit of wisdom nearing the end of the sitting. I do not remember exactly what it was, but it was another angle of thought, divergent from my previous thinking in the story I had shared.

What do you think of the finished piece?

I’m intrigued that he captured my hands holding the seat of the chair and the point at which I first sat down at an angle to the seat. I am particularly fond of the boots, the best part, because they are the favorite part of my winter attire. Wearing them empowers me. If they weren’t so warm I’d wear them year round.

Who do you see when you look at yours?

As far as my expression, at first I thought I looked sad. But I’ve changed my mind since, because I recalled the serious conversation we exchanged and feel he captured a contemplative aspect of my character. A significant amount of my time is spent in solitude, and so I’m pensive. The distance between my nose and upper lip is quite long and he accurately recorded that measurement in relationship to the rest of my head. Only when I smile or laugh—I laugh a lot—does that distance shorten. It is very difficult to keep laughing when one is sitting for a portrait!

The portrait is a record of how I appeared to him at a transitional point in both of our histories of moving from our separate long-time studios in Bath. They were both at the top of three flights of stairs. We share that art is serious business. Certainly it becomes more serious, after climbing all those stairs day after day!

You are an artist as well. Why did you and Tom decide to swap portraits?

Perhaps because he knew doing seated portraits is a large part of my painting profession. Since we had traded art before, it may have been a natural progression. For me, it was a spontaneous agreement.

How long did he sit for you?

He sat for five or six sittings at two to two and one half hours each sitting. During that time we took a few breaks and talked about art and artist’s work we revered. He found interest in my library, a few books in particular, art books I’d collected since the early ’80s.

Tom Paiement by Tina Ingraham.

Tina, thank you for sharing the portrait. Tom is very pleased with the results as noted by his comments at the start. Are you?

Yes, very much so. Making art is what I understand as my life’s calling and I know Tom shares the same attitude. I believe having one’s portrait done marks another one of life’s rites of passage. For an artist, I believe that is an accumulation of trials and errors, moments of good luck, rejections, stabs at decision-making that may further one’s career, the great days in the studio and success with a work of art.

On painting Tom Paiement’s portrait…

It is impossible to capture a soul’s essence in a single portrait, whether done in one sitting or in many sittings over time. I feel driven to go after something that is revealed in a person’s manner. A quirk, a moment of holding one’s head a certain way or something that is repeated each time he sits. In this portrait I was looking slightly upward at Tom. He took a pose that was natural to him, yet time and again he sometimes tilted his head a certain way and a casual glimmer of a smile caught one side of his mouth. It was difficult to paint because it was hidden beneath his mustache.

One of my teachers, Dan Greene, once taught that a portrait is a record of someone’s likeness. My mentor, Lennart Anderson, taught more about capturing the sitter’s glance in response to the painter, and that repeated measurement-taking was essential. And of course, the portrait head has to work within context of its three-dimensional space. Results varied after each sitting with Tom. During some sittings I caught his likeness. Other times I caught the tilt of head and repeated whim that would pass over his visage. Over time all coalesced. I feel the painting resolved with my capturing all that I was going after when painting Tom Paiement’s portrait.

Choose a few of Tom’s paintings that you particularly like and tell us why they appeal to you.

Cloud Over Congress
The simple organic shape of the cloud-white transparency adhered over complicated color, shape construction of Congress Street Buildings is gutsy and it works brilliantly.

Fret Series #59

I enjoy the neutral colors in this low-light composition. I’m thinking of slow jazz melodies in a dimly lit Chicago nightclub. Metal horizontals, lines of a music staff, floating notes and two-way highways put me in the mind of centuries of artists using grid, palettes and musical instruments to create. The universal aspects of music and two-dimensional art cross over history in this piece.

Self Portrait in the Time of Covid
When I look at this work, I think of Henri Matisse’s, The Three O’clock Sitting, 1924. Like Matisse’s color cohesive use of all primary colors and their secondary complements, Tom has done something similar in this composition. I don’t know why, but yellow for the wall and the violet floor harmonize with the rest of the composition. Red arms and head are perceived red next to green landscape, but seem orange next to blue jeans. Many aspects of both works rhyme: color, construction, clothing patterns, an artist painting a model, Tom creating Tom.

Represented by Greenhut Galleries in Portland.

Guy Marsden

I lucked out having Guy as a neighbor. He is an electronic wizard and has helped me on all my LED pieces. Terrific person.  —Tom Paiement


How long have you known artist Tom Paiement? Personal friendship or professional friendship?

I have known Tom for around 18 years. I moved into the neighborhood in 2001 and met him through my neighbors. We developed a working relationship when he asked me to help him engineer interactive lighting in a painting from his “Fret” series in 2003. Since then it has been a personal and professional relationship and I know his wife and son quite well.

Are you an artist as well?

Yes, I have a 40-year career in kinetic light sculpture, exhibiting nationally and internationally. I have a fine arts degree but earn most of my living doing engineering work developing electronic products and also working with artists to integrate light and kinetics into their work.

Did you enjoy the experience?

I am not particularly self-conscious and was very comfortable in his studio. I felt very comfortable sitting there and braced myself for an extended sit, but he was done in half an hour or so. All he had done by that point was a basic outline. Clearly, he spent much more time on it afterwards detailing my shirt and shoes—and later, my hat.

I’m not sure if Tom wants this widely known but when I first sat for the portrait, he asked me to take my hat off. No one—and I mean no one—ever sees me without a hat, day or night, inside or outside! So I removed it for the sitting under duress, and when I looked at the portrait I almost didn’t recognize myself with my big shining bald pate and expressed my displeasure at being so thoroughly misrepresented. He eventually capitulated, realizing that it would not be a portrait of me without my hat on! 

What do you think of the finished work (with hat)?

It is interesting because like all the other portraits in the series, it’s not the best representation of the person’s face. Most of the portraits feature highly detailed renderings of the clothing or even the chair while the person’s face is often somewhat abstracted.

Who do you see when you look at yours?

He definitely captured me in my pose and general vibe. I think he caught the way that I was looking directly at him while I was talking to him, or just watching him, something about the eyes.

I took this photo of Tom painting my portrait.

Which of Tom’s other paintings particularly appeal to you?

I am biased because I have spent more time around the paintings that I have helped him put lighting into than any of his other work so I like these pieces the best. I especially like, Back Bay Portland, and Adrift Over Maine, a recently completed one with lights representing all of the lighthouses along the Maine coast.


Back Bay Portland


Adrift Over Maine

I visit Tom in his studio every now and then, and I get attached to the way a painting looks while it is in process. Then when I visit later he has completely overpainted the parts that I liked. Abstract artists! What can I say! I always enjoy talking with him about art and his process and how enthusiastic he is about the next great idea that he has.


Previous StoryNext Story