Multimedia artist Tom Larson's keen interest in science continues to inform his art. A Bay City native whose family founded and still owns the Larson Salvage Company, Larson has long used experimentation as his means and the family business as his supply source for his varied works. Although he studied art in college, his process is largely intuitive and based on the premise "what if," much as a scientist questions the larger world, makes a hypothesis, and then tests this hypothesis. Over the years, Larson has created an evolving body of work: freestanding natural wood and multimedia sculptures, bas-relief sculptures made from Dow Styrofoam, assemblages of harvested paint, wool blanket sculptures and paintings, and abstract paintings on wooden panels. 

Experimentation Key

With an expansive studio space above the Salvage Company building on Washington Street, Larson has combined his work and play.  Among his first sculptures were fantastical birds and fish made from wood; then, wanting to "get more out of the surface," he enhanced the sculptures by gluing on small Formica pieces he had cut for this purpose. "When I look back at it now, it was really time-consuming, so I must have had a lot more time on my hands when I was younger," Larson joked. "It took dozens of hours to apply that kind of treatment to a single piece, and it did create interesting textures." Yet this process sometimes caused the surface of a work to war with the overall beauty of the shape, so to resolve this competition, he mixed and applied a coat of amber-colored varnish that acted like handing the viewer a pair of sunglasses. 

As a child and teen, Larson focused keenly on science. "Sputnik had just flown over, and everybody was going to be a scientist," he recalled. "When I was a kid, I had a basement laboratory and enjoyed experimenting." Of course, he could easily get supplies from his father’s shop to feed his curiosity—and he did.

A particularly striking example of how experimentation has been an important factor in Larson's work is his Styrofoam sculpture. As a teen wanting to create quick-drying liquid foam worthy of Spiderman, Larson experimented with Styrofoam and various solvents. Not only did he succeed in making projectile foam, he stumbled upon a process for making bas-relief sculptures from foam panels. "By placing objects on the foam and then spraying the exposed areas with a solvent, every place that wasn't covered by an object melted away," Larson explained. This process is similar to how light acts on a 3-D photogram. For Larson, then, the next step involved painting the panels to highlight in a pleasing way what looked like a positive image. 

Source of Supplies

Early in his career as an artist, Larson decided to make the Salvage Company his main source of supply. "I have rules about using material from in-house as much as I can, and I make it a point of not going to the art supply store and buying the latest iridescent pigment or the latest product art people are using." This self-inflicted restriction forced Larson to push the boundaries of traditional materials and his creativity. For example, most trade paints do not have enough viscosity to be applied with a palette knife, but they can act in ways that artists' paints can't, such as fly off the end of a stick or be harvested for collages.

Larson's harvested-paint collages involve another unconventional technique. Because most latex paints remain pliable for some time, Larson poured paint onto glass panes, let it dry, and scraped if off in randomly shaped pieces. He assembled these pieces into what are his most representational works, glued them with hot-melt glue, and painted or trimmed various areas as needed. Particularly pleasing to Larson is the "wonderful texture" he could achieve by layering the latex paint—a process inherently contrary to its intended purpose as wall paint.

Running a business that sells trade paint has also meant that Larson has access to pure mineral pigments not normally available and to uncounted gallons of paint with which to experiment. Having observed the movements of base paints and pigments during the mixing process, Larson experimented with dipping wooden panels, but this process, while interesting, lead to a dead end. Because there was too much process and not enough creativity involved, except in the "editing" of which pieces might be shown, Larson did not believe the panels were original work that could be owned. Yet this idea spawned another more, promising line of activity.

Although Larson doesn’t remember exactly how he came up with the idea to use woolen blankets as a surface on which to manipulate paint, that was the next step in his artistic progression. He had noticed patterns in nature—such as motor oil makes when in a puddle of water—and wondered if paint poured on a blanket would separate and create naturalistic patterns. At first, it turned out to be a frustrating (and heavy—a blanket can hold two gallons of paint) experiment. His hypothesis that the paint might create paisley-like swirls proved false when the blankets absorbed the paint in unexpected ways and buckled as they did so. "Sometimes I would get ugly messes where the paint blended together," Larson, said, likening the experience to pulling a fantastically colored, deep-water fish from the ocean, only to see its brilliance dim to a mucky, clay color.

He didn't give up on this line of exploration, however. The blankets' unexpected behavior led Larson to manipulate blankets while still wet, creating lasting sculptural effects when they dried. These manipulations included twisting designs into them or positioning the entire wet blanket over objects that served like molds. With some later pieces, Larson even cut and reassembled pieces of the original "blanket," much as he had the paint with the harvested-paint collages. "I bet the thrift store people who saved blankets for me had no idea what I was doing with them," Larson said, chuckling.

Evolution of Media

As the years progressed, Larson gradually went from creating freestanding or wall sculptures to, finally, paintings on wood panels, in which the painted surface was of paramount importance. Knowing that he did not want to make representational works, Larson experimented with indirectly portraying the laws of physics by throwing paint off the end of a spatula or using other similar techniques. As he explained, "The paint would form an interesting line that’s far more elegant than any one I could ever draw because it's lived freely in the air." Although Larson may entertain an idea about the palette or the size of the forms to be portrayed, typically he lets inspiration and experimentation rule his creative process.

In the same way that Larson has been unhindered by rigid rules about media, he admits to approaching color and composition "from more of a naïve perspective," adding, that his approach "is more about the paint and the surface and the interaction of different colors and juxtapositions" than a particular intent. Larson works intuitively with colors, and he sometimes repaints portions of a work later if the color palette becomes too unsettling. Most of his paintings display loosely organic shapes that invite contemplation in the way clouds attract the eye. For his part, Larson likens these images to  "nonsense poems—expressions of color and light." He encourages viewers to interact with these images, making of them naught or what they will, but hopefully revisiting and enjoying them often.


Larson and Larson Retrospective

June 19, 2009 – July 20, 2009

Studio 23 Art Center

901 N. Water St.

Bay City, Michigan

Mon. – Sat. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2009