April 2 – June 11
Friends of Tom Creeland curated “Breaking Light: The Creative Life of Tom Creelan as a tribute to their co-worker, fellow artist and friend as a tribute. Each of the curators expressed a statement of the ways in which his life intersected theirs.
I first met Tom around 1980 in Monmouth. He was walking down the street with his twin boys. I stopped and introduced myself to him and asked how old the boys were. He was surprised when I told him that I had too had twin boys. That was a beginning of a friendship which we held through his short life. In the beginning he would call for advice since my boys were twenty years older. He was a dedicated father and would share the twins’ progress as they grew.
As our friendship grew, we became aware that we were both artists. We were able to share many thoughts about art and our commitment to the arts and our goals and aspirations. Tom was always a welcome guest in my house. He was a person who was genuinely concerned and very generous with his ideas. He was a dedicated teacher and would share his students’ progress and concerns in the same way he spoke of his own children. In the early years (the early 80’s) Tom was consumed with raising the twins, finding time to work on his house on the farm and to work with the art of stained glass.
As his art progressed he began to create drawings which reflect his interest in the play of light and pattern. In his 1984 show at Western Oregon State College, titled ”drawn to the light” (all lower case letters), he combined his recent drawings, stained glass windows and selected writings. In Tom’s artist’s statement for the show he stated, “I’m fascinated by the shadows, particularly from leaves and branches of trees, play across structured geometric surfaces… I am also drawn to the rhythmic patterns found in nature. To me, there’s a life in the rhythm which I find very compelling.”
This “life in rhythm” carries the viewer of his work well beyond a mere recording of nature to a transformation which one may call fine art.
His dedications as an artist, a concerned teacher, a loving father and husband will always give inspiration to me and to others who remember him and what he shared with us.
Tom Creelan first came to my attention through a letter that he sent me dated November 6, 1975, in which he stated that “if everything goes right, we expect to be moving out there (Monmouth) sometime next summer (1976).” He then presented a brief overview of his credentials and suggested his interest in employment in the Art Department at OCE
We did not have as opening at the time but his letter was such that it was put in the file of “real possibilities” if something should come up in the future. His course work included media experience in cinema, video, photography, environments, lighting, creative writing, sound and conceptual art, along with his undergraduate degree in painting and drawing. He also studied Chinese brush painting for two years with a Chinese master.
Tom also sent 62 slide reproductions of his work, much of his multi-media, and “A Father,” all of which were part and parcel of his visual imagery. One faculty member remarked that Tom seemed to be a real Renaissance person. And, indeed, he was.
As good fortune sometimes happened, we had a huge enrollment in the department and after endless talk with the upper administration, we were given permission to hire “Tom to teach one course (a .20 appointment on a fixed term basis for one term). This was Fall Term, 1976. Tom was successful and enrollment continued on an upward spiral, so he was hired to teach two courses, Winter Term 1977. At this time, I received a note from an art student expressing her disappointment that Tom’s proposed Chinese art class could not be offered and that “Mr. Creelan should be commended for his initiative in proposing this course.” This was one of many messages about Tom’s ability I received in his short time at OCE.
Tom was then given a fixed term appointment for the 1977-1978 academic year teaching two classes. But when 72 students signed up to take a craft class from Tom, his contract was altered and he was now placed on a .70 appointment. Tom was so successful in the classroom, that at the annual evaluation time when fixed-term employees “should expect information rather formal evaluation,” I wrote the following for him: “Tom has, in my view, brought a freshness and vigor to his teaching at OCE that is at once exhilarating and sound. The students are attracted to him in large numbers and he draws their respect from the quality of his commitment to them and willingness to spend extraordinary amount of time in their service. I appreciate and value his contribution.”
Tom said, “I haven’t been as interested in seeing my name in lights as I have been wondering what life is all about and learning ways to recognize what is personally meaningful from what isn’t. To me, this recognition is what art is all about.”
Then the bubble burst – what had been a period of unprecedented growth ended and many faculty, including Tom, did not have their contracts renewed. Fortunately, Tom was hired by Chemeketa College and was there for the remainder of his career. At a final meeting in the art department a spontaneous motion was made that Tom be given a letter commending him for his generous service to the department and the motion passed unanimously.
The Spiritual Vision Animating Tom Creelans Artwork
By Dale Cannon
My first introduction to Tom Creelan and his artwork was his one-person show in 1989, entitled “drawn to the light” (lowercase letters). I had been long fascinated with the metaphor of light and of being drawn to the light in the great wisdom traditions of the world. On seeing Toms artwork gathered there, I was struck with its spiritual depth, its opening onto transcendence. His artwork was a mode of research, a method of exploration and discovery, into ordinary light and shadow as opening onto transcendence. At that time I met Tom and began to explore in conversation what he understood his work to be about. It was not until much later, though, right near the end of his life, that I learned and understood the full story from Tom.
Tom had already become an accomplished artist and teacher of art well before producing the artwork that was shown in “drawn to the light.” “Always on the prowl for source material” [his words], his own best artwork usually emerged from the context of working with students. On the recommendation of a student in a design class in the mid 80s, he picked up and read the book Life After Life by Raymond Moody. That book had a profound effect on him and all his subsequent artwork. The book is ostensibly about its author’s research into “near-death experiences” (experiences of persons who have medically died and then and then come back to life either on their own or with medical intervention). It is difficult to identify all that reading this book came to mean for Tom, including shaping the attitude he came to have toward his own death much later from cancer. In any case, according to Tom, central to the experiences recounted in the book is an experience of light, of being drawn towards the light, and of encountering beings of light. Above all, reading this book for Tom awakened him to perpetual light in all of its nuances as sacramental. Light for Tom didn’t just connote or allude to meaning – i.e., insight and understanding , coming to birth, truth and transparency, aspiration, uplift, love, grace, a sense of positive destiny, hope; it immediately conveyed meaning, rendering it palpably present. Tom’s artwork doesn’t tell us those meanings; it doesn’t package them for us. It invites us to enter a receptive frame of mind and reach with him to discover and explore them for ourselves – to be drawn to the light we are enabled to glimpse through his artwork.
Tom’s artwork form that point was different. It came to have a powerful and compelling dimension rare in contemporary art, perhaps rare in any age. He had been working in stained glass at the time and this new inspiration got him thinking about windows as sources of light and as a visual perspective for thinking about the movement from ignorance and confusion to insight and understanding, from despair to hope, from darkness to light. Coinciding with this shift in his thinking was a shift in art media from working with stained and painting with acrylics to drawing with colored pencils – the dominant medium for the rest of his career. His first drawings were of windows: windows as sources of light, openings that illuminate otherwise dark spaces.
Following the window series, he completed a number of drawings in fuller sunlight of boxers, flowers, and other scenes. In the Sping of 1999, a new shift occurred . Tom began a series of landscapes/skyscapes of the three mile stretch of farmland between his house on Fishback Ridge and the city limits of Monmouth. He had never attempted landscapes before. Shortly after completing the first, he was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer. Each of the rest of the series was drawn, in Tom words, “as if it were my last.” Working through these drawings was Tom’s way of exploring how spiritually to come to terms with his cancer – taking on meaning far further that he had first proposed. In Tom’s own words,”If I have any message in these pieces it is this. Whether we realize it or not, we all live at the edge of life, some of us perhaps closer than others. As we look over the edge a vast unknown appears. To most of us it is a terrifyling sight that we’d rather not think about. It should instill a sense of hope not terror. We have been allowed to see and experience the profound wonder of life in all its complexity and all its simplicity. It is a precious gift that we must never fail to hold sacred.”
I encourage all who read this to allow Tom’s artwork to usher you inwardly to that edge of life within your own life and glimpse anew the light beyond the shadows and hope beyond the clouds.
Tom was my good friend and colleague at Chemeketa College, where he worked for many years – both as an instructor in the Art Department and as Director of the Art Gallery. He was a committed teacher, who was sought after and much appreciate be his students for his thoughtful and in depth approach to instruction. Sitting in his classroom was an ongoing learning experience. He usually started classes with a demonstration that was both informative and encouraging. This would be followed by gentle critiquing as he moved among the students. Often he would switch positions with a student so as to better illustrate his point. Tom was a teacher in the true sense of the word.
The exhibits Tom curated were always first rate – carefully planned and presented, and designed to stimulate thought and discussion. Under Tom’s guidance the Gallery became a learning tool used across campus – bringing in students and often complete classes to view and discuss (sometimes vigorously) the merits of the current exhibit. However, the importance of the Gallery went beyond the campus. The Gallery brought to the college a wide range of people from throughout the Willamette Valley who found the exhibits innovative and stimulating, and earned Tom and the Gallery wide recognition and respect.
Tom was an avid golfer. He enjoyed golf – not so much as a sport (sometimes he didn’t even keep score), but in part, as an extension of his art. Tom’s art for many years focused on the interplay of light and shadow. Golf gave Tom the opportunity on the interplay of light and shadow. Golf gave Tom the opportunity to absorb and enjoy the natural setting of rolling hills, green fairways and tree-framing backdrops. Late afternoon was often his chosen time for golf – the light seemed more intense and the shadows deeper. It was not unusual for him to stop and point out light filtering through a tree, and the patterns formed on the ground below. To the very end Tom looked forward to those opportunities where he could walk the fairways – blending the emotions of golf, art and friendship.
Eileen Cotter Howell
If I was to select one characteristic of Tom Creelan which I most admired it would have to be that he was a consummate teacher. Everything about his personality was such a good fit for this vital, yet underappreciated profession. He was knowledgeable about his subject matter, but was always open to learning more. Being highly intuitive, he listened to people – he would hear not only what a student was saying, but also often understand what that student couldn’t articulate. He was respectful of each student’s individuality, knowing how to give just the right blend of encouragement and challenge. Working artists from the community felt as comfortable and nurtured in Tom’s classes as any beginning student. Throughout the 20 years of his career, the students always came first for Tom and they knew it. In the last years of his life, when I worked as a colleague of his at Chemeketa, I constantly heard from students what I superb teacher he was.
He carried that commitment into his role as a gallery director at Chemeketa, developing a gallery that was both respected as a wonderful exhibition space and as a very effective teaching tool. Chemeketa’s gallery has a strong reputation for beyond the scope of Salem and this is largely due to Tom. He forged connections with directors of regional galleries and brought in artists from across the nation, being careful to give exposure to all media and styles. Shows at Chemeketa could be very traditional or they could be provocative, presenting new ways of visual communication. All were designed to engage the students. In his quest for new work, he did not ignore local artists. I first met Tom over the phone in 1991 when he called to see if I would do a show at the Chemeketa gallery. Since I was fairly new as a professional artist I was flabbergasted to get a call. But I think that says a lot about Tom – it didn’t matter to him that I didn’t have a “name”, his focus was on the artwork.
I treasure Tom’s friendship. He was a generous, multi-talented, gentle soul. The traits that made him a good teacher also made him a good friend. That his talents extended beyond the classroom you can see before you in this show. Sometimes I think it’s a shame he did not have more time to do his artwork, but then I think what a loss it would have been to all those students if he had chosen a different path. I know that he had no regrets about his choice.
No statement provided by Tom Creeland’s wife.