Artist Tom Seagard paints his passion for history, especially Door County’s history. Whether working with the Sister Bay Historical Society during the summer, or the vibrant Key West artist community during his winter travels, Seagard continuously documents the past with meticulous research and exquisite, sepia-toned artworks.
Seagard has now lived the Door County artist’s life for 32 years while also overseeing Mill Road Gallery with his wife, artist Brigitte Kozma. The two joined forces at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the 1960s, while under the tutelage of artists John Colt, Warrington Colescott and John Earnest. Seagard trained as a printmaker/lithographer before settling on art education and initially painted only on weekends.
After embracing abstract expressionism in the 1960s, and later moving on to portraiture and wildlife art, Seagard says that capturing a specific moment in history has now become his primary focus. He says his research into Mayan culture, while vacationing in Cancun, helped make him aware of how “…events that happened 100 years ago do impact how we live today.”
The Sister Bay Historical Society has encouraged Seagard to follow these inclinations, and the organization has provided a deep selection of early-20th century photographs. Further inspiration comes from his gallery visitors, who often tell local stories from the past, stories that inform his paintings with additional details. One story in particular inspired Sister Bay Up the Hill (1908), a view of Sister Bay before it almost completely burned to the ground a few years later in 1912. A gallery visitor told him she could remember a postman coming up the hill to her house to deliver the mail and take a package into Sister Bay. He came back to her house and said “Please don’t come to town, it’s not there.”
To subtly recall the effects of this devastating fire, Seagard says he placed a pump in one corner of a painting to recall the residents having formed a “bucket brigade,” a line of men, women and children who passed a bucket from hand to hand in an attempt to put out the flames. The pump image was painted from what he believes to be the actual pump used by the bucket brigade.
Seagard reimagines Sister Bay before and after the village burned. He says he “paints without exaggeration, aggrandizement, or romanticism, purely to document” a particular moment in the past, one previously seen only within a family photo frame. He hopes his reimagining can refresh these unique moments and bring them alive again for new viewers.
How does Seagard achieve the unique hue and mixed media texture of his historical paintings? He discovered his unusual medium by accident when he left a jug of Maxwell House coffee in a container — when the coffee dried, the grains left a gritty remnant, a mixture that couldn’t be duplicated by artist’s paint. To recreate this texture for painting purposes, Seagard mixes instant coffee to the consistency of chocolate sauce, adds four or five shots of Windex, and then lets it ‘cure.’ The resulting painted images also feature some children’s tempura paint, graphite, ink and watercolors. After application to his initial image with big, scratchy strokes, he finishes with etching and sewing needles to inscribe the painting’s surface details, often working under a magnifying glass. In his quest for accuracy, Seagard says, “the images speak to me, which if you listen, they will talk and grow.”
Now retired from teaching, Seagard has the energy and time to pursue Door County’s early photographic history, researching the stories behind the images, and then recreating the moments in a painting. His main concern, he says, is whether “…the subject matter is honest, so the image can be of respectful value to the viewer.”
After recently experiencing a life-altering illness, Seagard has re-emerged with renewed direction and a passion for a highly specialized genre, and medium. “I’m having the time of my life,” Seagard notes. “Our history fascinates me. In my new paintings, I hope I give the viewer reasons to be fascinated, too.”