Tomie’s Early Obsession
Tomie grew up in the small industrial town of Meriden, Conn., at the intersection of his mother’s Irish family, whom he calls a “wild, wonderful bunch,” and the “grand opera” of his father’s Italian relatives. As a child he drew everywhere—on his sheets, behind the wallpaper—and his parents kept him well supplied with crayons and paper. His maternal grandfather, a butcher and one of Tomie’s favorite people, donated a big roll of butcher paper to Tomie’s early obsession with art.
Tomie’s first mentors in the arts were his older twin cousins, Franny and Fuffy, students at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City who went on to become talented fashion photographers. He recalls sitting on a footstool by the gateleg table at his grandmother’s house, drawing with crayons beside his glamorous cousins, who were painting watercolors of a yellow tulip.
“They told me if I really wanted to be an artist, I would have to practice, practice, practice, and never copy,” he says. “So while all the kids in grade school were copying Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, I didn’t do that. I was creating my own characters.”
His grade school art teacher, Beulah Bowers, who supervised art classes across seven schools, told Tomie he had talent, but he suspects something else caught her attention. “It wasn’t that I was the best drawer,” he says. “I just had this active imagination and was always trying out and looking at new stuff. My cousins’ mantra about originality has always stayed with me.”
Tomie knows he was fortunate to have so much early encouragement and support. “I didn’t have to battle or abandon my family,” he says. “I think it made a difference.”
Died and Gone to Heaven
Early on, Tomie set his sights on the Pratt Institute, and after high school, with his family’s encouragement and a $500 annual scholarship from his hometown that covered his tuition costs, he set out for New York City. He joined a class of 1,000 freshman for a year of arts foundation courses, based on the Bauhaus school philosophy.
“We went to school five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and spent eight hours a day doing art, drawing from the figure, listening to lectures. We were lucky if we had a half-hour for lunch. But you know, I died and went to heaven!” he says. “A place like Pratt was made for someone like me, and I just devoured it.”
Only half of his class was invited back for the next semester, and Tomie found himself surrounded by 500 students who were most likely the best artists in their high schools.
“Suddenly the deflation happened. I earned Cs and Bs in my first semester, but by the end of my first year I pushed my grades up and was off and running,” he recalls.
By his sophomore year, Tomie’s class had been whittled down to 250 students. “It became very elitist—like real life,” he says. “I had never seen someone have a nervous breakdown, and there I saw about three of them before one girl jumped off a building. There was a lot of pressure.”
Tomie took classes in two- and three-dimensional design, and figure, nature and perspective drawing. With aspirations as a children’s book illustrator, he focused on illustration even as he learned to paint and mix colors. During his years at Pratt, he also earned credit for studying frescoes with Ben Shawn at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine, and learned to create set designs for theater productions with a Yale professor.
“In those days there was no campus at Pratt—New York City was our campus. My cousins had told me to take advantage of the museums in New York, and so on Saturdays I would pay a dime to take the subway into the Manhattan—where the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) was free—and you could get a student membership at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) for five bucks, which entitled you to go to all the openings,” he explains. “It was unbelievable! No matter how much homework I had for the weekend, I’d go the museums. It was a big part of my education.”
Then, as now, art schools attracted and celebrated non-conformity. Tomie says his daily “uniform” at college was blue jeans, dirty white tennis shoes without socks, and a black crew neck merchant marine sweater. And every fall his mother bought him three or four sweatshirts that he wore to his studio classes. “I’d turn them inside out and wipe my brushes on them,” he recalls.
While Tomie was at Pratt, Maurice Sendak and other talented children’s book illustrators were emerging, ushering in a golden era for children’s books that gave him confidence in his career direction. The institute also became one of the first art schools to add a fourth year to its curriculum and offer the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree to its program, which Tomie took full advantage of.
“I consider myself very lucky—I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “That old business of teaching yourself to look and experience—that’s what art is. I blame everything, good and bad, on my education,” Tomie says. “Pratt totally changed my life.”
A Brief Stay at the Monastery
Catholicism was a constant in Tomie’s early life, and after his graduation from Pratt in 1956, he entered a new Benedictine monastery called Weston Priory in Vermont. He was drawn to the Benedictine Order’s embrace of art and music and hoped to pursue his life as an artist there. But he found the monastic lifestyle wasn’t right for him, and he stayed just three weeks, returning twice before moving on for good.
Yet Tomie believes his time at the monastery made him a better artist, and since then religious themes and images have pervaded his children’s books without imparting overtly religious messages. He draws on his childhood experience of religion, embracing the beauty and power and wonder of its rituals and iconography without incorporating its dogma into his lifestyle or work. Like most artists, he draws from personal experience and imagination, and in his work his religious influences coexist peaceably with the other strong influences of his Irish and Italian heritage.
“I was born a Catholic, and you never get rid of that, especially if you’re Italian,” he says, laughing. “I’m not a Roman Catholic, but spirituality is part of me, and I don’t deny it or battle it. I embrace it, but I don’t proselytize. If I feel like doing a sacred image, I do. Some of the world’s greatest art was done in the service of spirituality.”
Tomie points to a small altar in a corner of his studio, where he meditates each morning, which is adorned with a portrait of Mother Placid, a lifelong friend and talented artist, as well as a cloistered nun, who recently passed away. In a walk through his studio and attached home, it is clear that the familiar symbols of Christianity—simple crosses, images of the Madonna and child, and Mexican altars—both inspire and comfort him.