Morrisonville native Thomas "Thom" Whalen saw a lot of the country before settling down almost where he started. After grad school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Whalen lived in Kansas City, Seattle, and Phoenix. When he came to Springfield, he bought a design company, which fared well, and did some adjunct teaching in graphic design for two years at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "I established a good relationship here at UIS and with the retired faculty," he says. But finding a full-time teaching position in the field is hard, so Whalen jumped at the chance to join the faculty at Lincoln Land Community College.
As assistant professor of fine arts at LLCC, Whalen teaches core art classes, including graphic design, art history, painting, and drawing. "I don't teach techniques," he says. "That's assumed. What I'm teaching is what I know."
For Whalen, the worlds of making art and teaching art are necessarily distinct and exclusive. Given his rather unique style, that goes largely without saying. "I do some pretty crazy things with my paintings," he concedes.
Whalen, who works exclusively in oils, says his style of painting has evolved over time: "You may learn how to talk a certain way, but how you talk at home is your natural way. I learned how to make my mark as a child [artist], and all I did after that was increase my motor skills. I only involve my [body from my] torso up when I paint. There's no gesture coming from my legs. Other artists throw themselves at their work."
A self-described imagist, Whalen says he was influenced by the Chicago-based Hairy Who movement, which includes artists Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, and Ed Paschke, but says his most important mentor was Roger Shimomura, a Seattle-born artist who lives in Lawrence.
Whalen tells stories in his art, directly and sometimes metaphorically as "visual pantomimes." The emphasis is on costumes, masks, and façades. "Everything is tongue-in-cheek with me, but I'm not trying to play with people's heads," he says. "The art may be cartoonish, but it's not a cartoon."
One person's "juvenile" approach is another person's "liberating" approach, he notes.
Thom Whalen presents "Aids of Language: Paintings by Thom Whalen" from 5:30-6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7, at the UIS Visual Arts Gallery (room 201 of the Health and Sciences Building). A reception follows from 6-8 p.m. A gallery showing of Whalen's art continues through Oct. 28. Hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.