Springfield painters Thom Whalen and Kevin Veara met 15 years ago when they were both Fine Arts undergraduates at Eastern Illinois University. They got to know each other, driving back and forth together to college, but took different career paths after they graduated. Starting in January, they'll be back together in a classroom, teaching at Lincoln Land Community College.
Both say their interest in art was sparked when they were just five. Whalen's mom, an artist, took him all over the U.S., visiting museums and exposing Whalen to the world of art. Back home, she helped Whalen make replicas of buildings using bricks he made out of dough. In Catholic school, Whalen was a problem child, but one nun who happened to be an artist herself, Sister Mary Ellen, helped Whalen channel his energy into art. She had Whalen paint murals around the classroom, and in second grade Sister Mary Ellen started giving him private lessons. He continued studying art as a child, enrolling in night classes at Lincoln Land when he reached high school.
When Veara was a kid, he colored a lot, as most five-year-olds are apt to do, but says he remembers doing a really good job. He stayed in the lines, quite an accomplishment for a little kid, but he really got into it, laying colors over colors, and was suddenly aware that he had a technical skill.
Not that a five-year-old would know the term "technical skill," but you get the idea. In first grade, he crayoned a Donald Duck that actually looked like Donald Duck, and he won a blue ribbon. At this tender age, Veara knew he had something.
Both Veara and Whalen received MFAs in painting, Whalen at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and Veara at SIU-Carbondale. But it's difficult for a fine artist to make a living just off painting, and Veara and Whalen have managed to apply their talents and skills in income-producing ways. And they leave themselves plenty of time to pursue their craft.
Whalen has been an assistant art professor at Lincoln Land for four years now. He teaches painting, art history, and graphic design. Before settling in Springfield, he lived all over the place. After graduate school he headed to Seattle, where he silk-screened porcelain enamel on steel, creating bus tunnel murals. In Phoenix, he ran the art department for a big stereo company, Orion. He's been a freelance graphic designer, and he does art on the computer, too.
Whalen spends 25-30 hours a week painting. He paints every day -- early in the morning, late at night, any chance he can squeeze in time when his nine-year-old son, Alex, is asleep. He calls his style of painting "Mad Max Meets the Bible" -- surrealism with a social message. His paintings are influenced by Persian illustrations and infused with various idioms. They're vibrant and alive, filled with bold colors and interesting images. It takes Whalen two years to paint enough for a show, about 15-20 paintings. He's been in shows all over the country, including the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. There, dignitaries from Russia picked one of his pieces for a traveling exhibition in Russia called the Council for St. Petersburg. In September, Whalen plans to show his work in St. Louis.
Veara paints every day too, but by day he's a tattoo artist. He does a thriving business at his shop, Black Moon Tattoos. He's also a bird guy, frequently leading bird walks at Lincoln Memorial Garden. And he's a cyclist; if you look fast, you can see him buzzing around Washington Park, or some country road. And a hiker; he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail over an 11-year span, going back every couple of years to complete another section.
Veara's painting is driven by the intellectual challenge of creation, and right now he's working on abstract landscapes. When he was a kid, he was fascinated with birds and animals, and wanted to be an ornithologist. His passion for nature and the environment is evident in his work, and his determination to keep painting is like his fortitude in conquering the Appalachian Trail. Veara shows his work as much as he can; he's had shows around Illinois, and here in Springfield.
And now, 15 years later, Whalen and Veara are together again, as Veara joins Whalen in teaching an art class at Lincoln Land. The artists' dedication and passion in pursuing their craft will surely inspire younger artists. Lincoln Land (and Springfield) is lucky to have such talented and interesting artists right here.