NORTH SALEM, N.Y.— If you set out to make art, you’re in trouble.
Croton Falls artist Tom Christopher chooses to let the inspiration hit him.
“I walk around like a homeless man all day,” he said, working in his self-deprecating style as effortlessly as his love for Manhattan into his art. “I stand around on street corners and look for stuff. You follow light, follow people, look at activity, and all of a sudden it will click.”
When it does, he quickly breaks out his sketchpad, which the former courtroom sketch artist carries everywhere to document what he sees during his regular strolls around New York City. The city is almost always the subject of his work.
“You want to tell a story,” said Christopher, a South Salem resident who owns a 5,000-square-foot forklift factory-turned-art gallery in Croton Falls. “It’s almost like just capturing something. Get all the information down. ‘How does this guy move? What’s he wearing? How’s he holding the cigarette?’”
But, it’s more than that. He writes on his website that he acts as a shadow, catching bits of conversation that make their way into the narrative thread.
“Through aggressive and complimentary colors over skeletal black lines I’ve tried to get this mood of the city,” he wrote on his website. “Point out the beauty of the streets and juxtapose it with the dark underside of American life. Think [Henri] Matisse’s goal of a comfy chair for the weary businessman. But with a pit bull hiding in the cushion.”
Christopher was born and raised in Pasadena, Calif., and studied at the Art Center College in Los Angeles. He moved to New York City in 1981, just looking for a change, and he found it drawing and painting the city one day in 1987.
“I was walking down the street and the sky looked like the color of wet concrete; it was really depressing,” he said. “And all of asudden the clouds shifted and the light came beaming through and it was like this laser of bright white light. And I happen to be on Broadway and 47th and it just shot down the street and illuminated everything.”
Christopher remembers that light sculpting the people, objects and buildings around him in what was a very different, dangerous New York City in the late 1980s.
“Ballerinas are crossing the street in sweats and the garbage trucks and the carting trucks and the thugs, and the bicyclists and messengers screaming by and the homeless guys with the sharpened pencils coming out of the shadows and zeroing in on your neck. It was the most amazing place. I thought, ‘this is just too good, I have to start painting this.’ So I did. I started painting New York City.”
In the 10 years prior to that day, the father of two had made a career of “just drawing stuff” for newspapers and magazines. He started out while in California drawing cars for Motor Trend Magazine and creating rock posters for CBS Records.
“The New York Times would call up and say, ‘we need a picture of a telephone,’ or something stupid like that,” he recalled.
Nails, screwdrivers, hammers, vacuum cleaners are just a few of the objects he was hired to draw for different media outlets, which also included The Wall Street Journal and People Magazine.
“I was painting them all like 4 feet by 8 feet,” he said. “[The outlet] would photograph them, they’d get in the New York Times or somewhere, and then I’d show the paintings in the East Village at galleries and sell them. So you could get a double use out of one thing.”
During that time, Christopher met his wife, Dawn, who owns a wine store a stone’s throw from his gallery across the train tracks.
“He did some work for me, long before he became a renowned artist,” she said.
Even before that, when Christopher was fresh out of college, he dressed like a pirate in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square sketching people.
“You learn how to really draw people,” he said, admitting he was not qualified for the job, but had always wanted to work at Disneyland. “You categorize foreheads, noses, eyes, ears… You could take that to courtrooms.”
When Christopher moved to New York City in 1981 he also got work capturing courtroom drama as a sketch artist for CBS News in downtown Manhattan. While working with Meredith Vieira and John Stossel, he formed the foundation for what he calls his “journalistic approach” to art.
“It just happened,” he said. “You just kind of go along with it. You follow your thoughts and interests, and that was my interest-New York City.”
That first sketch of New York City Christopher turned into a painting that he said sold in 15 minutes at a Madison Avenue gallery. So, he painted another, which also sold.
“And then they gave me a show and I just kept rolling,” he said. “Been with that gallery like 20 years. Now they’re in France.”
This is one of the many life events Christopher likes to call his “Forrest Gump” moments.
“It’s like E.B. White said: ‘If you live in New York, you should be prepared to be lucky.’ And I’m extremely lucky,” he said. “I just happen to fall into a lot of things.”
Recently, Christopher fell into a project in which he created a series of giant murals-spanning 16 feet by 200 feet-depicting the working men and women of Puerto Rico and exploring the struggle and the pride of the proletariat.
“And they’re in this wonderful surrounding,” he said. “San Juan is an insane city. You feel like you’re in a Van Gogh painting. Houses are red, green, blue and it’s like they all get together and figure out their color scheme.”
After this year-long project, Christopher said he has a busy 2017 ahead with shows in Japan, France and Germany. But he doesn’t have immediate plans to travel for other projects. Instead, he wants to return to painting New York City.
“He really is the quintessential New York City artist,” Dawn said. “I don’t know any artist that can capture New York City better than he can.”