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  • Writer's pictureShea Stanfield

On the Road to Discovery

It all began in 1841 when an American artist developed a process of putting his paints into metal tubes. Until then, artists mixed their paints every time their palette went dry, often grinding their pigments. Now with portable colors, artists could take their paints, a collapsible easel, and equipment on the road to explore the possibilities of light in the wild. Today, en plein air continues to grow in popularity. Tom Conner is one of the local artists that finds his inspiration in following the light along the path less traveled through Arizona's vast and expansive landscapes.

Tom was born in Missouri but grew up in North Carolina, outside of Charlotte. He states, "I attended one of the local rural high schools where farm fields and forests were the only thing visible from the campus." He remembers activities such as hunting, fishing, and canoeing the local waterways as normal activities, a perfect way to gain experience and a deep reverence for the natural world. Tom shares the arts was not an emphasis in the curriculum, although there were art classes. "I remember Ms. Farmer, my art teacher in junior high, introducing me to various art mediums; her classroom was a bit of a sanctuary for me."

North Carolina State University was the next stop on Tom's the educational journey; he enrolled, intending to become a computer engineer. "Personal computers were new, and the degree program seemed a practical major." Tom says, "However, I quickly realized this would not be a rewarding career, so I applied to the architecture program, looking to scratch that creative itch." He found this move broadened his horizons even more than he initially suspected. The architecture program was part of the School of Design, where he was exposed to various creative paths; graphic design, textile design, product design, and much more. During his degree program, Tom said, "I also took as many life drawing courses as I could squeeze in just for fun.”

"The quality of light within my subjects is a particular interest to me. It is similar to architecture, where I create spaces activated by the quality of light, how the light enters the space, how it defines forms, and how it creates an atmosphere.”

Additional discoveries were on the horizon for young Tom; after completing his degree he moved west and landed in Phoenix, Arizona. "I found work at an architecture firm with a group of people that remain friends today, thirty years later. In those days when we weren't putting in long hours on the job, we would take camping and backpacking trips throughout Arizona." Tom found the landscapes of the Sonoran Desert very different from North Carolina, yet his fascination with nature endured. This love of the natural world and his wife encouraged Tom in 2013 to start painting. To his dismay, what appeared on the canvas was not the picture in his head; he didn't give up. Over the years, Tom stayed with it, his painting skills allowed him to aligned his vision to what he saw on the canvas.

Tom was introduced to the en plein air painting concept, which led him to join the Arizona Plein Air Painters. The move would become a watershed moment in his learning curve. As a group member, he met other painters who shared technique tips. Tom also enjoyed his time outdoors, which was an added bonus. Today, Tom also paints from his Central Phoenix, Arizona, home studio. He readily admits, "En plein air practice will always be an important part of my painting; I'll spend a lifetime trying to learn all the lessons." The fascinating aspect of the style, as Tom describes it, "The quality of light within my subjects is a particular interest to me. It is similar to architecture, where I create spaces activated by the quality of light, how the light enters the space, how it defines forms, and creates an atmosphere.”

Two galleries in Arizona represent architect and painter Tom Conner; the Belleza Gallery in Bisbee and The Finer Arts Gallery in Cave Creek. He is also a member of the Oil Painters of America, the Arizona Plein Air Painters, and the Sonoran Arts League. Throughout the year, Tom attends numerous Plein Air Festivals and regional exhibits to continue to move forward with refining his skills and bringing his customers and collectors to the brilliance of the light.


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