Seashores in abstract

Tom Gardner’s oceanic paintings ask viewers to create their own strange new worlds

“Strange Harbor” by Tom Gardner

“Strange Harbor” by Tom Gardner

Photo by David Robert

A friend of 70-year-old painter Tom Gardner said that the songs of the poet and musician Leonard Cohen would be the best music in the world to commit suicide to. Nevertheless, Gardner often listens to Cohen’s anesthetizing songs of longing while he paints, and his acrylic paintings of seascapes capture some of Cohen’s bittersweet style.

His pieces do not make me question what reasons I have to live, but they do encourage me to delve into the deeper regions of my conscious, looking for the tranquil and the sedate amid all that is restless.

As I walk inside the very classy and cozy Zimmerman Gallery, a newly opened gallery on Vesta Street off Wells Avenue, Gardner’s paintings, hung against the back wall, invite me further in. The pieces, brightly colored and richly textured, beg me to touch them. Gallery owner Peter Zimmerman encourages me to do so. I brush my fingertips across every vein, groove, bump, scratch and gouge.

Definitively labeling Gardner’s paintings as seascapes is a bit of a leap. The pieces are not vivid and accurate renderings of beaches, waves and clouds. Rather, they are abstract accounts of a time and a place that lies in the abyss between wakefulness and sleep.

“Treat my painting as its own little universe,” Gardner advises. “Get lost in the painting without any outside stimulation.”

Because of the intangibility and the vagueness of Gardner’s work, viewers are able to create their own dream worlds using Gardner’s paintings as a catalyst to set their imaginations in motion.

“I want you to look at [my painting], get into it and try to make up your own story about it,” Gardner says. “We’re all creative. Creativity is pulling out of yourself what God has already put there. Maybe [my paintings] will stimulate creativity in others.”

The majority of Gardner’s paintings at the gallery are horizontally balanced, conveying a desire, like Cohen does, for something stable and peaceful in a hectic world. In contrast, there is a painting that stands out because of its unsettling vertical and perpendicular lines—"Strange Harbor.”

“Strange Harbor” seems to take a bird’s eye view of an industrial harbor area. There are circles and checkerboard patterns etched into the painting. A mess of blues, purples and greens is formed in the center, layer over layer. Bright orange on the right side of the painting and mustard yellow in the top left corner distract from the chaotic center. The texture is strategic. It feels very urban. It could be somebody’s dream version of Long Beach or Seattle.

When I ask Gardner if my interpretation of “Strange Harbor” is correct he says, “I wouldn’t tell you whether you’re right or wrong. I’ve done my part. You interpret it.” But he does say that my analysis is not far from what he intended.

“It is not grounded, it’s less static. It’s a new place and the anticipation of arriving in a new place is scary."