Tom Coulson: A hidden treasure in the Valley
Article by Marcia Darnell
Art – February 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine
TOM COULSON’S WORK is virtually unknown in the San Luis Valley, despite the fact that he’s been producing paintings, large and small, since he moved here almost 30 years ago.
The reason? Real life intervened.
“We moved here from Baltimore in ’76,” he says. “My whole family — parents, five grown kids, and their spouses.” The tribe settled briefly in South Fork, then relocated near Alamosa, where Coulson still lives with his second wife, Genevieve.
Although he never stopped painting, the world of paychecks and raising a family didn’t leave much time for marketing his art. Coulson has sold his work whenever people see it, but most of it is hung, stacked, stored and displayed in his house.
“Sometimes after a bad day at work, I’d come home and do a small painting, just for stress relief,” he says.
After a series of jobs in the Valley (landscaping and newspaper paste-up) and at the Four Corners power plant, Coulson spent 20 years maintaining the structures at Rakhra Mushroom Farm. He now spends his days attending the Cisco Academy — training to administer Cisco systems — at the outpost of Trinidad State Junior College in Alamosa. He’s also adding a studio to his home, with lots of northern light, so that he can paint, “and Genevieve won’t have to put up with paint splatters all over the house.”
“I drew my first picture when I was 4,” he says. “I drew a donkey in complete detail and everyone was amazed.” As a teenager he won a national contest, earning the privilege of studying with Betty Harrison, which led to studies with Betty Wells. Some of his works grace museums on the east coast.
Coulson got a scholarship to study horticulture at the University of Maryland, but married and moved to the San Luis Valley instead. In addition to his varied work experience, he’s earned certification in several fields, including electrician, electronics, and gas pipe fitting.
He’s studied plants, martial arts and building skills.
His artwork has changed through his different careers, schools, and because of people he’s met. A seemingly bucolic painting of a river, teepees and a grass-covered ridge is titled “Death.” It was the result of an outing with a very old teacher, and no one else “gets it,” he says.
Coulson’s current artwork is very much influenced by where he lives.
“Being where there’s so few people, a lot of my work has no humans in ‘em,” he says. “Many have no pollution, no haze, because I can see for 80 miles from my house.” In fact, sometimes city people see his work and think his depth perception is off.
“I actually put pollution into some paintings to make them more palatable to city people.”
COULSON IS FASCINATED with the vagaries of memory, and often tests his by trying to recreate a scene on canvas, then taking it back to the site to see how well he did.
The results are always amazing, he says.
“Your whole universe is in your head,” he marvels. “You can look at a building, a person, or a tree, and go back and draw that from memory and discover the holes in your mind. What you see is always different from reality.”
He calls these paintings his “study guides.”
Sometimes, Coulson deliberately alters reality for the sake of art. In a painting entitled “The Moment Before” Coulson has the Statue of Liberty facing the twin towers of the World Trade Center, as if to witness the crashes.
He began a series of paintings after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, but only finished two.
“The reactions I got from people who saw them were not good,” he says. “They thought they were too negative. And someone accused me of trying to profit from the massacre.”
HIS FAVORITE SUBJECTS are outdoor scenes. Mountains, rivers, lakes and trees are big, as are sunrises and sunsets. But his favorite is the Great Sand Dunes.
“I go up there a lot. Sometimes I paint up there, like taking a photograph, and sometimes I just look around then come back here and paint.”
Coulson also works on commission, painting views of people’s homes, businesses, or the scene outside a window.
Other times, he just goes to work on a blank canvas.
“Some of these paintings, I didn’t know what it was going to be until I was halfway through it.”
One of Coulson’s “study guides,” a painting of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, is very popular, he says.
“People see this and swear it’s a place in Utah or Arizona or Nevada,” he says. “That’s because it was a general impression of the place rather than a photograph.”
He’s worked in charcoal and pen and ink, but prefers oils, and likes to make his own paints. One of the post-911 paintings has mother-of pearl mixed into the paint he used to show rays of light, making them luminous as they represent souls ascending into the clouds.
Coulson is looking forward to the summer break from school, something he hasn’t had in many years.
“I need to slow it down,” he says. “To spend more time on each work. I want to get back into subtleties, like a vein running through a leaf.”
COULSON PLANs a productive summer of painting, a lot of it at the Dunes. He also wants to do a series depicting the vegetation on the Valley floor, meaning he’ll be looking down while he works, instead of up. He’ll also be busy tending the 400 trees he’s planted on his property, in hopes of leaving something positive in the world, a footprint, after he’s gone.
Spending some time with his family is big on the agenda, too. His son, Christopher, lives in Albuquerque, and his step- (and adopted) daughter, Laurie, is a Navy singer.
Genevieve is a public health nurse.
Tom Coulson’s time in the Valley may be coming to an end, as he and Genevieve may leave for the big city for the sake of his new career, but his painting will never stop. That will be the footprint he leaves, his art.
“I just like to put paintings into people’s houses.”
Tom Coulson’s work is available from the artist, at 719-587-4057. Call for an appointment to see his home gallery.
Marcia Darnell lives, writes, and herds cats in Alamosa.
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