At Home in Brown County
by Chrissy Alspaugh, photo by Chrissy Alspaugh
Every nail in every board brings artist Thom Robinson closer to home.
But to have seen him over the last 30 years eating Saturday morning breakfasts at the Artists Colony Inn, buying groceries in Brown County IGA, and spending the better part of most weeks painting along ditches of every bend in Brown County, it’s hard to believe Robinson never has lived closer than a 50-minute drive to the only place he said he’s ever really belonged.
He is a plein-air painter who drove past the same for-sale Brown County woods for 15 years before finally buying the property with his wife, Pat, in 2011. He is constructing the 640-square-foot start of an eventually larger cabin mostly himself, and hopes to have the space livable by this fall.
The couple lived in Bedford from the 1970s until about two years ago, when they followed Pat’s job to Indianapolis. They frequently stay overnight with friends in Brown County, but Robinson said having a place of their own in the community can’t happen soon enough.
For the last year, Robinson’s navy blue Jeep has spent more time waiting for him to return with hammers and lumber than canvasses and easels.
His insistence on quality and attention to detail has slowed the cabin’s construction. It’s the same affliction he faces with his paintings.
“If I’m going to take the time to do something, I’m going to do it right,” Robinson said, removing his black wire-rims to wipe the lenses.
That’s not to say he is always satisfied with his finished products. Robinson keeps meticulous count of his paintings, and he averages 60 “keepers” per year.
Another 40 or so will have been scraped off their canvasses, thrown away or kept only because some aspect of the painting may provide inspiration in the future.
“I know some of the best painters in the country, and they’ve all painted dogs,” he said, with a warm chuckle. “They might not admit it, but they have.”
Robinson said those failed pieces are enough to deter some people from continuing to pursue painting altogether. But life is rarely perfect, so he doesn’t see why art should be any different.
“A lot of times, we’re all just learning—learning what not to do as much as anything,” Robinson said.
Rick Kelley, president of the Nashville-based Indiana Heritage Arts, said though Robinson is an “extremely good” painter, no one works harder than he does to continually improve.
But what really makes Robinson’s work stand out, Kelley said, is the fact that he paints not from two-dimensional photographs, but rather from seeing the light, shadows and colors perfectly, outside with his own eyes.
Robinson works outdoors because he likes the atmosphere as much as he likes to paint. He said spending hours driving, hiking, or canoeing in search of scenes that beckon for a few hours of his study is half the fun.
Every finished painting reminds him of the people and stories that accompanied it, Robinson said, grinning and scratching his head through the faded red hat a friend bought him for his birthday last year while they painted together in Utah. One woman recently asked for his credentials before granting permission to paint on her property. Another elderly gentleman misunderstood what Robinson meant in requesting to paint his barn. He asked, puzzled, how Robinson planned to paint his barn without any kind of ladders.
Robinson’s vehicle always can be found hauling painting equipment in light-weight, self-crafted cases that enable him to trek up a stream or into a tractor graveyard on a moment’s notice. The wooden boxes are unlike any found in stores. Robinson has worked as a tool and dye machinist since leaving the Navy in his early 20s. He is quick to clarify that tooling never was a career that supported painting as a hobby; rather, it was the hobby that made possible a lifelong career as a painter.
At 57, Robinson humbly supposes his career is at a high point.
“I’m getting invited to a lot of national shows and paint-outs, so I must be getting better,” he said, with a smiling shrug. “But I’d be a lot further with my painting if it weren’t for the cabin.”
Finally moving to Brown County will bring a long-awaited dream to fruition. Robinson joked that T.C. Steele moved to the area when he was 60 years old, so his goal always has been to beat that.
The community just fits him—slow-paced and teeming with fellow artists who speak his language. Robinson said it’s a place that breeds creativity, between the people and the landscape. He eagerly awaits spending evenings in the cabin he soon will call home—sipping wine in front of a wood stove, sharing stories with friends.
With the achievement of moving to Brown County in sight, Robinson said he supposes after that he’ll “just keep painting and traveling.”
He can’t imagine retirement.
“I’ll paint ‘til I’m gone,” he said, laughing. “I have a lot of places I still want to paint, but I’ll always end up back here.”
You can find Thom’s work at the Brown County Art Gallery and the Brown County Art Guild and through his website <tcrobinson.com>. You can contact him via e-mail at <email@example.com>, reach him through Facebook, or call him at (812) 329-9410.