John Seed in conversation with Leslie Toms

Leslie at Carmel MissionLeslie, what can you tell me about your childhood and formative years?

I was born and raised in a middle-class suburb of Sacramento. In a way it was very sterile and homogenized but safe: it was a cookie cutter existence. If you went over to a friend’s house you knew where the bathroom was and which cupboard held the glasses. My friends and I were all part of the postwar baby-boomer generation. Unlike most of our neighbor’s homes, our house did not have a TV until 1960 when my father brought home a color television console: Hence my formative years were mostly without television. I still rarely watch television and I think that has freed me to be creative my whole life.

I’ve been told that I was creative since I could barely walk. My first mural was on the long, white patio wall made from mud and the contents of my diaper. That’s rather embarrassing to admit. When asked to draw my parents at 3 1/2, I was kicked out of nursery school for doing contour drawings with all the parts in the right places. The teacher was a strict Christian and my classmates had drawn stick figures or scribbles. Supposedly I was too radical for my peers and might influence them.

When did you know that you were going to be an artist?

The first time was when I was seven. My best friend got a paint-by-number set for her birthday. I watched as she started painting. When she opened up the turpentine and damar medium the smell of it just shook my world. I watched her paint it for days and then requested one for my birthday a couple of months later. It did not happen. Disappointed I started to save to buy one. My father told me I would just mess it all up and it would be a waste of money. I got little jobs and begged for funds from relatives and finally one day I had enough to buy my first paint-by-number kit.

I carefully set it all out on a table and opened up the medium, took the brush and began painting the colors into the numbered shapes of a farm scene with a fence. But it was boring and the colors weren’t ‘right’ so I started mixing them together. Sure enough I got muddy colors and the whole thing was ruined. My friend and I decided later that week that we would be artists and writers when we grew up. She would be the artist and I would be the writer since I ruined my painting and hers looked quite nice.

The second time I knew I was going to be an artist I was a junior in college and had gone to live in Holland with my Dutch boyfriend. One day in April of 1973 I was sitting in the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch.” I went to all the museums on the days they were free to stay warm and work on my independent study project from Chapman. I sat there on a bench and had one of those moments of extreme clarity. I decided to go home, finish college and be an American artist. My Dutch boyfriend had asked me to stay and marry him but I knew in my soul that I did not fit anywhere but the U.S. I lost most of my academic scholarships because I changed majors and so I moved back to Sacramento and transferred to CSUS when there was an incredible faculty and tuition was nearly free.

My childhood best friend (the painter) and I finally re-connected 18 years ago. We had lost touch over the years. She had become a prolific, published novelist. I had become an artist.

Tell me about some of your mentors and influences.

For many years I worked as a printmaker and on my “Constructed Monotypes”. Here and there I had part time jobs to support myself. One of those jobs was for the Crocker Art Museum, which I started in 1985. Working around wonderful paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Manual Neri, Gregory Kondos and so on, woke me up to painting. Over the years I had met some of these artists and others such as Bob Arneson, Roy de Forest & a few of Society of Six and their followers. I took classes and workshops from a few of them; others I visited or got to know. Many of my friends were also artists so they too became influential.

One artist who has really mentored me the most is Gregory Kondos who is now 91 and still painting. Most of my friends were scared of him and I was surprised to find him supportive and charming despite a strong ego! He helped a lot when my father died, as they were the same age. I lamented to him a few years ago that I was so far behind as a painter because I had spent twenty years in printmaking. He told me that he really didn’t hit his stride as a painter until he was my age. He also said he wished he had another 30 or 40 years left: I understand now that it’s a personal journey not a race.

You have a feeling for simplicity: have you always been that way?

Actually: yes. I’ve always been very complicated on the inside but project simplicity outwardly. I edit out of necessity to find balance: perhaps a little like a filmmaker. I find most humans to be very noisy and they miss much in life by creating noise.

I try to imbue my work with the essence of the subject, rather like what you catch out of the corner of you eye when you are driving fast on a freeway. I also use all my senses when I work. I prefer the sounds of nature or music. I play music often while I paint. I like a lot of types of music but not rap or heavy metal. Some paintings are painted to one piece of music played again and again.

Color plays an important role in your art: tell me about your color sense.

Leslie Toms painting in the vineyards

Leslie Toms painting in the vineyards

Color is likely the dominant feature in my work and I am often described as a “master colorist”, “colorist” or “contemporary Fauvist.” I’ve worked alongside other artists many times and I just see things differently. Where some artists are very good at tonality, I find that unexciting. For me, working in color is pure heaven. There are certain colors and combinations I feel work better but I’m always pushing for something new. I primarily use color and light to form objects or to define space and to create mood and direct the eye. Colors to me are like notes in a symphony. Even though I like intense colors I have learned to modulate them better. I think I’ve spent 40 years attempting to master color but every so often it surprises me.

What kind of impact do you want your work to have on viewers?

I want my viewers to go there: to be able to leave where they are to reside in my paintings for a while. I hope they find that the vibrations of color and shape allow them to experience the soul. I don’t try to capture a snapshot of somewhere or make any political statements. I want to offer a single moment and have that burn into them and leave a stamp on their memory. It’s a bit like seeing something from the corner of your eye and wonder if you really saw it or not. That’s my gift: it’s one of the only things I know how to do.

John Seed is a professor of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. He has written about art and artists for Harvard Magazine, Art Ltd., Arts of Asia, the HuffingtonPost and Hyperallergic.