February 2013: Winter Scene by Ella La Victor
Winter scene by Ella La Victor

Featured Artist: Tom Marshall

Last updated: February 1, 2013

LSSU's Shouldice Library art gallery featured Alice Gadzinski's photos in her 2008 show Miss Interpretation: A Colorful Look at Feminism. Photo courtesy of John Shibley

Tom receiving the Judge’s Choice Award from Jim Halvorsen in 2009. He and Kate (Marshall Art Studio) took Best of Show in their first Sault Summer Arts Festival appearance in 2007.

Tom Marshall was our “Featured Artist” in January of 2008. We’re revisiting him for a number of reasons. One is that his career has taken off like a rocket. Another, and perhaps more important, reason is the enormous influence he has had on other artists. We have heard from a number of artists who have taken his plein air workshops, loved them, and came out of them enthusiastic, recharged and just itching to enroll in another, and we wanted to explore the reasons for their enthusiasm. Was it Tom’s teaching alone? The medium (pastels)? The plein airexperience? And what was it about plein air painting and the medium of pastels that lit a fire under Tom himself? Obviously the one to ask was Tom, and we’ll be quoting him extensively because no one can express his experience better or more succinctly than Tom himself.

We started by asking him basic questions about himself, his preferred medium, and how it became his preferred medium. When he retired in 2006, most of his paintings were in oils. When he switched to pastels, it was almost like seeing a different artist—one with a lighter, surer touch. He hit the ground running, with his new medium, taking, as he put it,

"best of show" award in the 2008 "Bridges" competition here in the Sault, two "honorable mentions" and a "second place" award in the Pastel Society of North Florida's national exhibitions, and inclusion in members exhibitions and national shows with the Great Lakes Pastel Society and the Appalachian Pastel Society, all within the past four years.

He doesn’t even mention top awards in every Sault Summer Arts Festival he entered (Best of Show in 2010 and 2007, and Judge’s Choice Award in 2009).

First, some background: Tom retired from teaching in the Sault school system in 2006. During most of his career, he taught art. We asked him which came first, teaching or art, and he wrote:

I had a very early interest in art. My parents took me to the Detroit Art Institute when I was 6 or 7 years old and it was there that I first realized that the people who created those masterpieces were special. Soon after, my parents signed me up for Saturday morning art classes, paid for private art lessons, and bought me just about all the art supplies I begged for.

Steve Shields (a grade school friend) and I would put on yearly summertime art exhibits in our basements and charge five cents admission to all the neighborhood kids. All school year long we would copy cartoons from Mad Magazine and create watercolor paintings on shirt boards of the Civil War battles that were celebrating their 100th anniversary at the time. We would ride our bikes all over the south side of Lansing looking through trash cans to find discarded picture frames for our art. And, we both took art as electives in junior and senior high school.

At Alma College I majored in art and elementary education. My intention was to be an elementary classroom teacher and a part-time artist, but when offered a position as a traveling elementary art teacher for the Sault Schools in 1976, I jumped at the chance. For the first 23 years that I worked for Sault Schools I taught art on the elementary, junior high, and high school levels. Each day after school, I would take my students' work home, write comments on sticky notes about the positive things I saw, and attach these comments to the reverse sides of their projects. By the end of each evening, I had little enthusiasm left for creating my own art.

Our next question concerned his medium. Obviously his switch to pastels had an enormous catalytic effect on both Tom and his work. How did he happen to make the switch and why did it have such a huge effect? And what was the relationship between the effect the switch had on him and the enthusiasm it aroused in the artists in his classes? How much credit was due to Tom’s teaching and enthusiasm, how much due to the medium, itself, and how much to the plein air experience? Tom writes:

It wasn't until the late 1990s that I started painting again. I tried watercolors, but wasn't happy with my efforts. Then I explored oil painting, but admit that I don't have the patience needed to wait for the paint to dry. When I tried my hand at pastels, something clicked. No water, no solvents, no brushes between me and the painting surface, and no waiting! My mistakes could be scrubbed off in a matter of seconds and my corrections repainted immediately. During the opening evening of one of my very first shows most of my pastel paintings sold. That was enough to make me want to investigate the medium even more.

In the late 1990s I gave my unused oil paints and brushes to Jeanne Tubman and started collecting different sets of soft pastels. There are two types of pastels... oil pastels and soft pastels, and I paint with soft pastels. Oil pastels employ oil as a binder and soft pastels use gum of tragacanth to hold the pigment together. The pigments in pastels are exactly the same as the pigments used in oil paints, acrylics, and watercolors.... it's only the binders that differ. I experimented with different brands of pastels and papers eventually found the ones that work best for me.

Ah! This not only teaches us something about the medium; it helps explains Tom’s affinity for it. And now, the plein air experience:

Many years ago my friend Ken Hatfield invited me to go sketching with him. After 70 years of plein air painting ("plein air" is French for "open air",) Ken has become a master at sketching out of doors. He appeared at the perfect time as a mentor for my career. My work was getting stale and it was Ken who showed me how important open air studies are for producing believable studio paintings of nature.

At about the same time, I joined the Great Lakes Pastel Society so that I could learn from other pastel painters in the region. One of the founders of the Great Lakes Pastel Society, Carl Forslund, summers on Drummond Island. Carl called me one June day and invited me to go sketching with him. It was Carl who motivated me to enter pastel exhibits and competitions around the country. I'm not nearly as talented as Carl Forslund or Diana Grenier of Hessel, but I've been very lucky so far. I was awarded a "best of show" award in the 2008 "Bridges" competition here in the Sault, two "honorable mentions" and a "second place" award in the Pastel Society of North Florida's national exhibitions, and inclusion in members exhibitions and national shows with the Great Lakes Pastel Society and the Appalachian Pastel Society, all within the past four years.

Because there are no brushes or solvents to tote around, pastel is very well suited to outdoor sketching. One of the reasons Kate and I winter on Florida's Panhandle is so we can sketch outside more often than we would be able to here at home. The Apalachicola Bay area is a favorite for us. We are both attracted to water and this uncrowded northwest Florida Gulf Coast area has so many scenic painting venues.

Since starting to work in pastel, my greatest thrill has been sharing this wonderful medium with other people. I've been teaching workshops in the Sault and on St. George Island, Florida since 2007 and I love seeing other artists get excited about the limitless possibilities of pastel painting.

Asked about upcoming workshops, he answered that his current plan is:

to take a 2-year sabbatical from teaching workshops here in the Soo. I have a boat to finish building and I have several commissions to complete, plus I plan to paint more seriously and enter more national shows. I have a few articles that are in my "Documents" file that I would like to complete as well. So, no new classes until 2014 or 2015.

So there you have it. An update on Tom Marshall and an explanation of plein air painting and the pastel medium. Tom and Kate Marshall are currently wintering and painting in Florida. You can keep up with their work on their website: www.marshallartstudio.net Tom is represented by the Sault Realism Gallery in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan and the Sea Oats Art Gallery on St. George Island, Florida.

Works by Tom Marshall
Click to see a larger version.

Tom Marshall's First Place Award winner in Bridges Juried Exhibit in 2008

First Place Award winner in Bridges Juried Exhibit in 2008

Tom Marshall’s Cornish Urn, which took Second Place in the Pastel Society of North Florida member show in 2011

Tom’s Cornish Urn, which took Second Place in the Pastel Society of North Florida member show in 2011

Light Beyond the Cypress by Tom Marshall. Pastel Society of North Florida 2012

Light Beyond the Cypress.  Pastel Society of  North Florida 2012

Sault Area Arts Council Home Page 217 Ferris Street, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
e-mail: saac@saultarts.org Phone: (906) 635-1312