One morning I received a DM from an artist friend: “Did u see this? I think it would be great for Tom.” He included a link to a request for qualifications (RFQ) for a library mural project at Indiana University. I scanned the prospectus and felt a flutter in my heart. It seemed as if they had written the outline with Tom in mind; he specialized in powerful narrative and historical murals. The budget for the mural, $400,000, was the largest I had ever seen in all of my years of researching public mural projects. The future mural’s location was adjacent to the famous Thomas Hart Benton murals, painted in the 1940s. The committee was looking for a sweeping cycle of murals installed in the Lilly Library, world-renowned for its collections of hundreds of thousands of original literary manuscripts. They wanted the future murals to inspire a sense of wonder and awe in the Lilly Library users about the century-spanning collections. Tom had just finished what he considered his best mural to date, a historical mural in LaPorte, Indiana, the summer before. I knew he would be thrilled about the project.
There was a month turnaround time for artist entries. The RFQ phase required a letter of interest, Tom’s CV, and a link to his website and public works. There was so much at stake with this project. It could elevate Tom on a national level, something we had always been striving for. We could stretch the money for a long time and possibly travel a little more. Tom had spent all the years and projects leading up to this practicing, trying to improve as an artist. He was ready for this moment.
I felt pressure to get everything right and convince the selection committee why Tom was the ideal candidate to paint this mural. My voice is much different from Tom’s, and finding a balance between his unique perspective and my straightforward, fact-based approach was always tricky. We talked about what he wanted the committee to know about him, his background, why he seeks to make public art, and how he approaches his projects. His instinct is always to divulge too much, and mine s to distill things to the most salient and necessary information. I let him tell me everything he thought the letter should say and then spent the next two weeks writing what I thought was the best letter I had ever written for Tom.
Dear Selection Committee for the Bicentennial Murals for the Lilly Library Reading Room,
I am pleased to submit this letter of interest and appendices for your consideration for the Bicentennial Murals in the Lilly Library Reading Room at Indiana University Libraries. When you look at the samples of my work through the appendices’ links, you will see that I have been preparing for this project my entire career.
The drive for me to seek opportunities to create public art derives from growing up in a racially mixed, economically challenged, inner-city neighborhood in Chicago. My personal experiences helped shape my understanding that our community’s tensions were fed by a lack of tolerance and understanding of people different from us and our community’s economic challenges.
As I grew up, I learned that art could reveal the wonders of life and its uniqueness.
Art encourages people to understand that they and others are defined by the people they know, the experiences they have had, and by the conditions under which they have lived. A bit of background information will help you understand how my art practice has been informed.
On the northwest side of Chicago, I grew up in a multi-generational household surrounded by my family, a cast of characters who shaped my acuteness of observation and empathy. My parents and I lived in the basement apartment below my grandparents and great-uncle, Freddy. Freddy was deaf and mute. Despite his disability, he was one of the more functional people in the house, a gentle soul who helped take care of me much of the time in my younger years. I attribute my life as an artist to him. He did not do sign language or read lips. In our time together, we would draw detailed pictures to each other of what we were thinking and what we wanted to do together that day. It was at this time that I discovered the power of visual communication.
I spent my formative years crisscrossing the boundaries of American class structures. My father’s early experience with abandonment and trauma led him to alcoholism and domestic abuse. He spent the last decade of his life, up until his death, living on the streets. I spent summers playing at the home/workshop of my childhood best friend, whose father and grandfather were renowned violin makers. We were once treated to an impromptu concert by Yo Yo Ma as Paul’s father adjusted and tuned his cello. My dad’s brother Tommy, my namesake, lived a life of lawlessness. Known as the Cat Burglar of the North Side, Tommy died when his jealous girlfriend shot him in the housing project where they lived. Conversely, my father’s other brother, my uncle Kenny, went to law school, became a public defender, and was eventually appointed as a circuit court judge, leading a successful and upstanding life in comparison.
When I was ten years old, living in Chicago down the street from the Cabrini Green housing project where my father grew up, I had the privilege of seeing a part of art history in progress. As my mother and I were on the bus going to Montgomery Ward’s warehouse on Larabie Street, I had her stop the bus as we passed a site where some men were painting a mural on the side of a building. I dragged her over to the site that day and many more times that summer, knowing that something special was happening. I was struck by the mural’s scale, and the camaraderie between the men with Afros wearing big fat bell bottoms up on the scaffold and those standing down below making food and watching the artist paint. They made the hard work look fun, and that made a big impression on me. As an adult, I found out that what I had witnessed that summer was famed Chicago muralist William Walker painting his mural called Peace and Salvation-The Wall of Understanding. William Walker has been quoted as saying, “People now realize that public art is essential because it is relevant to each of them. Art is a universal language, destroying the barriers that stand so firm before man.” It is this spirit that I so embody.
Alongside my interest in making art, my passion for reading and collecting books started when I was working at the Evanston Public Library as a custodian in my early 20s. After cleaning the library each evening, I would spend the rest of my shift reading the classics and art history books. This was an exciting and enlightening part of my education, which has continued ever since. Writing inspires many of my public works, and I am personally influenced by the writing of Albert Camus (The Stranger), Marguerite Yourcenar (Memoirs of Hadrian), and Anton Chekhov (Ward No. 6 and The Cook’s Wedding), as well as many others.
The range of my early childhood experiences shaped my keen understanding of humanity and my ability to express through my art many themes of the human condition: triumphs, struggles, folly, tragedy, joys, loss, love, defeat, determination, good and bad, wrong and right. If you look at my resume of accomplishments, you will not see any holes or gaps when I was not completely active and focused on making and exhibiting my art. My work has been represented in more than one hundred solo, curated, and juried group shows, in addition to all the other projects, awards, reviews, grants, commissions, etc.
Over the years, I have completed almost 30 murals and public art commissions. I am steeped in the traditions of William Walker, Diego Rivera, John T. Biggers, and Thomas Hart Benton, making work about the human condition, connection, and our time.
A mural that would be most closely aligned with the Lilly Library project in scale and location would be my mural at the Indianapolis Marion County Central Library on the Sixth floor Special Collections Room. The Book of Life was inspired by The Magnificent Ambersons, written by Indiana author Booth Tarkington. The book chronicles Indianapolis’s development from its agrarian beginnings and pushing Native Americans westward to the industrial revolution and the rise and fall from a prominent family’s grace. It is laced with lessons learned woven throughout, resulting in redemption.
My public art project approach starts with thorough research, consisting of observation, listening, and reading. Once I find myself heading in a direction with the piece, I seek out people connected to the content and relevant writings and documentation to help feed my visual imaginings of what the piece can be. To ensure a successful unity of shape and content in the mural, I begin drawing hundreds of sketches of imagery that may or may not be incorporated into the design. I develop a multifaceted sub-structure for the murals that present straightforward narratives alongside a rich display of metaphorical content with enough mystery and questions yet to answer. The mural’s mood and feel are worked out as I paint the maquette/study, all of this making visualizing what the mural will look like when finished easier for the committee to consider. There is not any part of the design construction that happens on the computer. The result is a portable, viewable, painted version of the mural. I will submit the proposal electronically, but I encourage the committee to view the painted design in person when making their selection.
Josiah Kirby Lilly, Jr.’s foresight and the gift of this priceless collection are an incredibly fertile subject matter from which to ignite a genuinely unforgettable work of art. If given the opportunity of proposing a contemporary mural based on our culture and history for the Lilly Libraries, I will use my experience, enthusiasm, and abilities for this honor. My goal is to make a piece that supports the synergy between the library’s outstanding historical collections and Thomas Hart Benton’s work. With the intent to elicit hope, wonder, curiosity, and possibilities for the future in users as they study at the Lilly Library Reading Room at Indiana University Libraries.
Somewhere along the line, I became superstitious about submitting to competitions. Before the digital application process, we mailed submissions on paper in an envelope. When we applied for the Indianapolis Airport competition, I brought the package to the post office on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. I crossed all my fingers and kissed the parcel before handing it to the clerk to watch them stamp it. I took some deep breaths in the car to release good energy for Tom’s work into the universe. I followed that exact routine when I sent off any sort of package of Tom’s work.
Once digital took over the application process, it felt less personal and less likely we would win a commission. No doubt, it made it easier to spread the word and attract more artists, but it also flooded competitions and made it difficult for us to stand out. Once I hit send, it was impossible to know what was happening on the other end. This project heightened all of my ideas about rituals in entering.
We traveled to Nashville to celebrate my sister Jennie and Michael’s tenth wedding anniversary around the time of the Lilly Library deadline. If something happened to us on the trip and we did not make it home in time, we would lose the opportunity to be considered for the project. So I planned to hit send at 5:14 a.m. on Friday, February 14, the morning that we left for Nashville, precisely seven days before the deadline. You could say that seven is my lucky number, although I had never won anything related to a seven before. Fourteen is divisible by two sevens, Friday is the fifth day of the week, and February is the second month of the year; 5 + 2 = 7. I didn’t believe this stuff, but I couldn’t ignore it once I started to think about it.
Whenever we leave home on a trip, no matter how short, there is some sort of tension and unease between Tom and me. We’re out of our comfort zone in a world of unknowns. There was more stress than usual about the drive to Nashville because we drove with Neil and my parents in our van. Tom never liked the idea of large groups riding together; he worried about getting into an accident and wiping out a big chunk of the family. I made sure my dad sat in the back for the ride, as he was the one most likely to make Tom nervous. My dad was irritable; he had lost a tooth from his dentures the night before and was worried about losing more on the trip. Thankfully, he fell asleep once we were on the highway, and my mom and I chatted as we looked at our phones. There were rumblings about a virus in China on the news around that time; I wondered what it would mean if more people became infected. How could you stop something like that?
We arrived at the Opryland Hotel in the late afternoon, and we steered our van into a long queue of vehicles waiting to drop off passengers and luggage. The hotel was an enormous complex that hummed with people walking around, like a Las Vegas casino. Once we were in the lobby, you couldn’t help but notice a preponderance of testosterone and camouflage. Hundreds of men walking through the glitzy hotel were dressed like the cast from Deliverance, complete with sidearms and their little ladies, many of whom could have been cast members from Real Housewives of East Nashville. Considering the political climate at the time, I was terrified for my little pinko-commie, liberal, faggot family. As it turned out, Jennie’s anniversary party had coincided with the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention.
Jennie made sure the structured schedule left slots for other activities. Tom, Neil, and I stumbled upon an enormous empty lobby outside a convention hall with a series of giant, connected murals. Tom was excited to find them and eager to learn more. They were painted in the mid-1970s by T. Max Hochstetler. They were awe-inspiring; they depicted the “Golden Age of Nashville” in the late 1880s; architecture was the main feature, with scenes of people sprinkled throughout. Tom sought out hidden messages from the artist and told us that he thought it wasn’t just one artist who painted the murals. “Maybe one of the assistants was better at painting people and another painting the architecture and one the landscape.” After looking at the murals closely, I could see what he was talking about and noticed the different paint handling in each area. It turns out Hochstetler painted the murals with two assistants.
Feeling empowered by the art, we decided to head over to the Turkey convention. They were on some sort of a break, so only a few people were milling around the exhibitions. On display were twenty-something taxidermied wild turkeys, and I must say, they were beautiful, down to the last detail. The turkeys were carefully sculpted and placed into vignettes depicting their wild, natural habitats. The blue ribbon prize-winning stuffed turkey was a work of perfection, from his wattle to his glossy feathers. There were also over a hundred stuffed deer heads, all lovingly and meticulously displayed. It was surreal and resembled a Maurizio Cattelan exhibition. There wasn’t much difference between the craft of taxidermy and fine art, except the intent. I wondered what art world people would think of it.
Jennie and Michael had planned a luncheon anniversary party at the Crystal Gazebo in the center of a jungle-like conservatory filled with tropical plants and waterfalls. It was a small party of 25 people, mainly family and a few friends. They had even hired the same DJ-karaoke host from their wedding ten years before. Tom decided to paint the party as a gift to Jennie and Michael and set up off to the side to begin. I had spent many evenings during the preceding months rehearsing my karaoke song. I don’t have the exhibitionist gene some in my family have, and I wanted to surprise everyone.
Jennie effortlessly got on stage and serenaded Michael to a special song; she made it look so easy. Up until the moment I went up to sing, I was talking myself out of doing it. My parents loved “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and requested it whenever they were at events. It’s not an easy song, but I figured out a way to do it. When I looked out at my family from the stage, they all looked surprised. Jennie knew how nervous I was, so she encouraged people to dance while I sang. It was hard to keep singing once I noticed my parents were crying while they danced. That whirlwind weekend trip was the last time we were all together for a long time.
After we returned home, things started getting weird. There were more cases of the virus reported in the news; it had spread to other countries. I was washing my hands and sanitizing surfaces obsessively. Two weeks after we applied for the library mural, we found out Tom was one of 6 finalists. On-site visits were planned for the finalists to visit the library and do research for the proposals. Two days later, the committee canceled the visits and sent the artists online resources to get us started on research.
Things were usually intense when we worked on proposals, but I had no clue how unhinged we would feel working during the Covid-19 pandemic. I stocked up on food and supplies for a month, right before people went nuts and cleared out the toilet paper aisles and grocery stores. Stuck at home, we worked uninterrupted day and night on the proposal.
Tom planned to make two complete proposal designs, which meant two sets of drawings and fully painted rendered scale models. It took a toll on both of us, but primarily Tom. The project was “Tom’s to lose,” as one of our friends said, and I would do anything I could to help facilitate a win.
Since we could not visit the library in person, we reached out to people who had been there to help steer us in the right direction. We prepared a survey to send to faculty and department heads at the university about highlights of notable holdings in the library that pertained to their area of study. We sent the surveys to 50 faculty members in history, science, medicine, political science, English literature, foreign studies, and math. The timing was not ideal; the campus had closed and sent the students home to quarantine. But a few of the faculty sent us thoughtful responses that helped lead us to some gems in the library’s holdings.
I searched the Library’s Instagram and Twitter accounts and highlighted special items. Researching the hashtags for the library, I saw posts made by visitors to the library for all kinds of research. We ordered a book about the collection, written by the director of the library. The book was about the relationship between the collector who had amassed this collection of early, rare, and significant books and manuscripts and the dealer who located and secured the famous acquisitions. We scoured online files of the collection. All of this provided us with food for thought and inspiration for the mural design.
As Tom formulated concepts, I found holdings to support his ideas. Everything came to us fast and furiously. Tom began drawing that very first week and devised the overall structure of the first mural.
In the middle of this, the committee informed us that interviews with the selection panel would occur via Zoom. Tom was so upset when we learned this; he disliked technology intensely. Perhaps I had fostered some of his attitudes by letting him live in his analog world. I tried to convince him that it was a level playing field for all the artists because no one wanted to do it online. Nothing I said helped. He believed his best shot at winning was to present in person. He started to obsess about possible technical glitches. I told him I would get every piece of equipment I could to prevent this from happening. We also found out about two additions to the selection committee: the curator of contemporary art from a museum on campus and another faculty member from the fine art department. Tom felt this would work against him in the end, that the new committee members would root for something more conceptual and modern, not something from muralist tradition meant to speak to the masses, as the best murals do.
Privately, I worried Tom’s two separate proposals might be overdoing it. Tom was absorbed in his idea, of course, and there was no stopping him. If one of the designs were better than the other, it would stand out, and we could decide not to include it in the final presentation. Once Tom selected all of the content, I started on the final written submission, even though the works were not complete. We knew what the overall concepts and the imagery would be. Tom had made the overall designs and line drawings. Billy helped him transfer his designs so Tom could work on other aspects of the project. The designs were full of thought-provoking imagery related to the library and closely linked to the universal, humanist ideas present in the rest of Tom’s work. Even as commissioned works, they felt like Torluemke’s: full of enthusiasm and passion for life, literature, and humanity.
As the online interviews approached, Tom got more nervous and tense. I tried all my tricks to try and calm him down—nothing worked. I ordered a microphone, and we purchased the lighting and set up the interview scene. Everything would be clear and professional. We did mock interviews with several friends, but his usual magic and humor were not there. He was so nervous.
I offered to participate in the discussion in the frame beside Tom, and I could do a presentation about the research we did for the project. I was probably more terrified of speaking than he was, but I figured if we did it together, we could help each other through it. We worked out the bugs and honed the stories Tom would tell and what I would say. By the time the morning arrived, we felt better and ready for showtime.
Seated next to each other, holding hands in front of the computer, we were introduced to the committee members who appeared on the screen. As Tom started his part of the talk, I watched the committee members, hoping to glean something from their reactions. Tom was off to a great start, but just as he was getting warmed up, the screen froze, and someone jumped in to point out the audio was breaking up. It was Tom’s worst nightmare. The committee decided the connection would be better if they turned off their cameras, which helped the signal, but not Tom. He said he needed to see them. A few people turned on their cameras, and he was able to proceed, and eventually, everyone came back into view. Tom was thrown off and said a few things off-script, but he finished his talk. Then I came on and spoke about the research. They seemed impressed with the scope of what we were able to find and discern about the library’s holdings without actually visiting.
As soon as it was over, Tom and I got up and went for a walk. I got the sense that they liked Tom and his proposal ideas, but I didn’t think it would be a slam dunk. He was traumatized by the technical glitch, and I tried to convince him it would not be held against him. We walked for miles, rehashing the experience. In the end, we did not feel as good as I had hoped we would.
Once the designs were finalized and Tom began to paint, I had all the information I needed for the written narrative. I also prepared the proposed budget, endnotes for every component in each of the murals related to items in the library’s collections, and didactic texts explaining Tom’s thought process and the symbolic references within the work. As we went along, I read the proposals aloud to Tom to ensure we addressed everything. After he finished painting the final panel, I photographed it and inserted it into the visual presentation.
We had never had such a tremendous opportunity before. If Tom did not get wide recognition for his art practice, maybe he would for his contribution to mural painting instead. If he received this commission, it would cement him among the great muralists he had studied and admired. How much more time did we have for this to happen? How many more big murals did he have in him? A $400,000 commission could be his retirement; we could finally travel, and Tom would have art supplies for the rest of his life.
After the proposal was complete, I waited a couple of days before I submitted it electronically. We re-read it each day to make sure nothing needed to be changed. Then on May 7, at 7:00 a.m., I hit send.
As they say, waiting is the hardest part. The whole country was on lockdown when we emerged from our art bunker, and we would not know the results for at least two weeks.
Tom got right to work in the yard cleaning up and planting in the flower beds. Before we learned about the mural project, before the pandemic, we had planned to get married on June 20 in our yard. After almost twenty years together, we thought it was a good idea to make things legal, and we wanted to share the moment and celebrate with those we loved most. Now there would be no garden wedding with family and friends.
I was adrift, unsure of what to do with myself as we waited to hear about the mural. After everything that had happened in the past few months, I didn’t want to add to Tom’s pressure to pick up the wedding plans. He seemed to sense what was going on and told me we should still have the wedding, even if it had to be much smaller than we wanted. I mentioned that we could have a small party in the yard, and we could broadcast the wedding on Zoom for out-of-town friends and family. We agreed to invite 24 guests to attend in person. They could sit at tables for two, socially distanced throughout the yard, and serve individually boxed and prepared meals and mini wedding cakes for the guests. Nothing brings me joy like planning a party, and the timing could not have been better.
Each day I took a long walk with my sister Jennie to talk about the wedding plans and my projections about the mural competition. My hopes ebbed and flowed. I felt confident and excited one day and worried the next. Jennie was so supportive; she thought we had it in the bag. I tried to explain to her that the art world was political and more subjective than sports or other quantitative endeavors. The person who tried the hardest or could even be the most apparent winner didn’t always win.
I checked my email obsessively and felt depressed, worried, and exhilarated every few minutes. This went on until late each day when I knew we would not hear anything. Then I relaxed—until the next day, and it started all over again.
When the message came through, Tom and I had just eaten lunch. We did not get the commission. The winner would be announced later in the week. I started crying, and Tom was upset. We wished we hadn’t needed so much help from others when preparing; now, we had to let everyone know we didn’t get it. Tom was embarrassed that so many people who believed in him would know. We both felt sick to our stomachs. Hope floated away, and we were back to square one with no prospects on the horizon. After a week of wallowing in our disappointment, we decided to focus on the wedding.
Tom went full bore into not just cleaning up the gardens and planting new things; he wanted to make an elevated stone patio at the tip of the peninsula. This required ordering a ton of bricks, stones, and gravel and hiring Marty to help Tom build it. Under normal conditions, Marty would stay at the house with us for the week. Because of the pandemic, we all wore masks, ate meals outside at a distance, and Marty returned to his place every night. Marty and Tom worked well together; they had a similar tolerance for hard labor, kept a steady pace, and were careful not to overdo it or injure themselves. Once in a while, on a break, the mural project came up, and we would rehash everything again and wonder why they still had not announced the winner. It had been a couple of weeks.
We firmed up the wedding plans. Amber, Claudio, and our new granddaughter Scarlett would not attend in person. We had dreamed of Scarlett being our flower girl. Amber was pregnant again, and with the pandemic, it wasn’t going to happen. We tried to make the best of everything.
We asked our dear friends John and Lonnie to be the online hosts. They would greet guests and lead attendees in a game before the ceremony. Two musician friends would each play a song during the wedding from the safety of their homes. Neil handled the sound and played DJ after the ceremony; he came up with a set list just for us. Leon and his wife, Seda, designed the email invitations, printed souvenir books for the guests, and made tiny bottles of bug spray for the tables for those who attended in person. My cousin Lynn would perform the ceremony, and Uncle David paid for the wedding cakes. Everyone was eager to contribute and be a part of it; the pandemic was in its fourth month, and people craved connection with others. Jennie and Billy would be our witnesses, and my friend Jennifer would take photos.
It had been clear and dry for two weeks, but there was rain in the forecast for the day of the wedding. Tom made settings for people to sit and eat all over inside our house as a backup plan.
The afternoon of the wedding, the rains came through. We had already scaled back our plans so much, and my dream of marrying Tom, as I had been waiting for years, was not going to be what I pictured. It was going to be like Tom’s art—unpredictable, but hopefully beautiful nonetheless.
When I looked out into the yard from our bedroom window, Tom and some of our family members were running around drying off tables and setting things up. The rain had stopped, and the skies were clearing. The flowers and grass looked fresh and lively. My cousin Lynn entered the room, and I went to her and gave her the biggest hug, coronavirus be damned. We talked and laughed as I put on my makeup. Jennie entered, possibly more nervous than I was. She had done everything she could to help erase the previous month’s disappointment. I put on my dress and looked back out in the yard. Tom had made sure everything looked just like we planned. He greeted our masked guests; everything was as it should be.
I stopped to look at myself in the mirror before I went downstairs. A bride at 51 years old. I felt just as hopeful and excited as I was when I first met Tom.