The Dark Horse

It had been a couple of years since I started working at the Northern Indiana Arts Association, and my position as Exhibitions Director was beginning to fit. Not so much on the apparel front, though; in my performance review, I received notice that I exposed my navel too often and my dress was too casual for the position. My boss, John, had a Type-A personality and haughty pedigree, akin to the many wealthy people who patronized the organization. He was gay, bright, witty, quite eccentric, and sharply dressed. His home was filled with a collection of outsider art, mid-century furniture, and collectibles from that period. John was good mentor, opening my mind and understanding of art, and mostly fun to work with, as I enjoyed kibitzing about cute guys and delighted by the sometimes outrageously inappropriate things he would say. There was a revolving door of administrative assistants. John had a short fuse, and the assistant was usually the subject of his frustrations.

John and the Board President Louie asked me to join them on a trip to Chicago to see the exhibition of an artist with whom they were both interested and who happened to live in the region. We headed out that morning in John’s car. As John and Louie chatted, I sat quietly in the back seat, looking out the window as we zipped down the Dan Ryan Expressway.

We parked on Milwaukee Avenue and entered through the door of ARC Gallery, a crunchy, alternative exhibition space, and walked up a flight of creaky, steep, wooden stairs. Immediately, I was seduced by the exhibition, which practically vibrated with life. The paintings bore dramatic colors and fleshy and rhythmic compositions. The effect was stunning. I remember one drawing very clearly of a man and a woman with their heads together and tilted toward each other. The man looked like he was trying to cheer up the sad woman, who had dark hair and a faint mustache. Dark clouds loomed above their heads. Each drawing revealed a story of a happening or incident. The images in the pictures seemed specific; I thought maybe they were inspired by real happenings. As I moved through the exhibition, I realized the paintings were highly skilled, completed by an imaginative painter with an anguished soul. The works were passionate and painful and featured uncomfortable moments with humor, as seen through relationships, family, adolescence, and lessons learned.

Betrayal, 1998 acrylic on canvas 9 x 14′
collection of the Brauer Museum Of Art

The artwork ignited raw feelings in me. My heart was pounding, my palms sweating, and I felt a tingly feeling. Touched and scared, I had never experienced that kind of vulnerability from an artist or their work. I’m not sure how long we were in the gallery. I was roused from my trance as John introduced me to the artist Tom Torluemke. It’s pronounced Tor-lem-key. I had a hard time making eye contact with him. I was flushed and self-conscious, afraid he could see inside my mind.

Teen Night at Jellystone Campground, 1997 acrylic on canvas 48 x 60″

We all ate lunch at a restaurant nearby. Tom sat across from me in the booth. He was in his late 30s with short, dark, wavy hair and big blue eyes that angled down at the sides, sad and soulful. He had an overbite and a small gap between his two front teeth. There was an innocence about him, a fearless openness I thought most people grew out of by that age. Tom was ever-present and had no shame. My head still whirled from the exhibit, and I was having trouble thinking of things to say.

Tom shared with us that he grew up on the near north side of Chicago in a multi-generational household, surrounded by his family, a cast of characters that shaped his acuteness of observation and empathy. He and his parents lived in the basement apartment below his grandparents and Great Uncle Freddy. Though Freddy was deaf and mute, he was one of the more functional people in the house, a gentle soul who helped take care of Tom when he was younger. Tom attributed his life as an artist to Freddy. Freddy did not use sign language or read lips; instead, they drew detailed pictures for each other of what they were thinking and wanted to do. They spent many afternoons lying in the field behind their house, looking for four-leafed clovers. It was during his time with Freddy that Tom discovered the power of visual communication. Tragically, Freddy died from a heart attack one evening, trying to break up a fight between Tom’s parents. Tom was seven years old. He watched his father try to resuscitate Freddy on their kitchen floor. That day, he lost his best friend and the buffer to the violence happening at home.

By age twelve, he started to drink and steal beers and liquor from his parent’s stock at home. Soon, he drank every day to cope with his parents’ violent behavior. In his late teens, Tom lived in a Lutheran church apartment with his friend, Joe, who came from a similar home environment. In exchange, they worked as custodians and bell ringers for the church.

When Tom was twenty-three, he checked into Kenmore detox facility. As he was leaving at the end of his stay, he walked down the long, narrow hallway to the exit and passed his father, who was checking in. They didn’t speak; he wasn’t even sure his father saw him or recognized him. The moment had a profound effect on Tom. After that, he never drank or did drugs again. He went into treatment, attended AA meetings regularly for many years, and still carried a copy of the Twelve Steps in his wallet. His father never recovered from alcohol or his own childhood traumas and lived on the streets for years.

As we drove back to Indiana, I thought about my own sobriety. In comparison to Tom, I had a sheltered and uneventful childhood. I grew up in Dolton, a suburb of Chicago’s South Side. I had few interests as a child. I did have an active imagination and enjoyed dancing and taking pictures with the Kodak 110 Instamatic camera I received for my first communion. School was not a priority for me. I spent my free time watching TV in our basement, cultivating my comprehensive knowledge of ’70s and ’80s television. Like many young women of my generation from a lower-middle-class upbringing, I had low self-esteem. I found my worth when boys and then men paid attention to me. I started drinking when I was in college, at 19 or 20, and quit when I was 23. My behavior was markedly different when I drank. I felt loose and lonely and hooked up with any available man. It was pathetic and embarrassing, but I did it repeatedly, putting myself in compromising positions. Friends were scared for me or angry at me when I roped them into dangerous situations.

When I was 21, I went to Mardi Gras with a group of friends. I was drunk the entire time. I discovered hurricanes and the thrill of exposing my breasts to crowds of strangers for beads. On the last night of the trip, I gave a blowjob to a stranger behind a piano bar in the French Quarter. Later that night, he asked me to go with him to his hotel. My friends pleaded with me to go back to our hotel with them. I got in a cab with the stranger instead. The taxi drove over an hour to the remote motel where he was staying. His friend was passed out in one of the beds. The stranger clumsily tried to take off my clothes. I lied and told him I had my period. He was disappointed, but I think he was too drunk to have sex anyway. Before we passed out, I realized how lucky I was that he and his roommate were not murderers or rapists. I had no idea who they were or where I was. In the morning, I woke the stranger up and told him I didn’t have enough money to get back to my hotel. He gave me twenty bucks. When I returned to my hotel, none of my friends would talk to me. I got the silent treatment for the whole fifteen-hour drive back home.

The last time I drank was after the funeral of my friend Lucila’s brother-in-law. He was eighteen and died in a car crash on his way back from spring break with friends. There were hundreds of people at the funeral, most of them young high school and college-aged kids, all devastated and crying. 

That evening, I went to my favorite bar and had a few Long Island iced teas. Lucila and her husband showed up later; by that time, I was as drunk as I had ever been. I was babbling, crying, and falling all over myself. In retrospect, they were so patient with me on a night when what they needed most was someone to talk to, listen to, and just be there.

The next morning, I woke up in my bedroom at my parent’s house. I had no memory of how I got there. Lucila slept in my sister’s bed. When she woke up, I asked her how I got home.  She was exasperated and annoyed with me. The most level-headed and responsible one in my group of friends, she married her high school sweetheart at eighteen, and they owned their own house and cars. She told me I had a problem with alcohol and that I should think about quitting. Through the fog of my condition, I was humiliated and humbled. I told her I would never drink again.

Until that point, I didn’t know what it meant to exercise self-control and discipline. I floated around, not feeling the ramifications of my behavior or bad habits. Thank God it didn’t take a life-altering tragedy to set me on the road to sobriety. I have not had a drink since that day twenty-eight years ago.

Around the same time we visited Tom’s exhibition, our organization committed to opening two remote satellite art centers in neighboring communities. I was not part of these projects’ planning, so I was surprised when Tom walked into my office one morning. He handed me a piece of paper with my name on top and a list of tasks for me to do. The organization had hired Tom to open and manage both branch locations. It made sense that they chose him; he was a visionary who understood the communities, a versatile artist, and a charismatic teacher steeped in art.

He was encouraged to use the already overworked staff to help him realize his vision. Granted, he had lists of tasks for everyone, but the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. Who walks into the office of someone they hardly know and hands them a list of more work to do? To Tom’s credit, I later found out that he thought we all expected to help him. I was irritated and forgot all about my appreciation for him as an artist.

Tom worked on opening the centers morning, noon, and night. He put together a group of creative and energetic people to assist him. Together, they designed all aspects of opening the centers: the programming, outreach, setting up classrooms, signage, promotional materials, and gallery spaces. I found out that they were former students and friends of his. These people loved him and were willing to work for almost nothing to be a part of his endeavors. I started calling him the Pied Piper to my co-workers.

One day, Tom and I picked up a rental van to move some furniture and equipment. While we drove, I stole a glance at him. He was exhausted, his eyes wide and bleary, and he clutched a coffee cup in his hand. Occasionally, he spat in the cup. He was chewing tobacco to calm his nerves, I guessed. There was no small talk on the ride; he was a million miles away.

After months of preparation, the centers opened to great fanfare. Tom designed a unique vibe for each of the centers based on the community. The first was in Hammond, Indiana, in a former substation donated by the local utility company in a lower-middle-class, mixed-race, blue-collar neighborhood. The interior design was hip and inviting. Tom reached out to the community, going door to door to get kids and young adults to visit this oasis of culture, education, and fun. The grand opening featured break dancing, rapping, exhibits, music, and art workshops for kids and adults.  He worked with the boys’ and girls’ clubs, orphanages, the battered women’s shelter, and other groups to host free classes led by Tom and some of his former students. The inclusiveness he focused on made an impression on me. By comparison, I worked in what could be seen as an out-of-touch, pampered, old lady’s art center. What he had put together was something I never could have imagined.

Tom’s unique perspective and empathy for people developed early in his life. His extended family played a seminal role in his upbringing. In addition to Uncle Freddy, his grandparents lived upstairs. His grandmother Margaret was agoraphobic, and Tom never saw her leave the house; she even used a broom to pull the newspaper off the porch. His grandfather, John, was a very big man. He worked at International Harvester until a punch press at work crushed his skull, leaving him with a significant mental handicap. He was a sweet and friendly man and greeted people around the neighborhood with a hat tip. The neighbors laughed and made fun of him, especially because he often wet his pants. Tom’s great-aunt Rose became a loner after the death of her husband when they were young. She roamed the streets and sat in a McDonald’s sometimes, talking only to herself. The family would bring her home to clean her up and try to convince her to stay; she was back on the streets the next day.

Tom’s mother, Betty, was a vivacious and industrious woman. She worked multiple jobs, and her hardscrabble work ethic often kept the family afloat. Betty’s hobby was entering coloring and jingle contests on the backs of cereal and soap boxes in the 60s; she worked late into the night on her entries and won many prizes, mostly for Tom. She once won him a candy apple red stingray bicycle with a banana seat and high handlebars. Betty encouraged Tom’s artistic curiosity, influenced him, and showed him that you could be rewarded if you worked hard.

Photo of Peace and Salvation: The Wall of Understanding, photo date, unknown

When Tom was ten years old, he and Betty rode the bus to Montgomery Ward’s warehouse down on Larrabee Street. When he saw some men painting a mural on the side of a building, Tom begged Betty to get off the bus. When they walked onto the empty lot on that bright sunny day, Tom was spellbound. He watched the men painting high up on the scaffold. The camaraderie between the men, who had Afros and wore bell-bottoms on the platform, and those standing below, who tended to food on a grill and watched the artists paint, struck Tom. They made the hard work look fun, and it made a big impression on him. He and Betty visited the mural site several more times that summer. As an adult, Tom learned he had witnessed famed Chicago muralist William Walker painting his mural “Peace and Salvation: The Wall of Understanding.” William Walker was quoted 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.”

Painting by Tom, 1979 watercolor on paper 15 x 11″ of the mural Peace and Salvation: The Wall of Understanding by William Walker

Tom received a commission to paint a mural on the side of the newly opened art center in Hammond. “The Hugging Wall” was a colorful, vibrant, pulsating mural, thirty-nine feet tall and sixty feet wide. It depicted the harsh and industrial vibe of the area surrounding the art center. People in the scene hugged each other tenderly, surrounded by smokestacks puffing out hearts among winding chain-link fences and row houses. Seeing that mural and all the positive energy and love Tom poured into the art center reminded me of the feeling I had when I first saw his work. I could see in it the influence of his early life experiences.

The Hugging Wall, 1998 Substation No. 9, Hammond, IN Deka Sign Enamel 38 x 70 ft.

The second art center was in Crown Point, Indiana, and was more conservative in its feel and programming. It was in a former bank building and outfitted with a pottery studio, darkroom, and gallery walls with wainscoting. Tom did inject the youth and enthusiasm of the other location but with a clear understanding of the conservative, all-white community where he was working. 

A few months after the Crown Point location opened, I went down there to install a show of watercolor landscapes by a local artist with Tom. When I arrived, he spoke to a woman I later learned was his wife; she had come over to help him. When we finished the installation, the three of us talked about the centers, and the conversation awkwardly turned to the topic of in-vitro fertilization. They were trying to have a child. My husband and I were also trying to conceive but were not at the point that we were seeking out other methods. His wife seemed sad and hopeless; I could feel him trying to boost her with his optimism. Thankfully, around that time, a young girl walked in and broke up the uncomfortable conversation. It was Tom’s daughter, Amber, from a previous marriage. She was about thirteen years old, tall, thin, and athletic, and had large, light brown eyes that angled down at the sides just as her father’s did. She and Tom seemed happy to see each other. Other than that, I could not quite figure out the family dynamic. 

As I was driving home, I remembered the drawing I saw at his show in Chicago of a man and woman with their heads together. I thought of the dark clouds swirling above them and realized it was Tom and his wife.

Dark Couds, 1997 graphite on paper 15 x 11″

Once a month, Tom attended our staff meetings. When he arrived for one of these meetings, he appeared stressed but determined. As it got underway, Tom listened as everyone gave their reports. When it was his turn, he spoke about ideas he had for additional programming at the branch locations and the need for more staff to help him run the centers. Tom explained it was impossible for him to be at both centers simultaneously. He had a couple of people in mind that wanted to work part-time. He would split his time equally between both locations. John told him no, outright, and said there would be no discussion.

Tom’s voice got loud, and his eyes started to bulge. We all looked at each other nervously as he yelled about the promises made when they hired him. Most of the grant funding they received was supposed to go to these underserved communities. The budget he was working with did not allow for assistance and did not ensure the quality of programming Tom was striving to provide. I was starting to understand Tom’s frustration. Eventually, Tom stormed out. A few weeks later, Tom resigned from his position.