Circle in his Psyche

The Gallery at the Princeton Area Community Foundation in Lawrenceville will present an exhibition and sale of the work of Princeton artist Thomas George, on view through Dec. 31. It will be the first opportunity for the public to view and purchase the work Mr. George has gifted to benefit emerging artists in central New Jersey through the Thomas George Emerging Artist Fund.

Thomas George has had a career in art for almost 60 years.  Born in New York in 1918, he attended Dartmouth College, and served in the navy during World War II.  He studied art in Paris and Florence, Italy, and has lived and worked abroad for a good part of his life.  The artist has had four retrospective exhibitions, the most recent in 2005 at the Princeton University Art Museum.

The Thomas George Collection at the Princeton Area Community Foundation falls roughly into four categories:  brush and ink drawings from Norway and China; abstract oil paintings; selected watercolors; and the last remaining pastels of the Institute Pond series.

Here’s what I wrote about him in 2005, when he exhibited at the Princeton University Art Museum:

Located about 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the Lofoten Islands in Norway have long inspired artists, with their craggy peaks, dramatic skies and surf, and thick white snows that blanket the folds and crevasses of the landscape. It takes a hardy artist to work in the Lofoten – winter temperatures range in the single digits, both plus and minus.

In 1966, Thomas George spent the first of 30 summers on the Lofoten Islands, making large brush- and-ink drawings. He called it “the most spectacular (wild landscape) I have ever seen… in which the turbulent movement of the sea and sky seemed to make the mountains move as well. To capture the effect of all-over movement, I had to invent a calligraphic language.”

Mr. George, 87, a Princeton resident since 1969, has given 37 works to the Princeton University Art Museum, spanning a 50-year period. He also gave a large gift to the Hood Art Museum at Dartmouth College, his alma mater, and to the Princeton Area Community Foundation. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Tate Gallery, National Museum of American Art, the Institute for Advanced Study, and many others.

“Always marked by an adventurous, yet sure-handed and subtle sense of color and composition, Tom’s paintings of the last decade have become increasingly ambitious in character,” wrote Hood Museum Director James Cuno in 1990 for an exhibit Mr. George had there. “Most notable, perhaps, is a heightened sense of energy, reflected in more expansive and dynamic compositional formats and in the orchestration of increasingly complex coloristic and textural effects.”


With his wife, La Verne, and their two sons, Geoffrey and John, Mr. George has lived all over the world. “I travel to work,” he says. “Intense visual curiosity” is the impetus. Make no mistake, he is not on vacation. Even now, he puts in a full day in the studio and his output is high.

His work has taken him to China, Japan, France, Wales and Santa Fe, and these places define the series his paintings fall into. His sun series, for example, each with a circular celestial motif, comes largely from painting in Santa Fe. “The circle is a big item in my psyche,” he says.

Closer to home, he has spent years making pastel sketches in the Institute for Advanced Study Woods and Marquand Park in Princeton.

His choice of medium is based purely on his feeling for the subject matter. “You can be the best technician in the world and, if you’re not passionate about your subject matter, you’ll get an empty statement,” he told the writer Richard Trenner for the interview that appears in the brochure accompanying the retrospective. Mr. George’s mediums include oil, watercolor, pastel, and pen and ink. Most of his work is abstract landscape.

Mr. George describes his art as an obsession. “It’s like an illness, but the basic drive in a creative person is to pursue what they’re doing… It’s a very powerful preoccupation with expressing what you want to say about the world.”

Perhaps the “illness” runs in his family. His father was an artist; his brother, George W. George, is a filmmaker (he produced My Dinner With Andre and The James Dean Story, among others); and son Geoff is a cinematographer and still photographer (he shot the Academy Award-winning Mighty Times: The Children’s March).

Up until three years ago, Mr. George lived in a museum-like home in what had once been a barn of the Moses Taylor Pyne estate (Drumthwacket) in Princeton, where he could spread out. It included a gymnasium-size gallery (white walls, white carpet, white furnishings) of his work and a studio, also heavenly white, with one glass wall. Yet another room was used to store his barn-door size canvases.

After moving to smaller quarters, he has been sticking to smaller works on paper. “I have no way to ventilate the fumes of oil paint,” he says.

Having painted on location for so many years, it is no longer necessary for him to work outdoors. The vision is now in his head, and he can sit in the studio, letting the brush do its magic dance on paper. Mr. George learned brushwork in Japan more than half a century ago, but has adapted it to his own way of working.

When he made his daily forays to the Institute Woods, “I became preoccupied with the pond and would do it over and over, noting the time of day. It went beyond literal interpretation and into another gear. If an artist does the same subject over and over again, he goes into another dimension.”

Rembrandt painted portraits of people, he says, “but also it is a spiritual experience beyond the painting. When you look at a Rembrandt, you see humanity, what makes a person. It’s what we all hope to reach. People recognize this in art when they see it.”

The paintings in his gift to the Princeton Area Community Foundation will be sold at a future auction to build a fund that will help young artists just out of school, a cause to which Mr. George is deeply committed. His own success as an artist came from hard work, he says.

He also has given paintings to the Arts Council of Princeton to help raise money toward the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts.

Mr. George estimates he’s made about 5,000 paintings in his lifetime, and filled about 100 sketchbooks, two of which are on loan to the Art Museum. He does intend to hold on to some of his work. “I need it, it’s part of my life, like a friend. The places I’ve been are precious to me.”

In 1974 and again in 1976, he traveled to China during the reign of Mao Zedong with help from the Norwegian Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. “We took two eight-hour boat trips down the river Li between the towns of Guilin and Yangsuo,” he wrote in the exhibition catalog for a subsequent show, An American Artist in China. “I made drawings from the top deck as we went with the current past weirdly towering peaks, ancient river settlements and large flat-bottomed river boats with dark red sails. I went out to communes and sat in the fields to draw the surrounding landscape… In all, I made fifty large drawings and filled two sketchbooks. I hope they will communicate the excitement I felt while in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

He is among one of the first American artists to have worked in China since the revolution. “I stayed in the guest house in Guilin where Nixon stayed while making overtures (to China),” he recalls. “It was a Communist country, and everyone rode bicycles and wore blue suits. It was strange for them to see us there.”

Mr. George is not especially interested in revisiting today. “It looks like America now,” he says. And while he loved the cold weather in Norway, he fears he might be too sensitive to it now. “I lived in Florence for two years, but now it’s jammed. These places I’ve been were so special, but they’ve changed so much, although I’d go back to Paris in five minutes.”

When he travels to Maine, he’ll pack a box of watercolors and sketchbooks, but “I like it best here, making pictures, making works on paper,” he says. “Not copying, not being deliberate, but getting to the point where you make marks that express how you feel. These marks are based on your experience and you have to express it with vigor.”

Outside his studio window, birds sing under very old trees, and a well-tended garden surrounded by stonework lures insects with its nectar. It was Monet’s garden at Giverny, Hidcote Garden in England’s Cotswolds, and the Welsh garden, Bodnant, that helped him develop his sense of color – he calls them “color laboratories.” But it was in the mountains of Santa Fe where he finally learned to integrate the calligraphic lines of his black-and-white work with color.

“Mountains and sea and sky are my subject matter,” he says. “If you do enough of it, you don’t need to be out there looking at the scene, but inside seeing it… If I listen to my subject, it will tell me how to work.”

For further information about the Thomas George Collection at the Princeton Area Community Foundation call 609.219.1800, e-mail info@pacf.org or online at www.pacf.org

Thomas George Art Exhibit and Sale, the Gallery at the Princeton Area Community Foundation, 15 Princess Road, Lawrenceville, 609-219-1800.   Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The Princeton Area Community Foundation promotes philanthropy to advance the well-being of our communities forever. The Community Foundation provides charitable giving expertise to individuals, nonprofits and corporations, and each year invests millions of dollars into the community through grants and scholarships. For more information on the Community Foundation please contact them at 609-219-1800 or online at www.pacf.org

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One Response to Circle in his Psyche

  1. Pingback: The Artful Blogger! » Circular Thinking

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