I met Tom Lorio because my brother was getting married. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been in Baton Rouge. I wouldn’t have met Haden Phares, either. It wouldn’t have been explained to me how in the South, in Baton Rouge anyway, there’s an attitude of live and let live. Haden explained that to me. Most probably because I wanted him to tell me about the two big stuffed Canadian geese gently swaying in the breeze atop a tall pole in his front yard—and how did the neighbors feel about it?
If Haden wanted to plant a twenty-foot, stripped-down tree trunk upside down in his front yard fitted out with a little platform on top from which two large, somewhat moth-eaten birds vibrated in the breeze at the end of two thin steel rods, who was to complain? Well, nobody
—as I was given to understand.
Looking around at a few less commanding oddments in Haden’s front yard, I tried to let that sink in, and I started to feel a little more relaxed. It was a nice quiet neighborhood, not far from the LSU campus. In the Bay Area, by comparison, as it seemed to me sitting there just then, that living always included a little strain just in keeping up with the pace of things.
Haden explained that the whole vertical, taxidermic contraption had evolved from his impulse to help a friend. It had nothing to do with attracting attention, really. His friend, he told me, was always under a cloud. And visiting Haden one day, the friend revealed a new disappointment. His wife wouldn’t let him keep two handsome and newly acquired stuffed geese in his own home. That was the moment of Haden’s inspiration: he would find a place for the stuffed birds so his friend could come see them whenever he wanted.
The friend brightened at Haden’s proposal. “Maybe,” he said, “ if I bring them over here, my wife will let me have some for a change.”
So Haden rigged the whole thing up and that’s why the geese were in flying trim up by the power lines waving a little in the breeze.
The telling is meant to give the reader some idea of the influence I’d come under. Though my visit was to be brief, it inclined me toward discovery. I felt sure a wealth of idiosyncratic treasures must lay close by and it was a mild frustration knowing that, except for Haden’s garden antics, I was likely miss them.
So when my brother suggested, “Let’s go see my friend, Tommy. He’s an artist.” I was happy to assent. We walked the few blocks to a modest, clapboard-sided house. What Haden had explained about the relaxed nature of the local culture was confirmed almost immediately.
Lorio, appearing at his door in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, welcomed us in. The interior was dimly lit, but as my eyes adjusted, instead of conventional furnishings, I was surprised to see glass display cases full of carefully laid out artifacts. It was as if we’d entered a small museum.
Taking it in, I admit something in my spirit quickened. Moving closer to investigate, I was struck by the archeological look of some of the items. “Are these all things you’ve made yourself?” I asked Tommy.
They were. Scanning carefully from item to item, my first impression held true. There was something out of the ordinary here, and I asked if any dealers carried his work. He demurred.
I suspected as much, and my sense of being in a territory of hidden treasures deepened. First the high-flying stuffed birds and now a hidden museum. I couldn't help blurting out, “You know, if someone in New York got hold of your work, these things would sell!”
In retrospect, I wonder why my impulse was to go toward sales, to what might be. An old frustration, no doubt—two-fold. Why did such genuinely interesting things have to be hidden? And why did so many authentic artists labor in obscurity? Why couldn’t somebody figure this out?
I remember listening to an interview with the composer and musician Terry Riley several years ago. I appreciate his music and was listening with rapt attention. Well into the interview he was asked, “What other composers and musicians do you particularly like?” I don't recall a citation of anyone in particular, but I do remember this; he said, “I’m sure there are many musicians out there who are composing and playing better music than I am, and we’ll never know who they are.”
To say I was stunned is too strong, but I found the power and generosity of the vision his words opened deeply touching.
In one glass case several finely made, small cylindrical copper and silver containers with snug-fitting lids were laid out for view.
“I made these as a response to Hurricane Gustav,” Lorio said. “When Gustav blew through Baton Rouge in 2002 it knocked down thousands of trees and for months, everywhere you looked, there were chain-sawed sections of trees scattered around and city crews trying to deal with the mayhem. He told me he made the little containers to help excise the memory.
I hadn’t realized it at first, but they did look like miniature sections of tree trunks, and I should have asked him how the little metal containers were going to help, but I didn’t.
Next I noticed a group of expressive faces on a panel of black cloth. Turns out they were pins. Each one, Lorio told me, was assembled by blind-riveting ten or more separate elements together. That way each element had a different color. As with the little containers, I was amazed by the craft involved.
And then there were several idiosyncratic objets
to study. Some were like rusted cups that might have been excavated by archeologists. Others were like items salvaged from an old shipwreck. They all appeared to be coated with the deposits of time. Lorio explained that he’d used brass and silver shavings and soldered them over the bronze surfaces to achieve this effect; he used traditional metalsmithing techniques. Each should be held in the hand, he said, in order to really appreciate them.
The struggle among artists to be original produces a lot of work, but most of it misses the mark. Originality might better be thought of as having to do with origins rather than novelty. When an artist is able to produce a work that retains some connection with one’s essential self, it has a certain power; it seems to create a space free from ordinary associations allowing something else to come through.
As the three of us chatted, I couldn’t resist coming back to the business side of things with Lorio. It hadn’t taken long to recognize I was with someone who didn’t spend much time on the money side of things. It was none of my business, but I couldn’t help prying, “So, do you sell much of this work?”
“Not that much, But it’s great when I make a sale. I can go out and buy more supplies so I can keep working.”
That was what money could do. It could allow one to keep working.
Lorio sent me a note after I’d gotten back home, “The main reason I've kept to my craft for 35 years is the depth of involvement when I’m engaged in my work. It requires effort of mind, body and spirit. Diligence in these efforts results in satisfaction at all three levels. There’s a moment in the cycle of work where I go from intense fullness and satisfaction to complete emptiness. It’s exquisite. It was what got me started and what keeps me going.”