I first became aware of artist David Tomb thanks to his portraits some years ago. It was impossible not to recognize something special in them, even beyond the artist's formidable draftsmanship. In particular, the portraits of his favorite subject capture subtle states one recognizes immediately, most often subtle varieties of preoccupation with one or another unseen riddle. It's that state of having one's thoughts quietly elsewhere. Conveyed, too, is the strong sense that we, as viewers, look in on the subject caught unobserved and alone in his pondering. These drawings have a quality hard to pin down, perhaps of a gentle and compassionate impartiality.
Tomb's portraits have gotten a fair amount of attention, especially here in the Bay Area, and so when I learned that he had turned his attention to a new subject, birds, I was curious. I wanted to know what was behind his new direction.
A phone call led to a studio visit. It was the second or third time I'd met and talked with Tomb, and I was reminded once again just how enjoyable a visit with an artist in his or her studio can be.
What I remember is how Tomb explained that bird watching was one of his longstanding interests, something I can easily understand. Whenever a bird lands in the branches outside the window, aren't one's eyes attracted there immediately and linger with a kind of delight? It's one of those pleasures that never gets old. And sometimes there's a special treat like the yellow flash of a goldfinch or the charm of a tiny chickadee.
Tomb talked about the rekindling of a passion, and how this carried him to the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. There, he saw first hand an amazing variety of birds he'd never seen before. All in all, it's clear the artist has given himself over to an entirely new direction.
Listening to Tomb's enthusiastic descriptions raised my own spirits, too. But what about the artworld? I wondered. Tomb's drawings have the look of accomplished illustrations. Where was the offbeat stance, the conceptual conceit, or some other indication that the work was art?
We both had a rueful laugh over this--a taste of freedom! It seems Tomb wasn't worrying about these questions. His drawings are born of enthusiasm in the old sense of the word, en theos.
Listening to him talking elatedly of his experiences, I suddenly wondered if any of it translated to a concern for issues of the environment. Of course, the answer was emphatically yes.
60% of the cloud forests of Mexico have disappeared, I learned. El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve preserve in Chiapas is one that is being preserved. Even the mythic quetzal can still be seen there, the bird venerated by the ancient Mayas and Aztecs as the God of the Air and associated, too, with the snake god Quetzalcoatl. They're not easy to find, even there, but Tomb had seen one himself.
I forget exactly how he put it when we talked about this new work, but "I feel completely refreshed" is close enough.
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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