"I didn't pick up the brushes until I was 26," (Tom
Block) says, laughing softly at the thought. "I had no art
background. When I called my father to say that I was going to
art school, he said, 'Holy mackerel, you couldn't even draw a
stick figure when you were a kid!'"
Suffice to say that Block the elder got over his initial
disbelief, and that Block the younger proved himself adept with
the paints and brushes. More than adept, he became an award
winning young artist whose work has been displayed in galleries
around the country and the world.
When he embraced the life of an artist, though, Block also
embraced a particular vision of the artist's role in society. He
had a social conscience and he wasn't afraid to use it. His goal
was to raise awareness of social issues through his work as a
contemporary artist . . . "If you have a bunch of people
each doing one small thing, it starts to make a
difference," he says. "The sound of a thousand voices
talking in protest is a roar and that is the ultimate goal. Not
only is consciousness raised, but people take action."
A revolution, Block observes, starts small and grows little
Everybody knows that the first perk of being an artist is the
opportunity to be surrounded and uplifted by beauty and vision
except when you're choosing subjects for the Human Rights
Painting Project. "It was a somewhat depressing
process," Block admits. "Reading through this
incredible list of people who were being tortured for their
beliefs, their principles."
He stuck with it, though, determined to represent the
humanity of prisoners of conscience and refugees from every
corner of the globe. Some of his subjects, like the Albanian
Refugee, are otherwise anonymous and uncelebrated. Others, like
the Dalai Lama or Mahatma Gandhi are instantly recognizable.
Some, like Chinese dissident Wei JingSheng, have broken free
from their oppressors and gone on to carry the campaign for
human rights to a new level.
"Wei JingSheng heads the Overseas Chinese Democracy
Coalition," Block says, recalling the day that Wei, despite
incessant demands on his time, came to see him in his studio to
discuss the project. "He held up his hand and said, 'Look,
human rights is a very dry subject. It turns people off. I'll do
anything to help you on this project, to make them listen."
Turns out that he was not the only one. Block speaks with awe
about the donations of time and money that have talent
transformed this dream into a viable reality. "I have been
amazed at how many people have done things pro bono," he
says. "Janelle Welch is a graphic designer who have up her
weekends and evenings to lay out the 32-page catalogue. Webfront
Solutions put up the Web site; Image Power PR company got us in
touch with everybody from the Gazette to Oprah. These are people
who clearly have a social conscience and want to be
His own contributions, the artist plays down, but it must be
said that as a portrait painter, Block opens a window through
which the unhindered and unoppressed may gaze at their
not-quite-so- fortunate brethren and recognize the humanity they