Montgomery County, MD
Tom Block is deeper than deep. He paints and writes on all
manner of serious subject matter. Thank goodness, the guy has a
sense of humor, especially when he proclaims he should have gone
shirtless for The Gazette's photographer.
This self-described "wild-haired activist" is
passionate, liberal and too, too smart. When Block jokingly
calls himself a Jewish/Sufi, a trip to the online dictionary is
in order. The Vassar graduate is even writing a book on the
influence of Sufism -- Islamic mysticism -- on the development
of Jewish spirituality.
Of course, there is more to Tom Block than a grocery list of
superlatives. This Bethesda-bred, private school-educated --
Georgetown Day and Landon -- expressionistic painter "walks
the walk," according to Kim Ward of the Washington Projects
for the Arts, headquartered at the Corcoran Gallery. He is a
"grassroots artist," she says, creating political art
with an "edge and angst." And Ward is in a position to
know, since the WPA's mission is to support promising local
Block always has created "art outside the narrow
confines of the high art world. I wanted to take a contemporary
vision and take it to a wider audience," he explains from
his home in "multi-cultural Silver Spring."
His business manager Debbie Grossman Shaked believes Block
will be famous before too long, and she "wants to help him
get there." "It is not just his work, but his
ideas," she says.
World renowned or not, the artist has spent the last few
years painting portraits of victims of political and social
upheaval and people who have devoted their lives to human rights
causes. His "Human Rights Painting Project" is on view
at the Ratner Museum in Bethesda through Sept. 1.The exhibit is
interesting to art lovers as well as political activists.
Clearly influenced by expressionist painters William De
Kooning and Oscar Kokoshka, Block piles thick mounds of
brilliantly hued paint on the canvas, comparing said pigment to
butter and icing. In fact, there is nothing sweet about these
larger-than-life expressionistic portraits, some measuring four
by five feet.
Block created the portraits to promote human rights
awareness, with 50 percent of painting proceeds earmarked for
Amnesty International. Some depict well-known individuals such
as Mahatma Gandhi, while others are of personages relatively
obscure to westerners -- like Faraj Sarkouhi, former editor-
in-chief of Adineh, a Iranian socio-literary journal. The
exhibit also includes more generic subject matter including
portraits of a death row guard and refugees.
Beside the portraits, biographical notes, written by Nancy
Golden, further engage the viewer. The "depth and passion
in his strokes and color blocks and the way he cuts and frames
his subjects" first attracted Ward to Block's work.
"Things aren't at peace on the canvas," she says. She
is pleased that he has "achieved a measure of
success," even without the backing of a commercial gallery.
As far as his "Human Rights Painting Project" is
concerned, Block isn't in it for the money. "I proposed the
idea to the local Amnesty International Chapter and received a
response like 'Put them in a bar and raise a couple of hundred
dollars.' But I had other plans," he recalls.
From the outset, plenty of friends took up the cause, helping
him put the project together. For the inaugural showing at the
AFL-CIO headquarters in Silver Spring in 2002, Amnesty
International's Chief Executive William F. Schulz and the labor
organization's President John Sweeney met for the first time,
Block notes. The exhibit then traveled to Chicago and Ohio State
University and was highlighted on National Public Radio's
"Talk of the Nation."
"So how did a nice Bethesda boy become an activist
artist? "It's in my genes," Block opines. "My dad
After earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1987, Block
made a nice living as a freelance travel writer. Newsday and the
Los Angeles Times were on his resume and a staff position was on
the horizon. But there was one problem, he says: "I hated
it." Travel writing felt like "glorified
advertising," he recalls.
At age 27, Block bagged it all and started waiting tables in
Boston. During his stint as a travel writer, he had taken
black-and-white photographs and thought about becoming an art
photographer. He decided to enroll in the Boston Museum School,
just across the street from his home. He had never taken an art
class, but balked at the school administrators' insistence that
he take some basic art classes.
When Block realized his options were either taking a basic
art class or scrambling for quarters, Drawing 101 didn't seem so
awful. After just two weeks, he admits, "I fell in love
with it [painting and drawing]."
Of course, Block's family was skeptical. His father wondered
how a kid who couldn't manage to draw a decent stick figure
could decide to become an artist. His pragmatic grandmother
suggested finding an art expert who could tell them if her
grandson had any real talent.
Through it all, Block stood firm. Looking back, he realizes
his behavior might have been all right at 27. But by age 40, he
acknowledges, "I could be a complete failure."
"Block studied art for 18 months before striking out on
his own. First, he moved to Denver, then traveled to Spain,
where he recalls "the cragged, almost desert-like landscape
coalesced with my own feelings of detachment as an expatriate to
produce the motivations" for a series of paintings. Almost
as important, he could sell a painting for a couple of hundred
dollars and support himself for a month.
Living in an unheated room in the small village of Caceres,
Spain, he read and reflected."It was around 1993. What can
I say, I am a late bloomer," he quips.
He returned to this area in 1996, living in a Gaithersburg
basement and teaching art to disadvantaged and emotionally
disturbed children. He began painting what he describes as the
"mythology of the mundane. As we trudge through our daily
lives, we pass through literally millions of moments that act as
metaphor for our personal struggle and the struggle of humanity
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this
expressionist painter wasn't about to paint pretty petunias.
Even so, Block sought something more.
Back in 1998, on an extended honeymoon, Block whiled away the
hours reading books on social and political philosophy. While
reading may not be on most people's honeymoon to-do list, Block
"realized how to put it all together." "It"
meant introducing larger philosophical issues and ideas into
some of his paintings.
Now that Block has turned 40, his family has nothing to worry
about. In addition to his one-person exhibit, he is working on
a public art project in Silver Spring, a book proposal and
multimedia catalog on Jewish and Islamic mystics. Such a nice
Jewish boy, with or without his shirt.