"In the Struggle"
Tom Block began his professional life as a writer, but over the past 15 years
he has developed a parallel career as a visual artist. Since the late 1990s
he has focused his artistic energies largely on the creation of serial artworks
that explore social, political and philosophical issues, he said in a recent
telephone interview from his home on the outskirts of Washington.
One of his series, which he calls "The Human Rights Painting Project," consists
of portraits whose subjects have been involved in the struggle for human rights
around the world. The series consists of 70 paintings and 200 drawings, and
about 20 of those works are scheduled to go on view Friday in an exhibition
at Tessera Gallery, 628 W. Fourth St.
Block said he created the series as a visual celebration - and a tool for
raising awareness - of the work of Amnesty International, a human-rights organization.
Accordingly, he said, he routinely gives the group a portion of his income
from sales of these portraits, as well as all proceeds from sales of an accompanying
catalog and note cards imprinted with color reproductions of some of these
The series emphasizes the international character of the human-rights struggle,
Block said, and the importance of Amnesty International's work. "The paintings
themselves capture the range of emotions exhibited in this battle," he
said. "Fear, destitution, pain, hope, joy and even sanguinity form themselves
in these faces."
Those faces belong to historical figures and internationally recognized leaders
such as Sojourner Truth, Mohandas K. Ghandi and the Dalai Lama, Block said,
as well as lesser-known human-rights activists and relatively anonymous individuals
tortured or killed under the supervision of repressive political regimes in
28 countries. A wall label that identifies its subject and contains summary
biographical information accompanies each portrait.
"Ultimately, the paintings bring together man's best and worst impulses;
the heroes of the images are a counterpoint to the authorities that forced
them into that role," he said. "We are left with the uncomfortable
question of which group is more typical of our human race and which the exception." Block
said that he will discuss the series further in a talk at Friday's opening
reception, set to run from 7 to 10 p.m. He said that Laura Moye, the acting
director of Amnesty USA's Southern region, will also be at the reception to
talk about the group's work.
Living in or near the nation's capital for most of his life has made Block
acutely conscious of political issues, he said. Before he became a politically
motivated painter, though, he spent 10 years establishing himself professionally
in two different fields.
In 1987, he said, he earned a bachelor's degree in English from Vassar College
in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., then moved to Boston and began building a career as
a freelance writer, following in the footsteps of his journalist father.
Block said that he also made photographs for publication alongside travel
pieces and feature articles that he wrote for magazines and newspapers. In
1989, to sharpen his photographic skills, he said, he decided to enroll in
a course in fine-art photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in
Because he had no previous art training, Block said, the school required him
to also take a six-week introductory class in visual art. It was in the latter
class, he said, that he was exposed to and fell in love with painting. As a
result, he decided to study drawing and painting instead of photography. But
he left the school after about a year and a half because he felt he had received
enough training to pursue painting on his own.
To support himself, Block waited tables for a while and spent a few months
traveling around Europe making sketches before returning to the United States.
He went back to Europe in the fall of 1992 and settled in Caceres, a small
town in western Spain, where he spent the next three years honing his painting
skills and arranging exhibitions of his work in the two nearest cities, Madrid,
and Lisbon, Portugal.
Eventually, he was faced with a choice of becoming a permanent expatriate
or returning to the United States. He ultimately chose the latter course of
action, because he wanted to start making politically themed art that he felt
would be better understood by audiences in his own country. Resettling in Washington,
where he had grown up, he turned to teaching art to children and adolescents
in order to earn a living. In October 1998 he married the former Debbie Spielberg,
and they now have two children, ages1 and 5.
Block said he initially approached Amnesty International in 1997 with a proposal
for creating this series, but it wasn't until early 2001 that officials of
a local chapter of the group in the D.C. area encouraged him to proceed with
it. He said he completed it in a little more than a year. It made its public
debut in an April 2002 exhibit at the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO
in Washington. "What I found at that show and since then is that there
are a lot of people who aren't necessarily very interested in art but are very
interested in this project," Block said.
After favorable press coverage of that first exhibition, he said, he was able
to obtain letters of support for the project from a number of prominent individuals
and gather enough private financial contributions to pay for production of
the accompanying catalog.
Block said that he continues to write, but that his interests in that field
have shifted away from journalism into fiction and self-directed scholarship.
He said that last fall he completed the 430-page manuscript for a book on the
relationship between Sufism - an ancient mystical discipline often related
to Islam - and Jewish spirituality. He said that since then he has been seeking
a publisher for the book.
Tom Patterson, Winston-Salem, NC, July 3, 2005