The artist Thomas Hieronymous Towhey, born in Cincinnati in the mid-20th century and resident here most of the time since, gave himself his middle name. Towhey is an admirer of that early Netherlandish painter, Hieronymous Bosch, who in fact played around with his own nomenclature. The Dutchman’s original surname referred to the place his family came from; “Bosch” recognizes his own birthplace. Towhey’s tribute is to suggest a shared sensuality and – perhaps – a shared desire to fill a canvas with all it can comfortably hold.
Towhey has also spent time in the southwest, first in the mid-’80s and again about ten years ago. The gorgeous New Mexico/Arizona light is unforgettable. “I saw what pure light really is,” he says. “It heightens your senses to see that light; returning to southern Ohio requires some readjustment.” Memories of that light continue to resonate in what he produces.
A particular and popular segment of Towhey’s work are his tea pot paintings. Not long after the wake for his beloved Irish grandmother he found himself with a large, round canvas, wondering what to put on it. She had been a tea drinker; thoughts of her were on his mind; suddenly “I saw a tea pot there and started painting.” People have responded strongly; he has done many, many tea pot paintings since. One result: people give him interesting looking tea pots; he has them displayed in a glass case in his dining room. “Very fertile ground for me. I’m still doing them; people commission them.”
Whatever Towhey is painting, figurative or abstract, his color is sophisticated and varied. His drawings, however, are black and white, ruled by line. Another element of his work is humor, in juxtapositions and concepts for the paintings, in titles of his works. A few title examples, from the current show at Thundersky: “Pinocchio’s First Flashback,” “Narcissism Ascending Staircase,” “The Bipolar Bear’s New Frontier.”
Towhey is not a tall man, has unruly, shoulder length hair and wears his glasses pushed up when not actually reading. This restless artist is never satisfied with a single medium. Besides paintings, he makes prints and when opportunity arises, sculpture. “I love to make sculpture,” he says, “but don’t have the necessary space here. Painting is more intimate, and can be done alone.”
Many artists, however, would envy Towhey his space. Fifteen years ago he bought a house and the lot and a half next to it in Norwood. The house is more than a hundred years old, small-scaled but two-storied; there’s also a two-storied shed that has become his studio. Trees and shrubs cut off street views of the generous outdoor space, which is put to pleasant use by way of chairs, a grill, and one of his own large, complex metal sculptures. (The sculptures, this one and those I see on his web site, despite their size are curiously light looking and have an air of perhaps being ready to fly away.) The resident dogs, Mocha and Sarge, can be turned out to run without concern. They are smooth-coated hounds, one large and the other larger, one pedigreed and one happy chance.
Although Towhey is now in the enviable position of being able to describe himself as a full time artist, that’s not always been true. He has put his painting skills to more mundane ends, i.e. people’s houses. He also worked for several years at Gibson Greeting Card Company. Long ago there was a brief marriage; the son from that union now is grown and lives in Chicago. Before Towhey bought the house in Norwood he moved frequently, but here he seems happily at home.
Asked when he recognized he would become an artist, his answer was “I’ve known that my entire life.” At the age of twelve, already caught into looking at art, he was brought up short on a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago by one of Monet’s late period depictions of a lily. It moved him to tears, he says, and “made me realize the power of art.” Growing up in Milford and Maderia, in his teen age years he was sidetracked by ventures into sports but a physical accident when he was in high school re-channeled his energies into art.
Despite a stint at the Art Academy and another at the University of Cincinnati, he found that “art school is great for some people, but for me it gets in the way.” He has, however, done his share of teaching, through YMCA outreach programs and as a volunteer instructor at St. Rita School for the Deaf. An important impetus to his career was to be a founding member of Maintraum, in the early ’90’s. Main Street in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine district was only just taking on its arts orientation, and the artists involved in Maintraum (a reference to the street name but also “main dream”) were among those making it happen.
Mary Heider, a frequent curator of local exhibitions, has followed Towhey’s work since those early days. “I realized then that his art excited but often puzzled viewers. It still generates amazement, controversy and excitement today,” she says. Some of his most recent canvases present figures that seem to exist only within their handsome clothing, lacking faces, bare shoulders or even hands.
In this wired world, one must ask artists if the computer plays a part in their working methods. Towhey’s reply: “It has changed the way artists do things. You no longer need to be in a gallery. I sell all over the world. It’s not my thing to create or compose on the computer, but I have nothing against it. I use it to look up images, though, not to create art but to research.”
He finds the Cincinnati art community “very supportive, but small compared to some other places. There are, though, a lot of good artists here and the whole city is getting better for artists.” Visits to the Cincinnati art museums or the galleries can be useful he thinks; they “freshen you up.”
Currently, Towhey’s work can be seen in the two-man show with Adrian Cox, “The Garden of Restoration,” on view at Thundersky Gallery. He says of his art that he “is trying to say something without yelling. I don’t want to over-explain, I want people to read their own meanings into the works.”
Hieronymous Bosch may have felt the same. Salvador Dali was Bosch-influenced, and in turn influenced Towhey although he says neither influence is key now. “You must go through an earlier period to figure out what’s good and what’s bad. Eventually, you can tell. But the key to originality is taking control of your own voice.” From that shed/studio in Norwood, Towhey’s voice can be seen and heard.