It was a cold, dreary December day, and I was trudging through town in the slushy dampness with my brother Danny and a couple of friends to the local movie theater to see a matinee. I was eight years old and had not seen a movie at the theater before without my Mom or Grandma. Danny and his friends threw wet snowballs at each other as I tried to hang back some and avoid getting pulled into the battle. In the distance, I could see the neon lights of the DOLTON theater glowing red in late afternoon darkness. We walked up to the warm light of the box office, where my brother paid for our tickets. As we entered the dark red lobby and stomped the wetness off our boots, the smell of hot buttered popcorn enveloped us like a warm hug. It was thrilling to be at the movie theater, and I felt so grown up. We waited in line to get our treats and went into the large auditorium and found seats in the center near the back.
The lights in the theater slowly dimmed, and upon the screen in large white letters on black came ROCKY to the sound of trumpets playing a regale sound. The first scene had a warm smoky patina, two men fighting in a ring in a church basement, with other men yelling and cheering. My heart was pounding at the sight. It took me a little while to get what was going on, but soon, I felt for Rocky, he seemed so alone and beaten down, but still proud as he walked down the cold streets alone to his spare apartment with his pet turtles. The apartment looked like heaven to me. To my eight-year-old mind, it looked warm and safe from the rest of the world, maybe because he was there. Rocky was so strong. It was an aspect of men I had never noticed before. He worked so hard and took so much physical abuse. These feelings and sights were new to me. I liked the way Rocky gently courted Adrian, slowly trying to get to know her with his goofy jokes at the pet store and on the ice rink as he ran next to her. When he was mocked and challenged by Apollo Creed to fight, my emotions ran high, and I was all in. I wanted him to win. When he was training, I was on the edge of my seat, rooting him on as he ran through the streets of Philadelphia and pummeled the sides of beef hanging in the freezers. In my young adolescent mind and body, the closest thing I can think was happening to me was that I was falling in love.
When Rocky got in the ring with Apollo Creed, he fought him with every ounce of his being. Round after round, every punch he took hurt my heart. I was crying and clenching, yelling at him to keep fighting. At the end of the fight, when Rocky was screaming for Adrian, I was out of my mind with happiness, confusion, and maybe a little bit of jealousy. I was crying with exhaustion at the range of my emotions. The movie had a profound effect on me, how I saw the world, my taste in, and relationships with men. The first record I ever bought was the Rocky soundtrack, which I listened to hundreds of times as I was growing up, and into adulthood, taking me back to the awakening of all those emotions I felt that day. It symbolizes love, hard work, and the fights we all face as we go through life. From that day forward, I was for the underdog, the one who continues to fight no matter what comes their way.
Living with Tom rouses those old feelings in me so often. He labors alone in his studio day after day, year after year, going places in his mind and heart that few are willing to go. He fearlessly approaches challenging subject matter and ideas, unlike any artist I have ever known. The discipline Tom uses to approach everything he does, rising early to exercise every single day, eating the foods he supposed to eat and not the food he wants. He reads every day, books to learn and expand his mind. All the while, giving himself to others, teaching, loving, nurturing his friends and family.
In comparison to the effort he puts forth in his work, many would say the return has been minimal. A little recognition here, selling a painting here and there, a public commission, a review, a nod from the right person, repeat. But I can’t help but hold onto hope that the right person will come forward and cast their blessing on his almost 40 years of continued art-making.
It’s my job to put him out there, to put him in competition with others. He’s never afraid to try, but often I am. The rejection is real, and I get weak and scared. I’m the one who will receive the rejection letter from the Guggenheim Foundation for the 15th time, or the rejections from countless, galleries, museums, art centers, and public art competitions, we are talking hundreds of rejections since we have been together. I have gone through periods where I hold back on putting him in the ring, not for Tom, but for my sake. As his number one champion, sometimes, I need to lick my wounds and heal. Tom says as soon as a rejection comes in, sit down at the computer and look for something new to enter. Sometimes I do that; sometimes, I need to feel low for a couple of days and find my way out of it.
It’s hard to know what part of an application sinks us. Was it the writing? The images? Did I miss something in the form? For the things we enter year after year, I will try to mix things up, new essays, or new images. When we receive a notice that we were finalists and we should apply again next year, I never know what to do. Should I keep everything in the application the same? It can be demoralizing. If Tom is feeling vulnerable, he blames the artwork solely, and things start to spiral; it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can quickly turn into a marathon of introspection, looking at images, questioning. The result is usually positive, but getting to that end is brutal.
We used to think it was a numbers game, for every ten submissions, we would get one. We’d get to the 8th or 9th rejection, I feel deflated, and Tom gets excited, he knew a winner was coming soon. As the years have gone on, the climate has changed. It became harder to win; the art world saturated with artists, many of them with a pedigree and an education that Tom does not have. That hasn’t slowed us down, I’ve just become more informed about time vs. effort. We enter things now and continue to try to maintain a balance of shows, sales, public projects, reviews, etc. that keep us afloat and hope alive.
I feel it’s my calling to love, honor, respect, promote, and fight alongside Tom. I believe in him. To me, what he does is essential, larger than both of us. He doesn’t do work with the art market in mind. It comes from a place of sincerity and love, with all the skills and meaning you would expect from an artist. What it means to be an artist has changed so much in the last fifty years. Now the profession of making art has evolved into an economic subculture, pushed forward by art schools. Maybe this is a good thing, but I don’t think it is. Today anyone with an idea and an Instagram account can develop the illusion of an art practice, churning out derivative works lacking understanding, exploration, and an innate need to communicate to others. Similarly, digital photography took away the livelihoods of countless incredible photographers—the magic and skill of taking photos democratized by technology. The people who know the difference, still see the difference, but the rest can’t and feel it’s all the same.
Later on in the Rocky series, Rocky is living in a mansion, he has become pampered, pretty and soft. Out of the shadows comes Clubber Lang, an eager, hungry, and vicious fighter to challenge him to get back in the ring. Rocky lost the Eye Of The Tiger and his will to fight. It takes the loss of his beloved trainer Mickey, to restore Rocky’s urgency to get back in the ring, to prove what he still has what it takes. Those around Rocky that believe in him help propel him, challenging him and pushing him to do his best. It’s easy to give up and not continue to fight. Tom keeps his eye on the prize, always striving to be a better artist and do better work. With me and friends and family cheering him on and taking comfort in knowing that Tom keeps making his art, no matter what. That’s a beautiful part of being an artist; there is no window of time to achieve this. It’s not a race; there is no finish line. It’s something he can do his whole life through until he can’t.
The art world will often have you think that unless you studied at such and such school with so and so, you probably don’t say anything worth hearing. Or if you didn’t come from this background or this culture or place in the world, your vision is not something the world will want to see. Young artists are favored over mid-career or older artists unless the right person sees work by an artist they are willing to put their name on as their “discovery.” It may sound bitter or angry; it’s not, it’s reality. Something we face day by day as life goes on. Tom is who he is; he does what he does, and there many that see the value in that. That will always be enough, for me at least. I can’t imagine him ever losing his eye of the tiger.