by Richard Dorbin
So beloved was Tommy Macaione to his chosen hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, that after his death in 1992 a bronze statue of him painting en plein air was erected in a downtown park. When was the last time you saw a bronze statue of a plein air painter? Maybe one exists in Giverny, the Fontainebleau Forest, or possibly the Laguna coast, but I have not heard tell of one. What made this artist so worthy of a statue?
Through my eyes, as well as the eyes of my immediate family and much of Santa Fe, Tommy Macaione was one of the world’s most gifted painters. But as this author has matured as a painter and consumer of art, my perceptions transformed into a more critically sophisticated reality. I am emotionally attached to my earlier perceptions, but my head tells another story: Tommy’s story.
Born in 1907 in New London, Connecticut, to Italian immigrant parents, Tommy was raised in Connecticut and for a period lived in his parents’ native Sicily. Before WWII he had returned to New London and started to receive art instruction from local artist Frank Zozzora. Tommy studied at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1943-45 and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps near the end of the war.
After his tour in the army, fortunes led Tommy to the Southwest and eventually, in 1952, to Santa Fe. Inspired and convinced that he, too, could be a professional artist, Macaione stepped into the professional art scene in Santa Fe. He studied with Alfred Morang and cited influences Maurice de Vlaminck and Nicolai Fechin, as well as the general tradition of the Ashcan School. He then became part of the art community that was known as the “Canyon Roaders,” including Morang, Gerald Cassidy, Randall Davey, and Hal West.
His work is immediately recognizable by bold fauvist color usage and heavy, copious amounts of paint applied with brush as well as palette knife; the knife work was sculpting and blending, not much scraping. His subjects and motifs, both plein air and studio, were of his surrounding city, now famous for its ubiquitous art galleries and artisans. (Santa Fe boasts that it is currently the third-largest art market in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles.) Macaione’s subjects ranged from architectural to floral studies, supported by New Mexico’s distinctive warm adobe walls and cobalt blue skies — now broadly painted by many a resident and itinerant artist.
This author (and painter) was fortunate to grow up in the 1960s in the neighborhood where Tommy painted and lived. I count myself more than fortunate to have been raised among the centuries-old back streets where Tommy and other artists were part of the everyday landscape. Though I never heard the term “plein air” until adulthood, I figured painters painting out-of-doors were just artists, plying their trade. To me, being an artist was as legitimate a career as being, as were my parents, a librarian or a stock broker.
I have vivid memories of helping Tommy carry his painting supplies and watching him paint. My father recounts times in the early 1960s that my older sister and I would pass him swigs of water through the window to our front yard, where Tommy had happened to choose a view to paint at our house on the Camino Del Monte Sol. His kit was basic, never evolving from a rudimentary wooden tripod with heavy C-clamps to attach his canvases (at times he worked on multiple canvases) and a handheld palette. As he aged, he conceded to use his palette on a small crate or improvised TV tray.
Tommy was what one might call “a character.” He was cherished, but stood out as well as made himself all the more famous (and notorious) in Santa Fe through his personality, not just his painting. Even among the 1960s and 1970s hippie counterculture that flourished in the city, Tommy was an outspoken, flamboyant, free-spirited, and earthy eccentric. It was as though he had stepped out of a Hollywood movie set, cast as the wild-haired cliché of what one would have conjured up as the quintessential Bohemian “artiste.” Tommy implored passers-by, in his raspy broken English, to behold the abject beauty right before their eyes. His passionate diatribes and rants are central to how he is remembered today.
There are scores of anecdotes that are still passed around as cherished lore among those who knew (or wished they knew) Tommy. Famous also for his ever-expanding brood of dogs, Tommy was protective and ever-inclusive of strays he might add to his family of “babies.” All of this was not without complaints (and legitimate concerns) from his nearest neighbors about the difficulty of living next to a compound of ambiguously cared-for pets. Tommy’s advocacy for these animals — as well as outbursts during City Council meetings — landed him in jail for contempt more than once.
Tommy’s rants against the failings of city government went beyond concern for his dogs. His stays in the clink, however, were usually brief, as most times the city police would release him early the morning after his arrest because neither the police nor the other prisoners could bear more than a few hours of his non-stop complaining and protesting about the injustices served upon him.
As a full-throttle idealist, he ran for mayor, for City Council, House of Representatives, Senate, and for governor (where, in 1988, his platform involved the creation of a “Mutual Happiness Society”). And, yes, he ran for the White House (though not officially on any ballot). His everyday utopian attitude and ideals afforded him the duty and made him feel a need to run for public office.
In my personal memory when I was growing up, Tommy was ever entertaining, whether coming upon him painting as I walked home from school or hearing him rambling passionately on the local radio station, KTRC — which gave him a platform for his quixotic railings on issues as he ran for (but never achieved election to) office. No one doubted his sincerity in wanting to change the world for the better, but plenty of straitlaced folks certainly questioned his stability.
Macaione sold well enough to eke out a living in Santa Fe. (My father and siblings own several of his paintings, bought for between $35-$700 in the 1960s and ’70s.) Tommy also traded paintings for most of his needs, most famously to storekeepers for pet food and to a veterinarian for care of his dogs. He was even charismatic enough to be able to trade his paintings to a local art store to supply him with more paint and canvas.
Working mostly in oils on Masonite and stretched canvas, Tommy marketed his pieces directly off the easel. But he also had a few flourishes of marketing bravado. Alongside I-25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, an advertising billboard proclaimed: “Messrs. Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh … Please step aside for Thomas Macaione, the new star of the art world firmament … Let him bask in the light of World Fame…” Though this was marketing was done with others who also stood to profit from the sale of paintings and a videocassette documentary on Tommy, it’s anybody’s guess how effective that swaggering approach was.
As I took up painting in my 40s and my own artistic skills evolved, so did my visual and aesthetic sensibilities. A bittersweet realization began to dawn: Tommy was not the master artist my heart and untrained eyes had believed and elevated him to be. My growth as a self-critical and objective artist soon made me aware of how strong a few of Tommy’s pieces were, as well as how undisciplined many clearly were. My newly educated vision recognized the drawing and perspective mistakes, the compositional flaws, the color imbalances, and that handling of the paint was often sloppy rather than “passionately applied impasto.”
It is indeed bittersweet to have this new perspective fall over my childhood reminiscences. At the same time, I have held fast to my appreciation for the human qualities Tommy possessed that garnered more than just accolades for painting chops. He was his own one self, living at full volume. The boldness and passion that Macaione displayed made him unforgettable.
In Milwaukee, my current home, I recently attended a local theatrical production of “Man of La Mancha” — and was immediately taken aback by the parallel between Don Quixote and Tommy. The play shines light on questions of reality vs. perception. Where does the line lay between zealous idealism and mental instability? Championing valorous actions, defying inglorious human cruelty, and seeing beauty where others are blind to it were hallmarks of Tommy and of Don Quixote. I found myself looking back at Tommy and seeing how the same questions and boundaries were asked, and lines blurred, by this passionate painter.
As part of the community of plein air artists today, my awareness of and appreciation of Tommy’s full complement of human traits is all the more present after looking at his life and his work. We all share many of those same qualities: favoring idealism, each with our own character traits and different visual voices. The courage that has us all stepping outside, ready to create, fail or succeed. We all step up and tilt at elusive self-contentment with our work; our own windmills. The fact that we do this makes us a community where we all may share in the true beauty and blurred lines that I now see in my and Tommy’s lives. I am ever more inspired to summon the courage to get out and paint more as well as live a life of creative consequence.
For me, more painting, a few more windmills, and an eye on leaving a legacy with a brush and without.