Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Painting in my sleep, formerly homeless man makes his mark as an artist - Harry Blomme - July 3, 2002

* Pictured - Greg Brown and Harry Blomme outside of Utrillo's Art Gallery. "He's become quite a good cook. He can make spaghetti taste good," Blomme said of Brown.

Harry Blomme farmed his Southern Indiana land for nearly 40 years before finding himself homeless in Indianapolis five years ago. He has a little apartment now, just big enough for his art supplies and a few modest furnishings that his new career as an artist has helped provide for him.

Cupid lured Blomme to rural Indiana from his native Toronto when he was a young man. A frenzy of love letter exchanges with a woman he met through a pen pal ad in the back of a farm journal engaged him enough to buy a bus ticket and meet her in person. "She was meant to be my wife," he says. She was African-American, from a family of traveling Southern Indiana Pentecostal preachers. He was second generation Flemish-Canadian and Catholic.

They had a love- and faith-based marriage, followed the preaching circuit as far north as Detroit and, meanwhile, farmed their land. "You gotta' grease and oil all your tractors, engines, make sure you got enough gas and carry gas with you ... make sure you've got enough seed with you. And plowing 40 acres is a chore," Blomme says of his former Evansville farm.

Tragedy overtook Blomme when one of his two sons was killed in a convenience store robbery. Then Blomme's wife died. Not long after that, he lost control of his farm and was left destitute.

Deeply spiritual and innately artistic, Blomme found comfort through painting and drawing. "I always knew I could paint, even when I was a little kid," he says over a boombox playing Madame Butterfly in his small, square, immaculately white and tidy one-bedroom home. Because sketch paper was not an available option while Blomme was living on the streets, his pieces were customarily rendered on dumpster finds like the backs of TVs. Luckily for him, people liked and wanted to buy this work that brought him so much personal salvation.

Delicately-labored strokes

Utrillo's Art Gallery, owned by Greg Brown, is where Blomme's landscape, still life and figurative works are currently housed. "He's always advising me and he's always offering me coffee, tea or whatever," Blomme says of Brown.

Blomme's creativity is encouraged by Brown, who occasionally outfits him with painting materials and recovered frames.
Though some are quick to classify Blomme's work as naive, he was formally trained in visual art at Danforth Technical School in Toronto. They "taught all sorts of arts - anything you wanted," Blomme recalls, adding that anatomy was his favorite class. He recalls the naked female models. "Us youngsters, just growing up, we loved that stuff." And as a result, Blomme has a wonderful sense of the human form without much of the proportional awkwardness that can plague even the most seasoned artists.

His knowledge of art and technique is hardly unsophisticated. "I think I"m a little haphazard the way I paint," he says of his delicately-labored strokes. "Sometimes you're just filling a space with color because something else was supposed to have gone there. Ninety percent of any painting is the actual proportion and drawing of it. If you can draw it up good, the painting part is secondary." Ten percent is lighting, Blomme reasons. "The lighting is the hardest thing to conquer. Incidental lighting - it might be just glaring in it; a spot on the street, or in through a window and onto a floor or just a slight glare off the side of a wall." Light is key in many of his dimly colored expressionistic works.

"You get so engrossed in a painting, you talk to yourself about it. I find myself painting in my sleep. When you come to dream about it, you have to pay attention to it. You can get hung up on a painting and lose your perspective in it. You really have to go away from it and put it to the side and then come back and look at it. Color-wise, the proportion of it, figure-wise or whatever, you have to stand back from everything." Blomme says he paints compulsively while sitting on his green floral sheet-covered twin bed, next to a sheet-covered table and sheet-covered overstuffed chair.

"I like to paint anything that suits my style," except religious scenes or images of Christ. "As far as actually trying to paint the likeness of what He looked like, I don't think it"s possible for any artist. It's a big responsibility for an artist. It's supposed to be a surprise anyway."

National Geographic serves as Bloome's image source when he can"t draw from life. "I do a lot of sketchin' everywhere I go. I was drawing people at the bus station. Constantly doing it made me learn how to intone the colors and shading, and handling the pencils and charcoal."

This artistic urge kept Blomme's mind active and content when he was homeless.

Redeeming reality

Blomme met Julia Carson during a homeless church service at Christ Church Cathedral and sketched her. The resulting portrait now resides in her Washington, D.C., office. Some of Blomme's other honors include a mural at Catholic Social Services and a commission for the homeless memorial service held annually at Christ Church Cathedral. He's taught art at Holy Family Transitional Housing in Fountain Square to children and adults. ""Mommy, that's the artist man." They called me "artist man,"" he recalls. "With a child you can practically mold them and inspire - give them inspiration when they're young. They know if you're teaching them right." He's exhibited at IPALCO's Crystal Gallery, the Governor's Mansion and was the inspiration for the April Show, an annual art show comprised of artists who have overcome obstacles that most of us will never have to face - like mental illness and homelessness.

David Hittle of Lutheran Family Services met Blomme while working as a case manager for a homeless transitional housing effort, Homeless Initiative Project. Blomme's case manager, Bill Bickel, current director of Holy Family Shelter Services, introduced the two. Hittle, who describes Blomme as "one of the swellest guys I know," was motivated to open up his downtown turn-of the-century home for the April Show exhibition featuring Blomme"s artwork because he realized there were no other venue opportunities for him. Greg Brown loved Hittle"s idea and introduced him to two other artists from similar backgrounds.

Bickel and Hittle have ventured outside of their social work worlds to effectively improve lives by encouraging visual arts. They have confirmed the redeeming reality of how the arts can actually restore lives like Harry Blomme"s, whose paintings renewed his life and rescued him from an uncertain future. This work has enabled him to start concentrating on other important life matters like finding a good church: "One with good music," he stresses. And establishing himself as the artist he is. "I would love to get my name out there and be known as a good artist." - Mary Lee Pappas

Fine art of afterthought - The Indiana State Museum, NiSource Gallery - July 3, 2002

The new Indiana State Museum provides visitors with a family-friendly joyride through Indiana history with slick multisensory, hands-on, interactive exhibitions. Video components, buttons to push, music to hear and differing floorplans to stroll through immerse the Average Joe into a subconscious and effective learning experience. It is actually a fun and full sensory encounter with Indiana culture. That is, until you enter the NiSource, Inc. Gallery on the third floor.

The high-tech continuity suddenly breaks and fizzles hard, flattening the experience of viewing the 200 years of Indiana-made fine art that this gallery is dedicated to showing. It's actually so startlingly sober in contrast to the rest of the facility that it feels like an underdeveloped afterthought. Museums have evolved into design-heavy entertainment facilities meant to seduce all walks of life through their $7-per-adult doors. Steep admission costs and capital campaigns compensate for the now-absent Daddy Warbucks big-time donors. Museums have full-time staff grant writers who have to prove museum interaction with community, education, children and everything else other than the quality of art to garner funds. Donors would rather contribute $10,000 to have a hallway named after them than anonymously funding fine art acquisitions. And so, art and art experiences have become dictated less by quality than by catering to those who will scrape together dollars to keep the museum afloat. Are museums forgetting how to present fine art?

Doubly dull in the painting gallery were the taupe-colored walls that struck awkward angles. I suppose this was done to break up the monotonously sanitary-toned space and add a dynamic energy to the room. Plunked down in the center of this space are two free-standing exhibition walls, moveable I hope, that face each other and contain mostly Hoosier Group favorites.

I watched about 30 people enter the gallery and bumper car off of each other, not knowing what kind of a traffic pattern to follow. The gallery space didn't flow or represent how the rest of the museum was handled. There was no obvious topic, theme or other explanation to guide visitors through it. Most people seemed seduced into the gallery by John Domont's two large and glowing color landscapes near the entrance. After that, they consistently made their way to the large window in a corner of the room that juts over the canal to check out the view.

Those free-standing walls, by the way, are painted a too-bright shade of French blue. It's so bright it dulls the rich colors of extraordinary paintings like "Pastoral" by Richard B. Gruelle. "The Bridge," an expressionistic landscape by William Forysth, has so much blue in it already that it only made me dizzy, hung as it was against the overpowering blue on the walls. Work was crammed together. Did the museum feel the need to exhibit every single piece in their collection (or so it seemed) in this new, climate-controlled space?

"The Confers," by Thelma Confer, hung only 2 inches away from "Acme Milling Co." by Harry Davis. That's not close, it's cluttered. Placed at an open end of an exhibition wall, the Confer piece was hanging crooked, no doubt the result of being elbowed by a patron cutting the corner too close. Paintings were shoved into the corners of the mostly useless interior wall configurations. The viewer is forced to view large-scale work at close range in this tight space. "Still Life," by John Otis Adams, is too large to be placed in one of these cupped ends. Only when you stand directly in front of it can you begin to see it properly. Forsyth's "Dahlias" has to be viewed within 8 feet (with a slight glare) or less before you back into an exhibition wall. A Willie Faust piece was tucked behind one of the weird room exterior wall angles next to the emergency door exit. You have to turn around to look at it. One woman commented, "Is this art?" and then promptly walked to the window.

And one more thing. Where was the security guard when an early 20-something woman, admiring the T.C. Steele portrait of James Whitcomb Riley, slowly wiped her hand across it? The NiSource Inc. Gallery space is awkward for the art and for visitors. It's as if the museum is saying, "Here's our art!" and that's it. Compared to other exhibitions, there is nothing to effectively engage or guide the Average Joe through the work or tell the stories of styles, influences, technique and successes of the rich fine arts heritage of our state. It does the art, the artists represented and the Indiana State Museum"s ambitious contemporary collection an injustice. - Mary Lee Pappas