The Feral Abstract Expressionist of Honey Island Swamp
Tom McNease: The Feral Abstract Expressionist of Honey Island Swamp
For 45 years Tom McNease lived in the bayous of Saint Tammany Parish, the most southeastern region of Louisiana. Nearly 300 square miles of this region is water, with creeks weaving through swamps of bald cypress, their branches draped with flowing silver-gray Spanish moss. The majority of the population is composed of otters, muskrats, bears, turtles — and the largest number of alligators in the state. Natives call it the North Shore, with Lake Pontchartrain being its southernmost border. McNease moved several times within this region, building a cottage at each location at the edge or in the middle of the bayou. For the last fifteen years of his life he lived alone at the edge of Honey Island Swamp, a 250-square-mile protected wildlife sanctuary forming Louisiana’s easternmost border with Mississippi. A recluse, he loved the swamp and could easily launch his kayak in the Old Pearl River, which ran its course 40 miles down to the Gulf of Mexico. Fully immersed in this environment, this completely self-taught Outsider artist developed a large body of artworks and a unique technique not revealed until his passing in 2014.
McNease was born on November 8, 1947, in Meridian, Mississippi, a railway hub for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and the Southern Railway. His father was a railroad engineer. The son’s original aspiration was to become a doctor, and in 1965 he enrolled in the pre-med program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Precocious but always restless, he was dismissed. He then attended Southeastern University in Hammond, Louisiana, as a biology major and soon married. After graduating in 1969 he taught science at a rural public school. Most of his students lived in poverty and, unable to bear the pain of dealing with many children who had been abused, he quit. A series of jobs followed, including plumber’s helper, newspaper writer, and car salesman.
In 1970, while living in Mandeville on North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, McNease became absorbed in photography. He immediately focused upon natural abstraction in the vein of Minor White and Wynn Bullock as well as certain works by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Brett Weston. He was also aware of the great romantic and mystic photographer of New Orleans, Clarence John Laughlin. With his immersion in photography came the beginnings of what would become a large archive of writings on painting, photography, philosophy, psychology, and the environment.
To seek that point at which the thing becomes a void in the eyes of the viewer, allowing him his own thoughts…To use that term again, “catalyst,” and to use Weston’s term, “the thing itself”… But to go beyond that. To transcend the actual subject. To use that subject as a vehicle into one’s own unknown cosmos.
— Tom McNease, November 11, 1975
McNease’s photographic images consistently “transcend the actual subject.” By 1975, when the photography market was in its infancy, McNease had built up an impressive body of work that secured exhibitions at pioneering galleries in Dallas, Santa Fe, Oregon City, and New York City — and that year his photographs were published in the Swiss magazine, Camera.
In 1979 McNease built a cottage of virgin cypress with no nails. It was under a huge old oak tree in the swamp. He installed a glass roof so that as he lay down he could gaze to the skies both day and night. That year, the New Orleans Museum of Art purchased three of his abstract expressionist works — chemigrams — images created by manipulating chemicals on the surface of photographic paper. Other photographs were sold to the collections of the Exchange National Bank of Chicago, The Prestonwood Collection of Photographic Art (Dallas), and the Louisiana Arts and Science Centre (Baton Rouge).
Because his wife was striving to become a ballerina the couple made extended stays in New York where McNease enjoyed several exhibitions at The 4th Street Photo Gallery, the last of which occurred in 1981. Increasingly, his wife felt compelled to remain in New York but McNease felt the inexorable drawing power that the swamp held over his psyche. This impasse led to their divorce in 1983. Living alone, McNease poured his energies into his art, moving freely between photography and painting as he dove deeper into abstract expressionism. He invented a unique technique in a process that began with painting individual brushstrokes as well as pouring swirling acrylic pigments on glass and letting each dry separately. He would then scrape them off, building up a huge supply. Finally, he returned to select from the individual dried brushstrokes, arranging and affixing them to a support material such as glass or wallboard. The resulting paintings looked as if they had been directly painted on canvas but in reality they were collages of brushstrokes. When using glass, sometimes the brushstrokes were applied to the reverse — recalling the 19th century technique of reverse glass painting. One would be hard-pressed to find a precedent for the transference of hundreds of dry acrylic brushstrokes. It is hard to recall any American artist who applied this technique to contemporary art.
True experimentation leads to no conclusion but the next step up the spiralling indeterminate ladder of creation.
— from the McNease Archive, May 2012
McNease also created numerous free-form painting-sculptures with large sheets of acrylic pigments. Layer upon layer of pigments were painted on large sheets of glass. While the paint was still not fully dry, he peeled off the thick but pliable acrylic sheets and hung them loosely over objects where upon fully drying they became free-form sculptures. These works abandon the concept of canvas on a wooden stretcher and frame. Instead, they recall the spirit of Sam Gilliam’s free-form canvases of 1965–1975. McNease kept some of these painting-sculptures in his work sheds while he hung other pigment sheets over branches in the swamp, thereby bringing his art into a direct embrace with Nature. One of his mantras was “ Emphasis is on process with nature as the source.”
McNease constantly explored abstraction, moving effortlessly between — and merging — photography, painting, and sculpture. His foray into collage had begun in the early 1980s and was expanded with a mature series in 1989–90. With great precision and planning, he cut his larger photographic prints into long thin strips and rearranged them as rhythmic abstract images. His predecessors in such pure abstract expressionism in photography include Francois Bruguière, a painter who in 1912 first cut, arranged, and then photographed his paper abstractions under controlled lighting. Henry Holmes Smith, who taught at Chicago Bauhaus, produced cameraless abstract images. In the 1950s Lotte Jacobi also created cameraless prints she called photogenics. Aaron Siskind’s images of graffiti, peeling paint, and worn posters established him as the preeminent photographer associated with Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. But McNease’s carefully composed strips of photographs break new ground and generate a flow between photographic techniques and new painting techniques.
In 1984 the artist remarried. But after their cottage in the swamp was wiped out by a hurricane and they moved to his parents’ property in East Pearl Camp, Louisiana, near the Mississippi border. There he continued to create photo-collages as well as develop his brushstroke transfer process on glass and other supports, almost always found materials. For example, on January 14, 1996, he wrote:
Forgot to mention in my last dreary passage…hundreds of sheets (40.5 cm x 25.5 cm) of glass scored! Karen, in her (fortunate for me) constant vigil, discovered a store in the outlet center (where she manages a store) going out of business. With great attention to detail and diligent awareness, the glass (actually shirt cubes) was procured — at no cost!!! So, there was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal week — six pickup truck loads. Amazingly, all materials (other than paint, etc.) over the past 3 plus years were obtained from that outlet center (signs, bulbs etc.). Obviously, money is, and should never be, no impediment to creation. If the need is there, there is a way.
In 1997, his wife was diagnosed with bone cancer. For the next two years his art production stalled, as he became her primary caregiver. After her death in 1999 his tendency to be reclusive heightened and relatives said he became agoraphobic. In what was his last move, he bought two acres in Honey Island Swamp near Pearl River in eastern Saint Tammany Parish. There he became an even more avid kayaker, birdwatcher, fisherman, and camper — and wrote about protecting the bayou environment that he credited as the wellspring of his creative inspiration. He was adamant about “Man’s systematic destruction of the planet earth.” A poet and philosopher, he left behind hundreds of pages of his writing on art, life, and the cosmos. Fortunately, he also carefully numbered and documented each artwork in a series of notebooks.
On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made its final landfall at the mouth of the Pearl River, pushing a storm surge up the river and through the bayou. Eschewing the warnings of authorities to move to higher ground, McNease was undaunted. Committed to experiencing the full force of nature, and despite the obvious danger, he managed to convince a neighbor to chain him to a post on his property and not unbind him until after the hurricane had passed. In the driving rain, winds of 120 mph toppled trees around him while brush and branches beat his body for hours. As the river water rose all round him, the artist was exuberant. He later wrote, “Chaos, after all, is the nature of abstraction as abstraction is the nature of chaos.”
Tom McNease: Feral Abstract Expressionist of Honey Island Swamp
McNease was a true self-taught Outsider artist who lived alone at the edge of Honey Island Swamp, a 250-square-mile protected wildlife sanctuary forming Louisiana’s easternmost border with Mississippi. A recluse, he became fully immersed in the natural environment of the swamp where he developed a large body of artworks and invented an entirely new technique of pigment transfer. Now, this self-proclaimed “feral artist” the bayou must be counted as among the most innovative painters and photographers of the late 20th century.