Self-taught painter brings outside perspective to arts community

Monica Sandreczki
February 18, 2014

For ten years, Steuben County resident, Tom Kerr has operated on the fringes of the art world. He’s been painting on found objects of all sorts including tree branches and old desks.

But, Kerr never went to art school – he self-trained, outside the mainstream of the art world and doesn’t make a living as an artist. But now, his work is on display at the Cedar Arts Center in Corning in an outsider art exhibit.

Tom Kerr trudges through the snow on the side of the road near Hornell, New York.  He has a cup of coffee from the Sunoco station in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Kerr is searching for the materials that will become his canvas.

“Here there may be something, this is a whole pile of brush. . .8:54 Mmkay, I think I do see something actually.”

Kerr bends down and reaches for a curved branch that’s about four feet long with twigs jutting in every direction.

"If you feel this, it’s raised up and different. It’s actually where the tree has been harmed, but that’s just the way it grew around it.”

Kerr likes to make a tiny flaw like this one into the focal point of his paintings. One of his pieces - Loko-motion – is made of a Z-shaped root he found near here. The roots was stripped bare, sanded a little, then brushed with light green tempera paint and dotted with black O’s to look like a slithering snake.

“Look, you can see he’s half off the ground, I mean, he’s moving,” says Kerr.

Connie Sullivan-Blum is the curator for an outsider art exhibit in Corning. Sullivan-Blum says she first met Kerr a year ago when he was dropping off a three-foot-long painted saw. She says he’s pretty eccentric. In fact, at the exhibit opening, he carried a wooden staff and wore a top hat with Mickey Mouse ears stapled on the sides.

“I don’t think Tom could live a conventional life,” says Sullivan-Blum.

Kerr has spent most his life in Steuben County. He’s mostly worked odd jobs – laying railroad lines, selling newspapers and, for twenty years, buying antiques off people to sell at flea markets.

“It was a systematic thing. I mean, I went door to door to door and just asked knocked on the doors, told a little kind of joke at the door.”

About 15 years ago, Kerr fell down a flight of patio stairs and wrecked his back.  Since then, he’s lived in a few rooms he rents in Hornell, surviving on social security and disability checks.

“I can work a little bit, but it’s very limited. And it’s costly especially when you’re on a limited income. But that’s, I’m not complaining, that’s life. It happens.”

In 2004, on a whim Kerr entered an art competition in Corning. He copied a historical cityscape of Bath, New York, using an antique chalkboard slate.

"I couldn’t find anything else to produce on, so I just flipped to the back and did the hills and did the scene of Bath like this, as close to this as I could come and it, they picked it out of 70 paintings.”

After winning that contest, he hasn’t stopped. Today, he’s in the middle of using acrylics to paint a Native American figure – a kachina doll – transferring it from this history book onto a 3ft table with zaphtig curved sides.

“I haven’t got it figured out all the way yet. . .see you could use a brush, but what I want is a circle. I’m going to try the eraser part of a pencil and see how it goes.”

Jo Farb Hernandez runs a non-profit for self-taught artists. She says in at least one way, Kerr is like most artists – he draws inspiration from his environment.

"And these artists that have not gone to art school are able to be more personal in their work and not worry whether this will fly for art in America or hit a gallery on 57th street.”

Back in Corning, Kerr hopes his work will inspire the next generation of artists to try to get their work into galleries, even if they haven’t had a formal education.

"We have maybe a little bit different way of looking at things, but it’s... it’s original to us and that’s really all that matters to us.”

And Kerr says, he has no plans of stopping.