02 Sep Character of a Man: Tom Seigenthaler’s Art on Exhibit at O’More
A prominent Nashville, TN businessman, Seigenthaler wore a suit to work every day and always had his shoes shined. He directed his own public relations firm, met with a Nobel Peace Price winner and advised a future vice president.
But Amy Seigenthaler remembers something else about her father. Before lying down at night, she would glance out her bedroom window into the backyard and see the light streaming from the windows of the garage her father converted into an art studio.
He was out there — at his pottery wheel, or his easel or his wood-carving bench.
In his life, very few people knew that Seigenthaler moonlighted as an artist. He pursued the pastime privately, for his own enjoyment and enrichment. He turned fishing flies into tiny figures, a punk rocker or a nun. He would sit for weeks chiseling the nose on a clay bust. He loved sketching the character in an old man’s face.
Nearly every night for several decades he retired to his art studio after dinner, working into early hours of the new day bringing the images in his head to life.
The light from his studio comforted Amy Seigenthaler as she fell asleep. And that example of a man living his passion inspired her.
So many of us look to the future for fulfillment. We say, “When I retire I will take cooking classes, write that novel, see the world.” Seigenthaler didn’t wait. He pursued his avocation in the present, not the future.
It was a good thing, because had he waited he never would have gotten the chance.
Now, as a diverse retrospective of Tom Siegenthaler’s art is revealed for the first time through a show at O’More College of Design, we all get the chance to see what that meant to him.
His creativity couldn’t be contained
It has been 12 years since Seigenthaler’s death, and the distinctive smell of must mixes with the heavy humidity inside the art studio where he spent so many nights. It blends with the scent of aged paper and acrylics.
Everything inside this place is familiar to his family, right down to his shirts and hat that still hang on a coat rack near the door.
Together Seigenthaler’s wife, Veronica, and two of his four daughters leaf through piles of papers, unearthing a humorous ink drawing of a large woman wearing a pin that says “buy pie” and the gentle face of a smiling child looking into the distance.
Seigenthaler ignited life through the spark of his art.
“He would always say you gain your self-esteem through the creative process,” his daughter Beth Seigenthaler Courtney says.
Tom Seigenthaler studied art at the University of Tennessee, and he got his first professional job in 1962 as a commercial artist. He did the layout for Kroger grocery store ads. Seven years later, he became the southeastern vice president of W.G. Borchert Public Relations in New York. In 1972, he started his own public firm, what is now DVL Seigenthaler.
In the professional world, he took the lead in establishing Belfast as a sister city to Nashville, TN in the late 1990s. He met with David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Nobel Peace Prize winner. He also served as an adviser to Al Gore in Gore’s runs for U.S. Congress and his bid for the presidency in 1988. He handled 34 statewide political campaigns.
He spoke out. He worked for change. He took unpopular positions and derived pleasure in defending them.
But he also craved different points of view, and in his art, he brought them to life. Even as an executive, he still drew doodles in the margins of document drafts.
“For Daddy, the power of ideas translated into lots of different things,” Courtney says. “… He couldn’t contain it.”
A hidden talent
At night, after the workday ended, the Seigenthaler home hummed with guests and good humor. Some evenings, he would play backgammon for hours; other nights, he would invite visitors into his art studio. They would sit around and talk news and politics, and he would share his creations.
In his studio, he felt placid. He traded his work wardrobe of ties and starched button downs for plaid button ups and khakis — and maybe a floppy fishing hat.
At his easel, he found a way to express the character of people quickly — sometimes in a few strokes and sometimes in a finished piece. A quick sketch of a baseball pitcher striding triumphantly off the mound stands juxtaposed against an African-American with a noose around his neck walking somberly to his execution, his lynching.
“That breadth of spirit and understanding and his being so attuned to and empathetic with other people is part of the extraordinary power of his work,” says David Rosen, president of O’More College of Design. “His facility in surfacing humanity was moving.”
And his decision to keep his talent hidden was somewhat mystifying.
Although he created and developed the art program at Nashville’s Room In The Inn, which offers emergency services to Nashville’s homeless, he never exhibited his own work. He never sold any. He felt that would tarnish the experience for him. So, very few pieces ever left the studio.
The only work Seigenthaler ever put on public display was an egg he created for Centerstone, a nonprofit focused on mental health treatment. He turned the egg into musician Louis Armstrong, complete with a metal horn. It was auctioned for charity.
The rest of his work, more than 40 years of Seigenthaler’s art with his sculpture, paintings, pottery, carvings and notebooks filled with sketches and poems, remained only his.
Until his death.
Passions weren’t put off
The last piece Seigenthaler created hangs on a wall off the kitchen in the family’s Nashville home. It’s a classic still life, a bunch of yellow bananas, a red apple, a tan squash and some flaking white garlic.
He had been studying the color wheel in an art class at Cheekwood in 2003 when he came home from class one day complaining of pain. His keys, which he always placed in a dish on the corner of the kitchen counter, crashed to the floor.
“I am aching all over,” he told his wife, Veronica. And he went upstairs to bed.
The next day, he planned to attend another class, but when Veronica came home from working at Room In the Inn, her husband’s car still sat outside the house. Instead of art class, they visited the doctor.
He went through specialist after specialist looking for the cause of his joint pain.
Seigenthaler beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001. This time, three years later, it was leukemia. In this fight, he did not fare as well.
The disease advanced quickly. He lived only a few months after his diagnosis. Had he been a man who put off his passions until late in life, he never would have had the chance.
The 65-year-old Seigenthaler spent his final days in his home. His bed faced the windows to his backyard where he watched his dog, Clare, play, and he could look out at the art studio that gave shape to so many images inside his head. Lying there, he turned to his wife and daughters and said: “I’ve always been curious … .”
Curious about what’s next.
“And that’s the lesson that I have taken from his art and his life,” Amy Seigenthaler says. “You don’t wait — and you never stop exploring.”
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss.
Tom Seigenthaler’s art revealed at O’More College of Design
O’More College approached the Seigenthaler family in the spring about showing Tom Seigenthaler’s work for the first time. After much discussion, the family agreed. Curators from the college visited the private studio and went through the hundreds of works left there by Seigenthaler — paintings, wood carvings, pottery, sculpture.
O’More selected a samplings of the work — including an abstract sculpture he did of his brother John, the renowned publisher of The Tennessean who died in 2014.
“The Character of a Man” will open Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. in the Robert N. Moore Jr. Gallery of Abbey Leix Mansion, located on O’More’s campus in Franklin. The show will run through September.
“We want to bring to light a part that has been missing to his story,” says David Rosen, president of O’More College of Design.
The retrospective of more than 40 years of Seigenthaler’s art, it includes more than 200 curated works in various media, as well as notebooks filled with sketches and poems. Pieces by other family members and friends whom Seigenthaler inspired and encouraged also are on display.
The show opens on what would have been Tom and Veronica Seigenthaler’s 55th anniversary — Sept. 2, 2016.
“She understood from early on — when they were still teenagers — how essential art was to him and also how talented he was,” their daughter Amy Seigenthaler says. “She lived every piece with him — and because of that, we did too.”
Get a piece of Tom Seigenthaler’s art collection
Twelve years after his death, Tom Seigenthaler’s art will not only be revealed to the public, but also available to it.
The family has created a website featuring select pieces of Seigenthaler’s art on which people can bid for purchase. Proceeds benefit Room In The Inn, O’More College of Design and the Thomas P. Seigenthaler Fund for Creativity at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
To see the works visit www.tomseigenthaler.com.
Article originally posted at The Tennessean.