Todd Brugman is from Boston’s north shore. He has been creating and thinking about the visual arts since he was a child. His interests and abilities were noticed and applauded by his parents and teachers as early as preschool. Todd has always been a dreamer. He lived, and often still lives in his head, as a child he came across as shy, yet was never an introvert. He’s a deep existential thinker, who’s thoughts go further than his head and are expressed in every word he says and object he creates.
Todd lives with his wife, Rachel, and beagle, Maxine, in Somerville MA, where he paints full time, daily at his home studio.
Todd focuses full-time on his art. He states that he must paint, “… despite difficulties that have been present throughout my life and upbringing, I am a survivor, creating art allows me to be a survivor… I focus on happiness and contentment; for me they are synonymous… art is not simply a vocation, art is a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of loving, and a way of living”
For Todd, life is “painful,” for Todd life is “wonderfully beautiful,” he says these aren’t mutually exclusive for him. He paints daily and he states that no matter where his mind is, even if it is in a dark place seconds before the brush hits the canvas, as soon as it does, he is transported into his work and functions as one would while lucid dreaming.
Todd describes it as a world of the most illuminating ideas that are fleeting like a dream, delicious smelling colors of the nuance of emotion, ideas that are half-answers without a question. This is a place of true joy and contentment. For Todd, painting is the reason.
Hi Todd! You are working in your studio in Somerville, MA, and you’re your second studio in Boston’s South End? What is your daily routine in your studios, do you start doing art, or have some rituals to get you in the mood?
Todd: I am always thinking about new concepts and color theories, and am often sketching and writing ideas in my notebook. To me, painting is as much of a lifestyle as it is a vocation. I don’t leave home without a small sketchbook in my back pocket and a pen in my front pocket. I spend the majority of my painting time working at my Boston studio, and the rest split between my home studio and time spent thinking and working outside in nature. Previously, until this past March 2020, I had my a studio in West Newton MA. I worked from home during the beginning of the pandemic, and as of September 1st, 2020, I’ve had my Boston art studio that also functions as a gallery. It is a storefront located in the courtyard at 46 Waltham St. and is part of the SoWA art studios and community.
I am an extremely early riser and I wake up between 2:30 am and 5 am after 4 to 6 hours of sleep. I make a cup of earl gray tea, I turn on the TV, but only half pay attention, my mind is winding up, it is starting to go down rabbit holes of ideas and concepts, when I get a good one, I grab my pocket notebook and draw it. Sometimes I get an idea in words, not visual, so I open “notes” on my phone, I use the “talk to type” feature and start talking. I have dozens of full notebooks that I am always referencing when I start a new piece, I also have 100’s of notes on my phone that I reference as well.
I walk my beagle, Maxine, drink my tea, and smoke a pipe of tobacco. This grounds and relaxes me, as I am slightly manic, and need to pull all my thoughts together. I then go to my studio and I have lots of energy from my morning routine. I am ready and enthusiastic to either continue working on a piece or start a new one.
I only work on one piece at a time, I work it from start to finish. Occasionally I will get stuck and put that painting aside for months until I come back to it if I feel I have worked it out.
When I get to my studio, I change into my painting shoes and put on my apron. Under my apron, I wear the same thing every day: Grey pants and a white t-shirt. I always have a bandanna in my back left pocket, my wallet and drawing notebook in my back right, a lighter, pipe, tamper, and pen in my front left pocket, and my phone in my front right. Keys hang from my front right belt loop and I always wear a black swatch watch. I change into a different black swatch when I get ready to paint. I shower and comb my hair and shave every morning, I have an order that I do everything, and I must do everything every day. My routine allows me to function on autopilot, I don’t waste energy deciding what to wear or if I should comb my hair, I save my energy for my first love, the most beautiful thing a human can do, and the answer to everything, create art with my own hand.
For you, art is deeply personal, autobiographical, therapeutic… Are you trying to send a message with each piece, or is it something else?
Todd: There is no message political or otherwise per say, but there is information that is being conveyed to the viewer, my intent in more than just ascetics. I often contemplate the concept of art being a universal language that all can understand as this language is at the heart of our sentience and the basis for all other communication, verbal, hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. I believe this language is based in shape, color, and movement, and that everything, no matter how ineffable, can be communicated this way, and if embodied correctly on the canvas, it will be beautiful as humanity is intrinsically beautiful. The smallest nuances in the shape, color, etc are integral for conveying an exact experience or emotion. Therefore, I suppose, the message I am sending is that everything can be communicated and everything human is beautiful.
Tell us about your artwork, medium, style, subject matter, etc.
Todd: My artwork is created via oil painting on birch panel, that is my primary medium, although I am well versed and have worked extensively in intaglio printmaking, I have fallen in love with oils. I love their physicality, I connect with them, and feel that my work is most honest when working with oils.
Simply put, my style/genre would be considered “contemporary conceptual abstract oil painting.” That said, I consider my work to be “geometric emotionalism,” as I view things in a mathematical way. I work to paint in a “universal language” that does not illustrate a subject but truly embodies it. It is the physical manifestation of the subject.
My subjects are experiences that otherwise couldn’t be expressed as they truly are, hence the need I feel to create my work. I am embodying terminally unique emotional reactions to experiences that everyone has had. A simple example would be the combination of the feeling in one’s chest and the smell of the air at the exact moment they fell in love; now that happened, but after it can never be described via any means I am familiar with, I believe that the correct combination a highly curated composition and its components, color, and shape, can convey the feeling that occurred at this moment, and when looking at my work that embodies this, one would feel this, even if it wasn’t an experience of yours, you would still feel the beauty of human emotion and human experience. That was just an example, as my subjects are much more specific and I draw from the only things I can know for sure, myself, and my own life experiences. I’ll add, that even if I am drawing from what would seem like a negative or bad experience, it will still feel beautiful, and the more emotionally charged the experience, the more beautiful it will feel, as the elegance of humanity and its experiences are inherently and intrinsically beautiful.
Could you tell me something about your interest in geometry and art?
Todd: My interest in art is something that comes naturally to me, I have always enjoyed creating in all manners of creations, and the fine arts, especially drawing and painting which are my first love, they have been since as far back as I can remember. I have portfolios of work that goes back to the age of 3 or 4 years old. I believe the one and only thing that separates our sentience, and makes us, humans, unique, from other animals, is the use of visual ascetics and the fine arts.
Math always came easy for me, and the overlap with art and the math field of geometry has clearly made its way into and influenced the directions my art has taken.
How do you think your works would affect the perceptual experience of the viewers?
Todd: I think that if a viewer is truly open, then it would affect their perceptual experience, as the work is in a sense a play on perception and how we think of the senses. The language I paint in is a synesthetic language, one that is universal, one that you do not need to have any sort of obvious synesthesia to read. There is a mixing of the senses: seeing and feeling; feeling inside emotionally but without touch, nevertheless, it is still the sense of feeling.
As I embody the ineffable feeling of the nuance of an emotion, a human reaction to an event via a painting, making a feeling visual, and not just illustration it, embodying it, that is synesthesia and the viewer should, and will have a profound perceptual experience. I believe synesthesia isn’t for those who regularly intertwine their senses. When done correctly, we can all feel color. This is why we refer to color as loud, i.e. “I couldn’t wear that bright orange shirt, it is too loud…,” This is why we feel color, i.e. “I like how they painted their bedroom a light baby blue, it feels so soft in there, it makes me want to lie down, it feels comfortable…”. I have just studied this “synthesis for the masses,” and it crosses all cultures, languages, social-economic groups, etc. This is what I call the universal language, this is what I use to embody what otherwise could not be conveyed via another form of communication. Therefore, my works absolutely affect the perceptual experience of the viewers.
What challenges have you faced in your creative work?
Todd: I face endless challenges in my work, partly because I push myself out of my comfort zone constantly and partly because I use so much energy to study and understand perception and it’s relation to emotion, and the more I understand, the more questions I have.
A big challenge of mine was to teach myself to stop illustrating and using symbolism. It took me many, many years to even understand what attributes about my paintings made it an illustration, as I had paintings that I could feel and others that I could read but were just illustrations of a concept. As Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I am grateful for all of the classical art training I have had, I wouldn’t be where I am without it; yet I have reached a point where I struggle to unlearn my education, to paint unencumbered by traditional conventions, to paint the way I was born to paint, to paint with my own hand, to paint like a child.
How has your art evolved over the years?
Todd: My art is constantly evolving. A better way to put it would be, my art is always reacting to the previous art I have made and a reaction to how I feel about the reality I am painting in.
Growing up I drew anything and everything. I never cared much for caricatures or comic book drawings, but I did draw reality as we see it with our eyes. I spent countless hours looking, studying, and drawing the visual reality around me. I didn’t care for still life’s, but drawing them made me understand positive and negative space, the same with figure drawing. Although figure drawing taught me more about positive and negative space, as that is when I first saw and experienced first-hand the beauty that can be made by a single line. The beauty of making marks on canvas or paper, but it was many years until I was able to distill my work to eliminate the visual reality and focus on the beauty captured by mark-making.
In my late teens to early 20’s I considered myself a “surrealist” and the work I produced, whatever medium I was using, was hyper-photo-realism. Then, studying plein air painting on Nantucket, I saw a geometric abstract painting by Wilfredo Chiesa. It was very minimalist. It was two colors, a dark blue with a radiant yellow triangle ripping through the middle of the painting. This work changed my life, and not just painting, but the way I saw and felt, and still feel about reality. This was the first time I experienced the beauty of mark-making without any illustration of visual reality, yet I felt this work more than I had felt anything before, this work felt more real than the reality that I was existing in.
It took a few years, but from that day on, I was determined to understand shape, line, and color perfectly, so I could use it to make others feel as I did.
In the beginning, there was a lot of fear. When I would render something photographically, I got the “wow” factor. People would remark how amazing it was that someone could do that, they would say “what skill.” I liked people saying that, but now I felt I was starting all over. I would still make realistic works because people would say “oh, if he can do that amazing thing, then this abstract work must be good…” I felt the need to render realistically in order to qualify myself as an artist. Getting over that fear and the need to qualify myself via realism was my biggest hurdle, but I got there. Now, finally, I get the “wow” factor on my work that is unrepresentative of visual reality, and although the “wow” isn’t my driving force, I like hearing it, it leads me to believe that I am onto something. Especially when someone says “wow” then want to own the work and hang it in their house. For me, there is nothing more flattering and humbling.
What’s your favorite artwork?
Todd: My favorite artwork is either the next work I see by another artist that I can feel and truly emotes something uniquely human or the next painting I make that I feel successfully expresses my emotions. Viewing art is reliving a powerful and human emotional experience, this experience is the one thing that distinguishes us as a species, therefore I believe art is essential to humanity, it is what makes and creates our unique human cultures and questions the universal truths we have the answers for but aren’t sure of what to ask.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Todd: I have had many people who are considered to be important figures in the art world say things to me regarding my work that is extremely flattering and humbling. Many times I’ve heard people say, “You are doing something truly unique here… something I have never seen before.” What I find most flattering is when I hear, “Your understanding and use of color is unmatched and I have never seen someone use color as naturally as you do. You truly understand color like no other living painter.” I know that color is the attribute of artwork that I have spent the most time studying, one that intrigues me, and one that I continue to study, as I believe that the slightest change in a hue’s chroma or value can make or break the work. I spend more time thinking about what color I will use for something that is as small as the tip of a pencil as others may do on an entire painting, therefore, when my use of color is recognized, I am flattered and humbled.
I must also note that what is the most memorable is when those who are complete laypeople when it comes to the fine arts appreciate my art. When people that don’t have any artwork in their house and have never even considered buying artwork or going to a museum other than for sightseeing on a vacation compliment my work, I feel like I am getting through. When I hear something from laypeople, it is often the most honest and flattering compliments. I know that if your regular stranger on the street ‘feels’ my work, and is touched by it, moved by an abstract painting, I know I’ve done something right.
Are you working on any exhibitions right now?
Todd: As we are currently living thought a worldwide pandemic, Covid-19, all exhibits are in one way or another tentative. I am involved with a few, but upfront it has been said things will most likely change based on the current status of COVID when the time gets closer.
That said, I am a prolific artist, I am always working, and at any given time I have enough work on hand, work that I consider good, to have a solo show in the largest of galleries.
At the beginning of the COVID outbreak I had work in a gallery in Colorado, this was in the middle of March, but the opening reception was canceled the morning I was going to fly out. Open Studios and other things I had planned to be a part of were also canceled eventually. I have been a part of many shows during the pandemic, but all have been online shows. I have also been in three recent publications during these COVID times. Two works in Abstract Magazine: Contemporary Expressions, 6 pages, and 5 works The Woven Tail Press, and most recently I was a “Distinguished Artist” in the August issue of Art Ascent Magazine, their annual “Abstract Issue.”
I am in talks with various curators and galleries and am always looking for more and/or new curators and galleries to speak with about potentially working together in the future. Right now, the next thing that is for sure that I will be a part of is “South Boston Open Studios,” and it will be virtual this year, they will be shooting a 5-minute video of my studio space.
Also, I have been working with a documentary filmmaker on a documentary about my art for the past 18 months. It would have most likely been complete by now, but due to COVID, it has been put on hold.
I do have work hanging at Quanta in Somerville MA right now. It is a solo show, but there was no opening reception, and likely no closing reception. That show started in mid-August and goes through October.
What are you working on right now, and what’s next for you?
Todd: Right now I am doing what I am always doing: studying via thinking, writing, reading, and painting all in regards to describing and embodying the nature of human emotion via shape, line, texture, dimension, and color.
I have new ideas that I am working out, that I am studying by the way of an attempt to get them correctly on a painting surface. I always have new ideas. I am currently going down the rabbit hole of the nature of reality, of perception equating to reality, as all reality is, is perception, and perception is reality. It is impossible to know what anyone else perceives, therefore I can only speak on the reality that I perceive. Perception is limitless therefore the only thing that is truly ineffable is the concept of ineffability, as everything can not only be described, but honestly embodied so that everybody can read it, see it, and feel it.
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