Tom Burns is a living embodiment of the age-old adage, don’t judge a book by its cover. At first glance, he exudes an air of serenity and composure, with an almost ethereal calmness that belies the tempestuous maelstrom of creativity brewing within. His mind is a veritable symphony of controlled chaos, where wild bursts of imagination collide with meticulous precision. As an artist, his perception of the world transcends the ordinary, offering glimpses into a realm beyond our conventional understanding.

Watching an artist work can often be enlightening, if not completely revelatory. Meeting up with abstract painter Tom Burns in his studio in Palm Springs recently, it is clear this is an artist who sees and interprets the world around him with a unique eye. The push and pull of paint on canvas is almost aggressive, but the resulting broad textured strokes produce a nuanced, layered, and emotional experience. “I am not an angry painter,” says Burns, “but I am aggressive. I have been known to beat the shit out of a canvas with paint.  When I say I’m physical with my painting, I mean there is a release of emotions onto the canvas. There is a definite transfer of energy from me to the canvas.” Burns often paints over a canvas three to four times, always leaving some of the previous iteration. Its as if there are layers of history built into each canvas telling a story of the journey that brings it to the present. Much like the artist himself, the underpaintings – what came before – are central to the emotional power of the work today. That history carries a richness and stratification that defines the artist and energizes the work in a distinctive and highly personal way.

“I have often said my life should be a movie. Whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy is yet to be determined,” says Burns with a laugh. Born and raised in a conservative suburb of Chicago, a young Tom was heavily influenced by his Irish/Italian Catholic upbringing. Given that, his early choices were perhaps understandable: corporate job, marriage, kids and even a golden retriever, but at every turn art and creativity tugged and pulled, until he could no longer deny what he knew in his heart he was meant to do. For Tom, painting was a way to amplify his creative voice and find peace for a restless soul.   “Painting is emotional for me,” he explains. “There are days when I will sit in front of a blank canvas and do and say nothing.  If I am not feeling anything, those are the days I just walk out of the studio.  There are other times that I am so full of emotion I have to just get it out of my head, or my heart and I just force myself to start painting. It’s my outlet.”  He also knew there was another aspect of his life he needed to confront and accept. “Until my late 40’s I had no idea I was gay. Remember, I was brought up Irish Catholic and my future was pretty much mapped out early on.  I remember going to my first therapist years after my divorce from my wife, and then a brutal breakup from a partner. The therapist was fascinated by my background.  I was an anomaly to him. He kept asking, ‘Really, you had no idea you were gay?’  Of course, in hindsight there were signs but for years and years, I ignored the undercurrents.”  Coming out to his family and friends was scary but also liberating. He needed to redefine his life and he did that through his art.

 His latest series explores two very relevant themes in his life right now. The first, self-acceptance in the LGBT community. The journey has been filled with joy and a fair share of heartbreak – all of it reflected in the subtleness of each layer he chooses to either paint over or leave exposed.  At a distance, his works can appear serene and calm.  Under closer inspection, the life of his paintings shines through.  Images or shapes are carved out of the top few layers, leaving brilliant colors that define the depth of his work and life. Tom is also focused on the interconnectivity of the human condition right now.   Given the current political environment – the divisiveness and polarization – he wants to create visual reminders of how we are all connected and how that will ultimately provide hope for the future. “It’s what I can do,” he says. “When covid hit on a global scale, it became so apparent to me how much we were interconnected across the globe, both on a human and economic scale.  The series is about the interconnection of people who may not even realize the connection.”

Burns embraced social media early on for just that reason. It kept him connected with family and friends, past and present, and introduced his art to people all over the world.  “Galleries have always been part of the art selling process, and usually artists need galleries for the exposure.  And for someone like me, my work really needs to be seen up close to appreciate the subtleties. But the massive reach of social media is remarkable.  It’s crazy that someone from Nigeria responded to a post of mine about how much he loved my work.  It still blows me away that someone from the other side of the world is seeing what I do from my studio in Palm Springs.” 

 Walking through Tom’s Palm Springs home, it is easy to see how art connects his life. Every wall is filled with paintings, prints and sculptures – some of it is his, but much of it is from friends collected through the years. “It is personal for me, “he says. “There is a story behind every piece of art in my home. Truly it’s the story of my life.” 

Burns has recently launched his very own art gallery in Palm Springs. “The space was bigger than what I initially required, but I seized the opportunity as soon as it became available! I use the back of the space for my personal studio, while transforming the front into a vibrant gallery”.  

Burns has shown his work in galleries in Carmel, Laguna Beach, and Provincetown.  He is currently working on two new bodies of work from upcoming shows in Palm Springs, CA.