by Ellen C Warren
Thom Ertl is working on a piece. It’s one of his Tommie Squares. The ashtray that makes up the large part of the background had broken along the perfect demarcating lines. You read “San Francisco” and “Tea Garden” etched between cracks. There is an engraved heart, a miniature faux marble Holy Water font, bits of metal rubbing up against rose and orange hues.
“Contemporary Urban Assemblage,” Thom calls it, explaining, “That’s just basically taking found objects and repurposing them. It took me a while to wrap my head around how to approach it, but once I did … It’ s really fun to do. So, I’m always taking things that are made to be, or were produced to be, one thing and turning them into something else.”
We are holding the interview in his home, which also doubles as his studio. “You saw the (collection in the) bathroom,” muses Thom, “and the trivets. I’ve got a whole lot of religious stuff. I have a huge collection of snow globes. I’ve always been collecting and always been gathering. That also prompted the kind of art I do because I wanted to take some of this and incorporate it into some of that.
“I’ll take jewelry, ceramics … I love the beads, the hearts … I’ll just take things apart all the time. I’ll cut things apart. I’m always finding stuff and just cutting and tearing it apart!”
As we discuss the therapeutic value of such work Thom goes on to describe his backyard fence. He took soda cans and cut them into flowers, attaching them. “It’s almost like the garden is the wall,” he says.
Art has always been an important part of Thom’s life since his early years growing up on an orchard and vegetable farm in southeastern Wisconsin. The farm has been in the family for five generations. “It’s called Grandpa’s Place. My family still runs it and will go to the West Allis farmer’s market when fruit is in season,” he says.
He and his five brothers and a sister helped work the farm. “It was a great way to grow up,” says Thom. There were several houses scattered on the acreage. His Grandmother Patterson’s house was a frequent destination for all the kids.
“Grandma was always the one who tried to encourage me to be myself and to do my art. She saw it early on in me, that I had that sort of slant toward art,” shares Thom. They did art together, lots of projects. His grandma made sure that he was doing the majority of the work on them. It was her style of repurposing that led Thom in the direction he has taken with his own art.
In art, as in the majority of his other life ventures, Thom is an autodidact. His lack of schooling in art has kept him from neither his prolific art career, nor the nine-to-fives that steadily pay the bills.
“I worked for a number of years at Gimbels in Display … or if you want to get all fancy-shmancy …Visual Merchandising,” he quips. Starting in a lesser position straight out of high school, his talents were quickly noticed by someone who moved him into the Display Dept. “It was the best job I ever had. I really loved that job.” It was in the eighties, a less corporate time when greater freedom of expression was encouraged. A theme was given to the crew and “we just played.”
There was a short stint in Cosmetology. “If anything, that was helpful because it added to (my feel for) shapes and textures and I worked in and on a number of fashion shows.”
A longer gig during the 80’s was at the AIDS Resource Center. The organization was young, grassroots, and the workers wore many hats. “We were doing pretty much anything and everything that had to happen,” explains Thom. When a need arose for in-house graphic design he took up the challenge and went into Graphic Design, learning what he could on his own and supplementing his knowledge with classes.
For the last thirty plus years Thom has worked for the Medical College of Wisconsin as a graphic designer in a branch of the Dept. of Psychiatry that does HIV/AIDS Psycho-Social research. The conservative environment of the Medical College has necessitated Thom’s making of art. “My job is with the Medical College,” he declares, “but my art is my heart.”
Hearts are big in Thom’s life. He loves to put them in his artwork. And he loves Riverwest, which he calls “the heart of my art.” In 1996 he purchased a duplex that was “full of potential” on Auer Street. He had lived in Milwaukee since 1980 but was drawn to Riverwest when he was looking to buy.
“I did a little research and I realized it was the most diverse area of the city. That was a great draw. It’s close enough to downtown without being part of downtown. I have great neighbors. It’s nice when you walk somewhere and people say hello and actually have eye contact with you.
“I just love the edge here. Here it’s more raw. And the diversity is really the biggest draw. You walk down the street and you just see whoever you see. And it is what it is. In (other places) it’s just not the same.
“The diversity of Riverwest, it led me to create a diversity of location with my art. I always want to keep it (RW) the heart of it … the heart of my art, but I like to be everywhere and anywhere there is exposure or retail opportunity.”
Thom’s works have been exhibited around Riverwest and beyond, including at the Outpost, Nessun Dorma, the Art Bar, Holton Street Clinic, and in pop-up form at RRRAGS and Center Street Daze. His wearable art designs have been featured in fashion shows. You need to see his furniture pieces, too!
Check out his marvelous website at: www.thomjertldesigns.com.