Tom Chambers: The Art of Magical Realism



Images Courtesy of Tom Chambers            Design by Doug Dobey

by Charles McGuigan

Tom Chambers has a mind that collects images, each one stored away, stamped on a series of neurons, and when that circuit of neurons is excited by a synaptic flash, the image comes back to him in sharpened focus. But it is not a single image that compels him to create art. Instead it’s a jumble of them that align themselves and create a somehow cohesive whole. When his brain utterly relaxes, or when he treads on that threshold to sleep and pauses for a moment too long, those images merge to form ideas that run through his head. And if he is lucky enough, he will capture those images that will one day become a photomontage. He will pick up a Post-It and draw out a three-by-three thumbnail, and later pin it to the wall of his studio. That, though, is only the beginning.

“That little sketch gives me a direction that I don’t forget,” Tom Chambers tells me. “Instead of taking pictures, I build pictures.”

Some of the earliest images Tom collected came from the family farm he grew up on in Lancaster County. Pennsylvania. By agricultural standards, it was a fairly small farm—about ninety acres or so. They grew wheat, soy bean, corn and tobacco. Raised steer and pigs. Tom’s grandfather, Wilson Chambers, had purchased it during the Great Depression, and throughout the summer and into the fall, Tom and his four brothers would often roam through the woods surrounding it, overturning rocks, climbing trees, sucking in the natural world which freely allowed them to delight in her charms.

That farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania pulsed with creativity. Both his grandfather and grandmother were visual artists; he an illustrator, she a painter. It was his grandmother who taught Tom to paint and to draw. She was patient with him and nurtured his creative streak. Tom’s grandfather was part of the Brandywine School. After all, the Chambers’ place was less than an hour away from Chadds Ford Township, home to legendary illustrator N.C. Wyeth. So there was that influence early on, and though his grandfather was drawn to the work of the elder Wyeth, Tom preferred the paintings of Andrew, whose landscapes and interiors, as barren as they might seem, radiated pure emotion that could sear the eyes.

When he wasn’t out exploring the woodlands, Tom would travel with his father to that impounded eight-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River called Lake Clarke, which was a Depression-era initiative that produced hydroelectric power. On that lake, the Chambers would canoe or sail for hours on end. “My dad was a boat builder, that was one of his hobbies,” says Tom. “And we had a lot of canoes.”

When Tom came of age, as the war in Indochina raged, he enlisted in the Navy for a four-year stint. That was in 1966, and they sent him off for a full year of schooling at Great Lakes. He learned boat engine mechanics there, and then was sent to Short School in San Diego for Swift Boats. Then it was off to Vietnam, specifically, Qui  Nho’n, a coastal city on Dam Thi Nai. Late one night, the base where Tom was stationed was attacked by the Viet Cong. Tom escaped with a flesh wound that earned him a Purple Heart, and he hoped a return stateside. “But they just stitched it up and sent me back to the base,” he says.

Later, Tom returned to Norfolk and was stationed on a World War II destroyer in the Mediterranean, then back again to Asia, this time aboard a guided missile cruiser in the Pacific off the coast of Viet Nam. “We refueled helicopters and did helicopter operations,” says Tom. “I was in charge of the fuel.”

After his stint was up, having seen what he saw of the bright shining lie, Tom returned to the family farm. He would work half a year in Lancaster as a mechanic, and then come spring would hit the road, obsessed now with travel. “I’d hitchhiked all over Canada a couple of times,” he says. “I took a van all over the states, hitchhiked through the states.”

He did that for about four years, and then by the mid-seventies he and his four brothers did what a lot of young people were doing at the time, rejecting a culture that embraced money above all else. “We decided to go back to the land like all the hippies,” says Tom. “And we ran the farm for five years, just the brothers and various girlfriends.” They weren’t particularly good farmers, but an uncle who lived nearby showed them how to do it right. They quickly learned that tobacco and pigs were more trouble than they were worth. “Pigs are horrible,” he says. “And tobacco was a mistake. I think once you figured it out you were getting thirty to forty cents an hour on tobacco. But by the end of five years our crops were probably up to speed as far as output. ”

By the time the five brothers called it quits, Tom was growing increasingly restless. He needed the kind of change that only comes with travel, so he headed down to the Virgin Islands. He settled into life in Charlotte Amelie on Saint Thomas, found a job in a boatyard as a maintenance mechanic working on charter sailboats. Tom didn’t have a car so depended on his thumb for local travel. A young woman picked him up on a couple of occasions, and Tom was drawn to her. “She lived near me so I kind of knew when she was going to be driving by each morning, so I’d run out and stick out my thumb,” he says with a smile. He gestures toward the ceiling of this fairly new and spacious addition to the classic American Four Square in Bellevue he and his wife have called home for more than three decades. “Turns out that young woman who picked me up in Saint Thomas is upstairs right now,” he says. ”That’s how I met my wife, that’s how I met Sally.”

Sally was a teacher and the pair fell in love and within the year moved to Gainesville, Florida where she returned to school at University of Florida, studying to become a middle school counsellor. While she attended school, Tom worked in greenhouses, employing his experience as a farmer.

After Sally graduated, the couple moved to Sarasota where Tom enrolled in the Ringling College of Art and Design, which ranks as one of the nation’s premier art schools for animation.Tom studied graphic design and worked on the school magazine. After graduation, he went to work for a regional art magazine, but he and Sally had no intention of settling in Florida. For one thing, the traffic, even back then, was abominable. And the place seemed entirely rootless.



“So we put up two big maps of the US on the wall,” Tom says. “I circled all my areas of choice in blue, and Sally circled hers in red. Where they overlapped was Richmond.” After moving to Richmond, Sally went to work as middle school counsellor at Collegiate, a position she held for the next 33 years until her retirement just this past year. And Tom landed a job with Riddick Advertising, which at the time was designing and pasting up a local magazine. ”They needed someone to work on Richmond magazine which was called Richmond Surroundings at that time,” says Tom. “So I worked at Riddick for five years on Richmond Surroundings, which changed to Richmond magazine while I was still there.”

They had given him free rein with the design of the publication. “I could call the shots as far as the design went,” he says. “So I took it from something that looked like a newsletter and turned it into a magazine. I had fun studying other city magazines and playing with design, and playing with typography and changed it.” On about the time when Tom left Riddick, the entire print industry was taking baby steps into the digital age. “That’s when computers started happening,” Tom recalls.


While he was still at Riddick, Tom began using a revolutionary, image-editing program that would change his life, and the direction of his art forever.

“Riddick got one of the first copies of Photoshop,” says Tom. “We didn’t really know what to use it for, but we had fun copying eyeballs into the middle of someone’s forehead. You know, doing dumb stuff like that.”

Tom immersed himself in computers and Photoshop, and began learning how to manipulate these tools. He went to work for Proctor-Silex (which would later become Hamilton Beach/Proctor-Silex) in Glen Allen, where he designed boxes for everything from coffee makers to toasters. “I was an in-house graphic designer and I did packaging,” he says.

In the evenings, after staring at a computer screen for eight hours, Tom would come home and work some more at the computer, refining his skills in Photoshop, but he wasn’t working on corporate packaging.  “I found that Photoshop was a great creative outlet,” he says.

One of his other creative outlets was the art of photography, and because he and Sally loved travelling, Tom had amassed an impressive collection of photos.  “I was using vacation shots and putting elements into those vacation shots,” he says.

Bit by bit, Photoshop was becoming more sophisticated, and to stay ahead of the curve, Tom learned every new permutation of the program. “By then Photo Shop was using layers so I could cut from a different photo, place it into the background, move it around, reposition it, adjust the color so that everything looked seamless,” says Tom.  “I could make these images a little edgy like maybe this shouldn’t be happening. After I worked at it for awhile, I decided to try to make things look possible, like they could possibly happen, but they were improbable, probably wouldn’t happen.”

Tom opens a large coffee table book of his work called “Hearts and Bones” which features the first nine series he has created. He points to one image called Feeding Time from the Entropic Kingdom series. “Like this one, it’s very improbable that a sheep would be eating from a burning hay stack, but it could happen,” he says.  “The type of art I do is photo montage. I take different pictures, including backgrounds and other elements, and I combine them into one image.”

There’s something akin to surrealism in his work, but Tom’s art has a much more lyrical quality and narrative style. When I suggest magic realism, Tom nods.

“I didn’t realize that at first, until maybe after I was halfway through the first series and somebody pointed out that this is magic realism,” he says. “And I said, ‘What?’ And I looked it up. That person was right. I think if someone was describing the genre I work in it would have to be magic realism.”

From his series Illumination, Tom shows me a piece that depicts a seated woman holding a full-grown man, who is lifeless, in her lap. It is a Stabat Mater, and luminous orbs, like halos, are suspended behind the heads of both subjects. It is titled Pieta after the Renaissance master’s iconic sculpture, and Tom explains that he had trouble with the two figures. “I had to do two different shots, because the Mary figure and the Jesus figure didn’t really fit together,” he says. “That’s husband and wife factually, and he was so much bigger than her, she couldn’t really hold him on her lap so I had to reduce him in size to make it look like he was on her lap.”

Turns out the old master had a similar problem.  “I recently read a book about Michelangelo,” Tom says. “When he actually did the Pieta he reduced the size of Jesus compared to Mary to make it look good. I thought that was pretty cool. Even though I am doing it digitally, I still have the same problems he had to work through.”

On the facing page is an image of a woman dressed in a white, lace-rimmed gown. Her hands, palms forward, shield her eyes. And the palms are pierced through and bleeding, a living stigmata. In front of her grows a small sapling, its leave a rich green in stark contrast to the landscape behind her which is dark and ominous. She is flanked by a lamb on one side, and a goat on the other. Like The Pieta, this imagery is undeniably religious. But it is not the religious context that moves Tom to create these pieces.

“People may think I have a lot of religious iconography in my work, but that doesn’t mean I’m religious,” he says. “I embrace the magical aspect of the religion.”

Tom considers the trips he and Sally have made to Mexico over the years. “Religious icons in that type of art really inspired this type of work,” he says. “In Mexico we would see how people embrace that magic. Even though they’re the poorest people on earth, they will give whatever they have to their church.”

Many of the subjects in the images that Tom creates are young women and girls. They are seen in vast landscapes and often with animals of one kind or other—horses, wolves, a grizzly bear, sheep, deer, birds of every sort, to name a few. Their relationships with the natural world are not in any way confrontational; they are at home with the wild, and seem to share an empathy and a deep concern for the environment, much like the animals who are being threatened out of existence, along with the entire human race. And the girls, like the animals, seem to understand this, but they are more than just familiars. They seem integrally linked by spirit.

“A couple of my series are about the environment and how animals cope with the changing environment,” Tom says. “There’s one series called Animal Visions that has to do with the environment being out of whack. There’s one of a girl with the wolves. People and animals relating to each other, and not necessarily on a violent basis. I’m showing animals and humans on the same level.”

Tom’s most recent series will have its Richmond premiere at Glave Kocen Gallery this December.  Called Tales of Heroines, each image in the series tells a story about a different young woman.  If you, as a man, are fortunate enough to have a daughter you will understand what Tom is getting at in this series. Having been one of five boys growing up, Tom didn’t have the benefit of watching a girl become a young woman. But he and Sally had a girl who is now a woman.  “All the portraits in this series are of young women, full-length, standing and facing the camera directly,” he says. “Each image has an arched top. In these works I was trying to describe the strength and resiliency I saw in young women, what I saw as my daughter was growing up. I really didn’t understand it until I had my daughter.”

We look out into his back yard, which has the benefit of a canopy of trees. “I’ll shoot the kids back here in the shade,” Tom says, referring to the subjects he uses for his images. “I have to be careful about direction of light.  If the background has light coming at a certain direction, the figure or the elements that I place into the background have to have the light coming from the same direction. I’ll shoot on cloudy days or in the shadows. When I photograph my backgrounds it’s on cloudy days, too, so everything matches up.”

As the image comes together, Tom begins adjusting the color and the contrast. And then he begins fine-tuning it even further to soften hard edges so the figures blends into the background.

“So I’ll put it altogether in Photoshop, and I’ll typically have thirty or forty layers of stuff,” says Tom. “Every little thing, even if it’s a bird in the sky, gets an individual layer.  And then in Photo Shop you can do adjustment layers.”

As the image finally emerges as Tom initially envisioned it, he has to make the most difficult decision of all. “The hardest part is knowing when you’re done,” he says. “With Photoshop it’s hard to stay out of the cornball range. If you try to do too much, or make it look too weird, it looks cornballish. I never want that.”

Tom Chambers’ work is now represented by art galleries here and abroad, including Chase Young Gallery in Boston, Gilman Contemporary in Sun Valley, Snap! In Orlando, and AFK Gallery in Lisbon, Portugal. And then there’s Photo-Eye in Santa Fe. “Photo-eye is one of the best galleries in the country,” says Tom. “It was a big deal getting picked up by them, and once I was on their website it was real high exposure, a lot of people were seeing my work.”

As I thumb through the book later in the afternoon, long after the interview is over, I am overwhelmed by the images. Some are edgy, others slightly melancholic. But what gets me about all of them is that each one in its distinctive way suggests that the center is failing away, that there is something terribly out of kilter, that there is innocence lost, that there may be, just beyond that stark horizon, a nameless dread; yet despite it all, or perhaps because of it all, there is a joy in that singular moment of being captured in that image, and a celebration of the strange complexity of the globe we must all share.

And as I look at these images that hint at what is not right, I think of my children and all of the animals we have known through the years, and our beloved Earth, and I can hear some of the last words Tom spoke to me in what seemed like disbelief.

“It’s almost too late right now to stop what’s happening,” he said. “It should have happened ten years ago. We can still do things to slow it down, and who knows . . .“

Tom stopped in the middle of that sentence as if he had struck a column of concrete. Reality gripped him. “Unfortunately people are too much about their wallet,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I imagine we’re going to wind up destroying ourselves and at that point the world will rebound because we won’t be here.”

But then there was a magic, and not the sleight-of-hand variety.  Tom remembered the trips he and his wife had taken to Iceland. “You’d be driving along, and random steam would be shooting out of the ground, anywhere, everywhere,” Tom Chambers told me. “Iceland is one country that really has it down as far as ecological advancements. They are fully self-sufficient. It’s all hydroelectric, or they’re harnessing geothermal power.”

“Maybe,” he said. “We can learn.”

About CharlesM 294 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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