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Tom Stratton






by Meg Tohill

SUNY New Paltz alumnus Tom Stratton refuses to let Parkinson’s disease stop him from doing the things he enjoys most: painting and creating music. The harmonica-wielding artist lives with his wife Sally in their cabin in the nook of High Falls. Surrounded by the mountains he’s conquered physically as well as on the canvass, Stratton creates art inspired by what he describes as unabashed appreciation for nature and the female form.

When did you first know you wanted to spend your life creating art?

First and foremost, my true love is watercolors. I had to be about 10 at the time when my mom came home with a set of watercolor paints just for me. It came in this beautiful tin box and when I opened it and saw them, it was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. When you’re that young, you either try something and decide it’s not for you, or you become obsessed and keep on it until you’ve mastered it. That’s when I knew.


How has your diagnosis changed the way you create your art?

I came back from the neurologist one day with steam coming out of my ears. He told me, “This is the beginning of the disease. You should probably stop working with such figurative work. You should start painting big abstracts because you’re going to lose your ability to work so minutely.” I became so angry at the guy. Who does he think he is predicting what is going to happen down the road? I began painting photographically, putting even more detail into my work. The next time I went back to that doctor, I brought some of my pieces with me and he had to scrape his jaw off the floor.


How do you distinguish good painting versus bad painting?

There was a while that we didn’t think I would live this long. It’s been about 15 years when I thought I would have maybe about six. I began to delve into studying Photoshop and creating really intense pieces. After a while I stopped myself and said, “I need to just let the paint be paint.” I started to focus on the syntax, the way the contrast creates an illusion in your mind, so that from where you’re standing it all works  To me, now, that’s a good painting. But then again, my idea of that is always going to change. We aren’t the same people we were a few days ago, let alone a few years. Our ideas are always changing.


What is something that people don’t know about you?

Most people know me as a painter or an artist. They don’t know me as both. I’ve got friends from different passions of my life. Some may know me as a songwriter, but they don’t know I spend majority of my days looking for something to capture on the canvass. It’s the same thing for some of my friends that knew me through my artwork. They know about my art but they don’t know that I’ve written and recorded songs. It’s a little bit of a funny hybrid.


A lot of your art is heavily influenced by nature. Where are you most inspired?

In general, I love all of New England for my paintings. I’ve been to every place I’ve painted. One location that really sticks out in my head was Canada, specifically Montreal. It had such an essence and energy to it that I truly enjoyed capturing over and over again.


What do you think of the term “Golden Age of New Paltz?”

Oh, that’s when I was there! (laughs) It really was a special time to be a part of it all.  It was when the college became very serious about the teachers being artists. It was a turning point in art education.

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