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A piacere, oil painting

Tom Smith: Artist in Residence at Spirit Lake Preserve

March 21, 2021  |  Topics: featured artist

The Natural Realm presents Tom Smith, who is one of 17 artists participating in a year-long residency program called ARTservancy, a collaboration between Gallery 224 in Port Washington and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy, Tall Pines Conservancy, and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. The mission of ARTservancy is to promote the visionary work of both the artists and conservationists. Each artist (or team) has selected a preserve to spend time in and to engage with.

Tom Smith at Spirit Lake Preserve.
Tom Smith at Spirit Lake Preserve. Photo: Eddee Daniel

Artist’s Statement

In my childhood, there were dreams. I would paint. I would make beauty. Always present though: a shadow. Even my name was hateful to me.

Then, childhood passed. There would be no beauty. There would be other things, though. Wonderful things: love, children, a career. Yet hiding, in that shadow would be the art, the beauty.

There was a crash. I was unmoving. I was lost in the darkness. Until slowly, emergent, it came finally: the art. 

You see, I have suffered from severe anxiety and depression for much of my adult life. The shadow: blocking out the beauty. Then the finding: Asperger’s. Mild but present—and the knowing brought light.

It was after I was unable to continue my career that I began to paint. Therapy, one could say. I say: a renewal of my childhood dreams. And so, I began to know that I love standing on the Earth and knowing that I am a part of its wonder. Yet I also know that time is fleeting. 

One of my favorite quotes is by writer James Agee: “…and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.”

Life was for a time, for me, full of sorrow. A sorrow I wanted to end. Painting brought me out of this darkness. When I was in the hospital, the one book I brought along was about oil painting. So, when I came home, I began to paint.

I hadn’t painted much since I was young, but now I began to see it as a way to a new life. I wanted to be an artist, and so I painted.

I found other artists, I joined art groups. I painted. 

Being a painter has brought me into the light in so many ways. Sometimes being in it can be hard for me. I still struggle, I don’t know how or what to say. But painting has saved my life. I can look and say: here, that’s me. My name is Tom Smith, and I am an artist.

Untitled, from Spirit Lake Preserve.

Spirit Lake

As a painter, I try to capture the evanescence of light and dark, of snow and rain, and of wind and calm, through my painting. Perhaps, in my own little way, I can preserve the sense of nature’s beauty and wonder. 

The property that I am visiting this year for the ARTservancy project is Spirit Lake Preserve in Mequon. This beautiful slice of Earth appeals to me for its variety of natural features, including forest, lake, marsh, and river habitats. My project intention is both planned and spontaneous. Planned in the sense that I intend to make at least 12, 12×12 inch plein air paintings. Spontaneous because I have no idea what I will paint! Each time I visit with the intention of painting, I hope to discover something new-to be inspired by some aspect of the Preserve that will call out to me. I am so lucky to have this special piece of land in which I can explore, and I hope to capture, at the very least, some of its wondrous beauty.

The artist's set up for plein air painting.
The artist’s set up for plein air painting.


Untitled, from Spirit Lake Preserve.
"Snow." From Spirit Lake Preserve.
Untitled, from Spirit Lake Preserve.
The set up for "Snow."
The subject for “Snow.”
"Another Perfect Day." Painted at Lime Kiln Park in Grafton, WI.
“Another Perfect Day.” Lime Kiln Park in Grafton, WI.
“Kaleidoscope Afternoon (Grant Park).” Seven Bridges Trail, South Milwaukee, WI.
"The Bear Path." Michael's Garden, Sheboygan, WI.
“The Bear Path.” Michael’s Garden, Sheboygan, WI.
"Coffee Creeper." Fiddleheads Coffee Shop, Cedarburg, WI.
“Coffee Creeper.” Fiddleheads Coffee Shop, Cedarburg, WI.
"Glory Rests." Plymouth plain air competition.
“Glory Rests.” Plymouth plain air competition.
"Menomonie Spring." Menomonie Lake, WI.
“Menomonie Spring.” Sunrise over Menomonie Lake, WI.


Originally from Toledo Ohio, Tom Smith has lived in the Milwaukee area since 1981.

His art training consisted of lessons at the Toledo Museum of Art in Elementary School, and then classes in High School. After one class in college in 1977, he essentially stopped painting.

Earning a Master of Music Degree after moving to Wisconsin, he became a professional cellist performing in The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, as Principal of Festival City Symphony, and in many other orchestras around Wisconsin. He also taught 1st Grade for 15 years in Wauwatosa. 

He began to paint again in 2012 when he stopped teaching. Painting mainly landscapes from photos, in the summer of 2016 he discovered and began painting “en plein air”. This has developed into his passion, working in everything from snow and rainstorms, and a range of 8ᵒ to 98ᵒ weather!

Tom Smith painting en plein air at Spirit Lake Preserve.
Tom Smith painting en plein air at Spirit Lake Preserve. Photo: Eddee Daniel

Now a busy studio artist as well as a seasoned plein air painter, Tom has a studio in Waukesha, WI.

As a survivor of suicide, Tom is an advocate of art as therapy for mental illness.  In 2020, Tom was invited by the League of Milwaukee Artists and the Cedarburg Art Museum to speak on “The Transformational Power of Creating Art”, sharing how his painting has brought light to a dark area of his adult life, fulfilling childhood dreams and driving away depression.

Tom has won numerous awards for his painting and has been included in Juried Exhibitions, Shows and Plein Air Competitions throughout Wisconsin and Illinois.

Tom is a member of many art organizations, including The League of Milwaukee Artists, The Wauwatosa Artists Workshop, Fine Art Montage, The Rogues Artist Group, WIPAPA (Wisconsin Plein Air Painters Association), the National Oil & Acrylic Painters’  Society, and The American Impressionist Society

Gallery Representation

River’s End Gallery, Waukesha, WI

Fine Art Montage Gallery, Menomonee Falls, WI

Plum Bottom Gallery, Egg Harbor, WI

Past Gallery Representation:

Art and Soul Gallery, Milwaukee, WI

Bloom, Milwaukee, WI

Samara Gallery, Milwaukee, WI

Tom’s website: Tom Smith Fine Art

Spirit Lake Preserve is located in Mequon. For more information, click here. This residency is sponsored by Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

This is the latest in our series of featured artists, which is intended to showcase the work of photographers, artists, writers and other creative individuals in our community whose subjects or themes relate in some broad sense to nature, urban nature, people in nature, etc. To see a list of previously featured artists, click here. The work of the 2019-2020 ARTservancy artists in residence is currently being exhibited monthly at Gallery 224. To meet the other ARTservancy artists in residence, click here.

Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT) is a project partner of A Wealth of Nature.

All images courtesy of the artist, except as noted. The featured photo at the top is a painting entitled A Piacere, which was painted from a photo taken at Lynn Preserve, another OWLT property.