Twixt: Soulscapes in Oil, An Exhibition by Tom Strychacz at the Benicia Public Library

“I had nothing to do at all with art, while growing up. My formal art training ended at high school,” laughs Tom Strychacz, whose solo exhibition of paintings, “Twixt: Soulscapes in Oil,” is on display at the Marilyn Citron O’Rourke Gallery at the Benicia Public Library through April 8.  Born in Wolverhampton, England, Strychacz attended the Wolverhampton Grammar School where he took some art classes during high school, including ceramics. “For me, it was a disaster, as my pot would not stand up. It collapsed and ended up as a doorstop. I still have my report from that semester, and it said, ‘Thomas should give it up,’” he smiles. “I wasn’t really interested in art until perhaps ten years later when I was working on my PhD. I got some oil paints and tried some still lifes, you know, what everyone does. It was much harder than it looked.” Tom found he was better at and more drawn to painting landscapes of the English countryside, a subject he has continued to develop to the present. 

Islands in the Stream, Tom Strychacz, oil on canvas 2018

“Islands in the Stream”

His solo exhibition includes representations of English and California landscapes, towns and storefronts, and snow and water scenes, in his own romantic and slightly whimsical style.

“Some people might call the style of my paintings naïve or primitive,” he notes, “but I prefer one viewer’s description of my work as ‘the least cynical paintings I’ve ever seen.’ Color is what is most important to me. I want the paintings to be bright and vivid, with colors that leap off the canvas. I’m more concerned with getting the right color matches than worrying about whether the house in the background is too big for the one in the foreground, or a faithful representation of anything.”

Painting with oil, Tom may spend a month or more on each work.

He starts with a rough sketch of main shapes and colors, and proceeds, step by step, adding detail to each scene. “A lot of my paintings incorporate messages that are meaningful to me. Some works are experiments, such as trying different sky colors to see how they work. I’m sure that comes from having no formal training. Whatever I do, it’s me just inventing it from scratch. Sometimes I work from photographs, using bits of each and cobbling it all together in one painting, and sometimes I just make it up completely.” He works on several paintings at a time, perhaps one or two hours a day. “I’m not in a rush to finish anything.”

Snowy Twilight oil on canvas 2022

“Snowy Twilight”

After graduating from the University of Warwick, Tom moved to the US to complete his MA and PhD in American Literature at Princeton University.

He married fiction writer Kathryn Reiss and they had their first child. Painting was a way for Tom to unwind from the stresses of writing his dissertation, teaching for the first time, and raising a family. “I found painting to be a relaxing thing to do as a break from my work. It puts you into a left-brain mode, it slows you down. You can lose yourself for hours.” His career in American Literature took him to the University of Michigan, followed by Mills College (now part of Northeastern University) in Oakland in 1988, where both he and Kathryn have taught in the Department of English Literature and Languages for over 30 years. They moved to Benicia in 1997, where they raised seven children.

“It wasn’t until the pandemic that I started using my study at home a lot more, and I finally set up all my painting gear there. It gradually became my studio. Before then, I really never had a designated space to paint, I just put my easel wherever there was space, and toted all my things over. So now, that is where I work.” 

Sonoma Town Square by Tom Strychacz

“Sonoma Town Square”

“My research still engages me,” Tom says, although he and Kathryn are planning for retirement.

“We have always dreamed about having a house in England and spending part of the year living there.” They have recently purchased a Jacobean cottage, built in 1630 and refurbished it as an apartment attached to the nineteenth century country estate Bretby Hall. They hope to begin spending time there this summer. 

“My mum used to say, “there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip,” Tom explains, referring to the title of his exhibition. “Basically, it means you can never count on anything. Like Murphy’s law. If something can go wrong, it will. Kathryn and I thought it was a good title for my show … you don’t quite know what it means when you see it. And since most of my paintings are either of England or of California, there is a sort of twixt to it, between two places. And most of my paintings have that in-between quality.” 

For more information, visit www.tomstrychaczart.com and benicialibrary.org/about/gallery.