In a nondescript bungalow in North Casper, Tom Loepp stretches canvases, paints, feeds his cat “Squish”, and goes for coffee with some of his lifelong friends. But, mostly he paints. He paints every day. Through luck and by being in the right place at the right time, I met Tom some fifteen years ago. When I try to think of people who make their living purely from their art, Tom comes to mind. The rest of us have to hold straight jobs, or perhaps we gave up on our dreams and became something else. Tom is a painter, a practitioner of plein air, which is the open air, French style that prefers what the eye actually sees. You see it in Monet and Renoir. And, if you’re smart and know where to look, you can find it in North Casper.
Because I know some of the right people, and because the universe has been kind to me lately, I was able to take Tom Loepp out to Trapper’s Route early this summer. As always, he brought his easel and his oils; there was never any doubt about this. Tom is famous for a version of this saying: “When I don’t feel like painting, I paint for a few hours until I do.”
I parked close to the river. A lot had happened since I was last in this spot. Partiers had come and gone, leaving the telltale evidence of a bonfire complete with beer and wrappers from hot dogs. There was a single Birkenstock sandal. The Russian olives had gone into full bloom, their branches drooping with leaf-load. Waterfowl had flown north, replaced by rapacious songbirds, which flashed here and there, and took insects just above the surface of my favorite glide. And the grass was knee high. I rigged up while Tom set up his easel and squinted into the far hills. You could see Muddy Mountain in the distance.
I stood along the riverbank and casted, trying to get it right so Tom had a good idea about how the line flowed out of the rod. The fishing wasn’t red hot. I was curious about how the painting was going. I hauled out and went up the bank to see what Tom was doing. It didn’t look like a river scene yet. Instead the canvas was marked with severe colors that I couldn’t see when I looked back at the river. I am not a visual artist, so all of this was strange to me. But I know Tom’s art, as do many, and I know that the form takes shape sooner or later.
After spending much of his youth in Casper, Tom went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he graduated from high school and enrolled in an art institute to study painting in earnest. He moved to Manhattan in the 70s where he fell in with a group of other artists who made their living by painting portraits on the street.
“I called it an ‘honest con’”, he said. “I would tell people they had no obligation to buy it, but most of the time, maybe eighty-percent of the time, they’d see the painting and want to have it.” At the time, Tom was renting a loft on 37th Street, just three blocks from the Empire State Building. “I could look out my window and see it. I had to look straight up.” He made just twenty-five dollars per portrait at the time. “My rent was only four-hundred dollars, so it was easy to get by.” I’ve seen some of the work from those years, and the cityscapes he created—snow on fire escapes, shadows creeping along an overpass, distant skylines of tall buildings, children in the park–have an eerie beauty to them that eludes my ability to describe them. I would just say you need to see them for yourself. He made most of his commissions by painting portraits, like the official portrait of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, which hangs in Washington today.
I fished somewhat unsuccessfully for a few hours. I moved around, my dog Henry shadowing me. He stood chest-deep in the river and watched. I hooked a nice fish, but it didn’t stay hooked for long.
“Did you see that, Tom?” I asked.
He didn’t. He was at the easel, and yet he was also somewhere else, present and yet in another world too. I have had some experience with art and how it lets you castoff your daily burdens and be somewhere else for a while. It’s a precious feeling and you want to hold on to it for as long as you can. That’s probably why I write, that intense concentration that allows you escape everyday life and be somewhere else. It’s dreamlike, and for me, it doesn’t last long.
After a few hours we had lunch. I had brought a selection of charcuterie and cheese. I had one large bottle of sour beer from Colorado. I set up some camp chairs under a Russian olive. We talked about how beautiful the day was and whether or not it was going to rain later. I asked Tom if he ever felt the need to get back to New York, where he used to pedal his fifteen speed all over the city looking for subjects.
“Not really,” he said. “There’s so much here. I can find a painting on every block in Casper.”
Tom went back to the painting while I pulled off my waders and broke down my fly rod. Tom spent some time at the painting, taking off the “sharp edges”, while I tossed a stick into the river for the Lab.
When I next saw the painting it was nearly complete, a bright canvas that captured the sunlight on water, the strange ochers and purples the water held, the movement of the clouds and light. Tom signed it. While he washed his brushes and packed up, I collected some of the beer bottles from the bonfire I didn’t attend. (The universe has been kind to me lately and I don’t want to blow it.)
We bumped back over the two-track roads toward the highway. Tom held the painting in his lap the whole way.