In this age of "you're either with us or against us," Swords into Plowshare: Peace Center and Gallery is a facilitator of dialogue that seeks to bring people together and uncover commonalities between diverse groups. The gallery's current exhibition, Tom Block's "Cousins," speaks to the heart of the Center's philosophy by exploring the common links between what are often perceived as opposing belief systems.
It was in a small, unheated apartment that artist Tom Block discovered a new direction. He'd left his career as a journalist behind in the United States, hoping to find something more fulfilling. Amidst the silence that comes with living in a new country, far away from friends and family, he focused on his art.
Little did the Maryland-based artist know that he would find more than a new form of expression; he'd gain a new sense of being.
I'm not the only person that has made the connection between art, imagination and the heroic. This spring a show sponsored by Arts for Amnesty International opened in Washington D.C. The exhibit featured the work of artist Tom Block, who depicts both prisoners of conscience and those working for their freedom, and for the dignity and human rights of oppressed people around the world.
"I didn't pick up the brushes until I was 26," (Tom Block) says, laughing softly at the thought. "I had no art background. When I called my father to say that I was going to art school, he said, 'Holy mackerel, you couldn't even draw a stick figure when you were a kid!'"
Suffice to say that Block the elder got over his initial disbelief, and that Block the younger proved himself adept with the paints and brushes. More than adept, he became an award winning young artist whose work has been displayed in galleries around the country and the world.
Tom Block wears several painterly hats at once; he's equally at home creating abstract paintings and expressionistic figurative portraits. In Caceres, Spain, where he lived during the mid-90s, he painted colorful abstractions on cast-off wooden slats that were spontaneous explosions of joy. A few years later, now living in a basement apartment in Gaithersburg, Maryland, he began a series of expressionistic portraits of friends and family.
Tom Block worships in a Conservative synagogue, but he paints Hasidic messages. Inspired by the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the artist uses recurring abstract forms to celebrate the joy of mystical prayer. He also fills some canvases to capture similar devotional intent expressed by historic Christian and Islamic mystics.
series, Block renders spiritual legends in a vine-like weave of tangled characters and impressions. To create these images, a painted canvas is scraped and pressed with small painted swaths of paper. The process, which Block calls printing, produces two works: one, the large, densely painted scenes of flat patterns and the other, small but seemingly expansive landscaped scenes.
Even if printed in black and white, Tom Block's oils brightly convey a mixture of jarring emotions.
"These are images culled from everyday life and then taken out of context," the Gaithersburg resident says. "They become sort of mysterious and hopefully illogical moments all of us have had happen to us every day, in a bar or at a family dinner." Taken out of context, with these mysterious kinds of images, one might discern something slightly disturbing as well," he says.
Creation converts itself into a mysterious act, with a hidden meaning. And in these works we find all the ingredients that belong to the world of mystery. Tom Block achieves this by breaking the known form of the painting support, choosing instead to work on known objects rendered 'impossible.' Ultimately, Block's work tells us that the totality of the mundane objects that surround us are not in any way mundane, but are passages to a conversation with the eternal.