Balancing Creativity And the Business of Art

Balancing Creativity And the Business of Art

Balancing Creativity and the Business of Art

Tommy May ’12 recently opened a new gallery in LA


(Above photo: Tommy and partner Gwen O’Neil were included in a group exhibition, “Mixed Feelings,” at the F2T Gallery in Milan, Italy from December 17, 2021 to January 29, 2022. Tommy’s work is on the far left and Gwen’s is on the far right.)

When we hear about driving in Los Angeles, we typically think of freeways, traffic, and smog. To Tommy May, who has lived in LA since 2016, driving in LA is beautiful inspiration for his current artwork, which he calls “velocity paintings.”

Tommy lives in the Hollywood Hills with his partner and fellow artist Gwen O’Neil. The road behind their home runs along a ridge and heads west leading down to the ocean. Tommy takes this beautiful drive nearly every day, observing how the landscape and horizon blur together as the car moves along.

From this, Tommy begins his pieces on small canvases to work on colors. From there he scales up to much larger canvases on which he physically blends colors and builds layers, often painting over the canvas entirely. This careful and patient process has evolved, along with the style of the finished works, from his compositions of a few years ago. Yet all of his work evokes his love of nature and the environment and his vision as he moves through it.

Balancing his artistic work is an active interest Tommy has in the business of art. He takes time to study and engage with a wide network of advisors, galleries, collectors, art writers, and others in the field to learn and build his career as an artist.

“Some days I wear my dealer pants,” he laughs, “and other days I put on my painter pants.” The result is a career he never imagined as a young teenager at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes. 

Tommy started at SSSAS in ninth grade and played baseball and cross-country. He particularly valued the mentorship of Cross-Country Coach Scott McLeod, and forged strong friendships with his teammates. Outside of the challenge of running, those teammates shared creative interests in art, music, and photography, and as soon as they could drive, they would head into D.C. to go to the Hirshhorn and other museums, photographing everything along the way.

“Finding this group of people was my favorite part of high school,” says Tommy.

He also took every art class offered at the time, and remains particularly fond of and grateful for his 3D art teacher, Terry deBardelaben. She encouraged Tommy to consider the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) to continue his studies, develop his photography, and consider a career in the field.

At SCAD, Tommy focused on analog photography and spent most of his time in the dark room making prints. Gwen was a fellow student at SCAD who also spent time experimenting in the dark room, and the two first met and fell in love under the red light. 

Tommy’s photos became increasingly abstract, focusing on light, shadow, and shapes. In the dark room, he also explored applying painting techniques and other alternative approaches in the development process to create new and interesting images.

Outside of school, he began to study painting on his own, researching other painters and their processes and drawing inspiration from them while practicing. Admittedly obsessive when he becomes interested in something, Tommy says, “Once I have an idea, I have to figure every single thing out about it.”

He created a great number of pieces and approached the SCAD store, which bought and sold student work, with his paintings. The store bought 20 pieces—his first sale!—and that encouraged him to step aside from photography and focus exclusively on painting.

While the SCAD teachers were supportive, they also challenged him with what he now appreciates as “some of the best and most important advice that shaped me as an artist.” At the time, however, he decided to step away from the structure of school and focus exclusively on his art. Tommy and Gwen open the Lee O’Neil Gallery in Savannah to exhibit their work and that of their peers. The couple loved Savannah, and the small size of the community and cost of living enabled them, for the first time, to begin to imagine they could be working artists.

Selected Exhibitions

Merrick Adams, Tommy May, Dani Tull At Blue Door Gallery, Los Angeles, April 30, 2022
Mixed Feelings, F2T Gallery, Milan, Italy, December 17, 2021
Office Group show, BOZOMAG, Los Angeles, September 2021
2020 he Blue Door Show, Blue Door Gallery, Los Angeles, 2020
Tommy May, Field Gallery, West Tisbury, Mass., 2020
Tommy May, Field Gallery, West Tisbury, Mass., 2019
Tommy May, Solo Show, Quote Gallery, Quogue, N.Y., 2018
Act 1. One Art Space, Tribeca, N.Y., 2018
Tommy May, Field Gallery, West Tisbury, Mass., 2018
Emerging Spaces, 530 Burns Gallery, Sarasota, Fla., 2018
New Works, Tommy May Sylvester and Co, East Hampton, N.Y., 2015
Grand Opening, Lee O’Neil Gallery, Savannah, Ga., 2015

Soon though the couple decided to move to Los Angeles in 2016 to join a much larger and thriving arts community. They worked hard on their work as well as forging business connections, and returned periodically to the East Coast for visits to Martha’s Vineyard where Tommy’s parents live and which inspired much of his early work. Driving around the island—much like today’s drives in LA—led him to create paintings featuring fields of color, lines, and symbols depicting his favorite landscapes.

The couple would also visit Gwen’s family in East Hampton, and ultimately landed a show there which would connect Tommy with designers who began buying his work as well as Gwen’s, for commercial and residential projects.

Other galleries also then began showing his work and a full-time sustainable career was emerging. However, Tommy learned that business success could also be fleeting. When a large show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he quickly had to replace his disappointment with a drive to find new opportunities through even more research and networking. “Being obsessive about stuff to paint, while also hunting down business opportunities like a hawk,” continues to be a driving force for Tommy today.

Tommy and Gwen decided to apply some of their recent success into opening an exhibit space for themselves and other artists. They converted their garage and opened Blue Door Gallery in February, and the space flexes between shows into studio space for both of them.

While Tommy’s art and business has been very busy, he also took time to return to SCAD for online courses to complete his degree. And through it all, he’s discovered some important lessons.

“First, practice what you love and don’t stop exploring and learning more and more,” he says. “Be patient and allow things to evolve.”

Most of all, a strong work ethic is perhaps at the core of Tommy’s success in building a career in a field that many others struggle to thrive in. Following the observation of film producer Robert Evans who said in his autobiography “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity,” Tommy says “I work very hard, so I’m ready when opportunities arise.”

He’s also appreciative—and amazed—that he can have a career doing what he loves and says, “Isn’t it so bizarre that we can make a living making art?!”