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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Tom Break

Gordon: When did you attend Knox college, what degree did you earn, and what is one of you favorite memories when you were there?

Tom: I was at Knox College from 1997-2001, where I double-majored in philosophy and math. I did my honors thesis on the philosophy of math, where I looked into the question of what it means for once-accepted "proofs" to be considered problematic at a later historical date. The most formative memory for me was a trip my class took to Russia, where we toured the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and I saw Matisse's "The Dance (II)." The experience I had in front of that painting really set the course for my life since.

Gordon: When did you attend University of Chicago what degree did you earn. what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it challenging?

Tom: I went to the U of C right after I graduated on a Javits Fellowship to the Philosophy Department, in the PhD program. At the time I felt that I had long left my Catholic upbringing behind, so when I took Arnold Davidson's Topics in 20th century European philosophy and encountered the work of Simone Weil, that was a big challenge. Weil's writing had a depth of religious thinking that I had not encountered before. It really made me re-think my relation to religion generally, which ultimately played a huge role in my return to the Church after I got married. I realized at Chicago that academic philosophy wasn't for me, so I left with a master's degree.

Gordon: When did you attend University of Iowa School of Art & Art History, what degree did you earn, what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?

Tom: I went to Iowa from 2011-2014, after taking time away from school to live, make art, get married, have a baby, that kind of thing. I received my master's in fine arts in painting and drawing, and I also took a lot of art history courses, too. I think my favorite course was the Early Medieval Art, which traced art from the height of the Roman Empire, through late antiquity, and into the Middle Ages. I had no idea what a fertile time that was artistically, and studying the conditions in which Christian art came to exist out of a pagan culture was incredibly relevant to my artistic position today, trying to make Catholic art in a, well, a pretty pagan culture.

Gordon: When did you start in the Wind Projects, and what do you do there?

Tom: My family started In the Wind Projects as a way to make my family's creative work available. We've put together books of my wife's poetry, created a space to purchase my art work, and we also use it as the home base for our YouTube channel, Sailing Blowin' in the Wind, which is about our life as a family of six living off-grid on a small sailboat. I do a lot of the production work there, editing, layout, videography, and what marketing we can find time for.

Gordon: Who is an artist that's important to you, and why are they important?

Tom: Mark Rothko is a painter who has been really important for me. I've had one of the deepest visual experiences I've had with art in front of one of his paintings, and I really appreciate the way that he's able to use incredibly austere, straightforward means to reach after the deepest of human truths. That said, I've been formed by a whole host of artists working over the last century and a half: experiences with work by Lee Bontecou, Susan Rothenberg, Jack Whitten, Gerhard Richter, Bill Jensen, Thornton Willis, Jacqueline Humphries, and Glenn Ligon, to name just a very few, have all inflected my work in one way or another.

Gordon: How are art and spirituality connected?

Tom: Visual art is always some kind of response to how the artist sees the world, which means that it contains within it an expression of how the artist sees. I don't think about it so much as an expression of feeling, but more as a picture of how reality hits that person. It's not just a recording of how reality is measured by a machine, but how it's seen by a person. Which means that more of reality gets through into the work, including spiritual realities.

Gordon: Why is spiritual art important?

Tom: I think that it would be fair to say that there's a lot of "material art" out there, work that never gets past the material world. It's true of a lot of what we call high art, but it's especially true of the little works of art that appear on your phone, photographs, commercials, tv shows, and movies, social media posts of all types: they glorify a way of looking at the world that definitively stops at the material, mostly a material thing that someone wants you to buy. That's devastating for our humanity, because it can make you think that that's all there is. It can make you question whether the spiritual realities that you see and feel are really there at all. Spiritual art is a testament that they are, and when you encounter a work of art that makes visible a spiritual reality that you've long felt, well then you know that another person has seen it, too. You're alone, and you're not crazy. There IS more to the world than pretty faces and fancy things. We'd be lost without that.

Gordon: Thank for an insightful interview.

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