EAST AURORA, N.Y.—The beauty and magnificence of nature can reveal truths for us. When Thomas Kegler paints outdoors, he is feeling air currents, watching the leaves move, and hearing their rustling. He’s observing birds glide in the distance or listening to their singing in nearby trees. He’s noticing squirrels scurrying, and hearing a concert of acorns thumping on the ground. Occasionally, he’ll see a deer family or even smell them before he sees them. He smells other things—the earth, the forest, wild flowers, and the mist.
In nature, the “senses become more alive, and that makes me a better painter,” he said. “Paint what you know, and you can share that better—more passionately, hopefully,” Kegler said in his loft studio at his East Aurora home on a mid-August day.
With every composition he makes, every mark he draws, every color he chooses to paint, he feels whispers throughout the entire process. “I’d like to say that I’m having epiphanies, but they are not,” he said. “They are really subtle whispers. I’m feeling them, not hearing them. They are so soft and quiet that typically I don’t become aware of them until the painting is done,” he said.
He seizes the days, waking at 4:00 a.m. every morning to paint before taking care of his two children. The morning before the interview for this article, he drove to Letchworth State Park, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” He arrived before sunrise and made sketches—a contour grid drawing, a tonal value sketch, and a color study with watercolors—in preparation for an autumn painting. The inspirational seed for it had lain dormant for five years and started to germinate. He plans to complete the painting around the time the color of the leaves turn this autumn.
Whenever he takes his small field sketches and painting studies back to his studio, the whispers he feels—those subtle currents, perhaps of elation and guidance—resume. Frequently, while driving in the countryside, walking through a forest, or fly-fishing in a river, a scene will captivate him, and he will say to himself, “That’s a painting.” He has hundreds of quick sketches that he keeps as reference for future paintings.
Some painters suffer from staring at a blank canvas, from not knowing what to paint. “I suffer from the opposite,” Kegler said. “I have this incessant voice that is driving me to keep painting every day. I have 20 lifetimes’ worth of ideas,” he paused. “So much to paint, so little time. I love that; it’s really invigorating for me,” he chuckled.
A Humbling Journey
Kegler’s painting career rose to international prominence in just the past decade.
While he also creates portraits and figure and still life paintings, his landscape paintings are considered above and beyond what is being created by landscape artists today.
He is self-taught like the 19th-century Hudson River School painters, who also held high standards for themselves. His style of painting could be described as a perfectly calibrated balance between the dreaminess of Tonalism, which was a late-1880s American landscape style, and the more precise descriptiveness of Hudson River School paintings.
He draws inspiration from Americans like George Inness (1825–1894), Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886), Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880), and John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872), as well as Australian painters of the Heidelberg School such as Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917), and Russian painters like Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930), and Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (1832–1898).
Masterpieces in museums of those artists can arrest you. They can unfold before you, and inspire awe or a myriad of other emotions in capturing your attention. Kegler’s paintings can also evoke all of those emotions, but above all, they invite you to breathe with them. They gently call upon you to focus your attention on them. Once you do, they can simultaneously emit a sense of gentle intimacy as well as of expansiveness that is quite powerful.
Whether a forest interior, like “Emery Maple, Ecclesiastes 9:10” (featured in his instructional documentary “Painting en Plein Air: Resolving the Landscape”), or the dawn in “Song of the Whippoorwill” featured in another video in an episode of “The Line” at East Oaks Studio, or a grand vista like the monumental painting “Niagara, Psalms 84:11” (currently at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University and featured in his documentary “Painting Niagara”), all echo the famous line by the poet John Keats, “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty—that is all.” More specifically, they echo the biblical verses accompanying the titles of his paintings, “meant to be open to interpretation and experience,” Kegler explained.
Just like the 19th-century Hudson River School painters, whose sincerely religious intent was to reveal the unseen spiritual order that shaped nature, Kegler continues the tradition wholeheartedly. In contrast to much contemporary art that is mostly pointing toward self-aggrandizement, the Hudson River School painters “were painting to point upward,” Kegler said. “They were about bringing society to betterment. That philosophy resonates with me and has given me direction. Those voices have been subdued so long that, in some small way, through my landscapes, I hope I am a part of rekindling that flame in this contemporary realism scene.”
He’s unapologetically open about his faith as an integral part of who he is and why he paints. In a humbling way, he asks to be a conduit for the divine. “I don’t know how much I am realizing that, but I often like to think my day of painting on the canvas will start with a prayer.”
Kegler is currently drafting a coffee table book with 120 of his paintings and 365 devotional biblical scriptures in honor of his late wife, Kimberly Kegler, for publication in the fall of 2019.
Growing Through Adversity
Born in West Seneca, New York, in 1970, Kegler grew up in a family with eight siblings, some of whom also work in artistic fields. His parents owned a hunting and fishing store, G & R Tackle Co., which had a small art gallery. Kegler remembers painting as soon as he could first hold a paintbrush. He studied graphic design, taught fly-fishing as a guide in Alaska, and became a certified high school art teacher.
He was making about five to ten paintings a year but not at the aesthetic level that he aspired to reach. “I knew what good art was, but I couldn’t do it,” Kegler recalled. He would ask for direction and receive gracious, long critiques from the first artistic mentor outside of his family, Thomas Aquinas Daly. “He didn’t hold back, which I appreciated,” Kegler said.
It wasn’t until Kegler had an accident and nearly lost the ability to hold a brush that he was catapulted toward his fine art career. In 2006, while helping someone clear a path, a chainsaw cut his arm to the bone. He underwent surgery and sustained nerve damage. To this day, he cannot feel half of his right forearm. “I can shake a hand, and I can hold a paintbrush. I guess that’s all that really matters,” he said.
“During my recovery period, I said, ‘I am going to walk out of this somehow better,’ and I decided that my focus would be on painting. I bought a whole stack of art books and read them for several months,” he said. Most of the books were published about a hundred years ago, like “The Practice & Science of Drawing” by Harold Speed, “The Artistic Anatomy of Trees” by Rex Vicat Cole, and “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting” by John F. Carlson.
Coincidentally at that time, as he leafed though an art magazine, Kegler discovered the Hudson River Fellowship (HRF). He was immediately excited to apply that first year the HRF was established by the renowned artist and founder of the Grand Central Atelier, Jacob Collins. “The Hudson River Fellowship will build a new movement of American art, modeling itself after the artistic, social, and spiritual values of the Hudson River School painters,” Collins had announced.
Kegler’s first application was rejected. It spurred him to hone his skills with more dedication and to paint more frequently outdoors. He went from making about 10 paintings to more than 50 a year.
The following year, Kegler was thrilled to be accepted to the fellowship, grateful for the opportunity to partake in a community of artists who shared his artistic sensibility: seeking to renew a reverence for the land.
Like Daly, Collins became a mentor and friend he highly esteems. “His work ethic is like a laser,” he said about Collins. “The energy level, the camaraderie was amazing! There was an air of respect and expectation that was very high,” Kegler said, recalling especially his first year with the fellowship.
“The core group—Jacob Collins, Travis Schlaht, Edward Minoff, and Nick Hiltner—they held that bar high. They were out there seven days a week, pretty much sunup to sundown, bringing their lunch into the woods with them, and just like a laser, focused. … I walked out of that experience witnessing what it takes to become what I aspired to be,” he said.
In 2012, Kegler became a senior fellow, and Collins invited him to give workshops in conjunction with the HRF. Kegler continues to give these workshops every year; he also gives workshops at the Grand Central Atelier and impromptu workshops outdoors.
Looking back, Kegler regards the chainsaw accident as one of the best things that ever happened to him. “I wouldn’t be the painter I am now. I would have remained in that same complacent, comfortable state otherwise. It is through adversity that you either cave or grow. … Through comfort comes complacency, through complacency comes apathy, through apathy comes rebellion. But through humbleness comes, hopefully, a yearning for betterment, not necessarily just for yourself but for humanity as a whole,” he said.
When asked about his goals for the future, Kegler laughed, saying he’s no longer a “list person.” In other words, in the past, “happiness at the end of the day for me meant a checked-off list,” he said. “Life is funny. Now I make loose, very flexible, generic lists. I’ve learned that God is going to reveal a path to you. It’s much easier if he steers your life, I have found. And submitting to that, I am happier, life goes smoother, and l let him plant the seeds of inspiration.”
Thomas Kegler’s paintings will be shown at the American Masters exhibition and sale at The Salmagundi Club in New York City, Oct. 8–26, 2018.