artist interview: tony henson

APPALACHIAN ARTIST CRUSH is a series of interviews with artists from around the East Tennessee region, whose work I admire and who I want to share with the world.

Extreme texture and extreme color dominate Tony Henson's abstract acrylic paintings, which he has been doggedly refining for nearly 25 years. Persistence and essential focus are the main force for creating his work and enabling him to teach others.

Tell us about your creative beginnings. What was your earliest experience of artmaking, and what drew you in? Was creativity encouraged in your early years?

I've been drawing since I can remember. I think most people draw or make marks to express their emotions before they are able to read or write. Art is what makes us human. My first memory ever is color and drawing on my walls with crayons. At age 3, I watched my oldest brother (who was 13 years old) draw Spider-man and other comic book characters. I thought it was like magic to be able to transform a white sheet of paper into a superhero. I would watch him draw for hours and then I started drawing everyday for hours. I drew seriously from age 3 to about 19 years old, as much as possible. After that, painting became my obsession. Color has always been there as my inspiration and influence. 

My creativity was encouraged by my Mom who would never say anything when I drew on my bedroom walls at a young age. She would just paint over them every few years, it seemed. I would love to have photos of those early drawings and re-create them now. My Mom could draw and played piano well by ear for many years. My son plays piano now and he is amazing at age 11! 

Tell us about your creative process--what makes it unique? How do you create your best work? What do you love most about your process?

What makes my creative process unique or different is how I transfer the colors I see and experience in nature into my abstract paintings. Everyone sees differently and I try to show people how I see and feel through my artwork. No one has my sense of color or mark-making. No one sees as I do either.

"Lotus" 40x40 acrylic on canvas

"Lotus" 40x40 acrylic on canvas

I create my best work only when I am 100% not thinking while painting. Gerhard Richter, who is one of my favorite artists, said, "painting is another form of thinking." You cannot think while painting. If I do, it won't work and it looks tight and planned.  I have to stay in the moment and go with the process. My paintings always tell me what's next.

I do spend a lot of hours in between my sessions for a painting. I may spend 4-5 hours painting, then I'll spend the next day or two looking and making changes. I'm always working to make the paintings better and more visually successful. After painting 25 years, it is easier to just go down to my studio and paint.

The thing I love the most about my process is starting the painting because there are so many different directions the painting can go. The white canvas staring you down like a bull. After I put a few hours worth of paint on it, the direction or focus is pretty clear and there's not as many choices after that. Finishing a painting is more difficult than starting one, but I enjoy every step of the proces. I love to just see colors work and push paint around. 

What has been a habit or focus you've had that's integral to your art practice?

Just to relax and not to force the painting, and do it every day. In 25 years, the longest I've went without painting is 9 days straight because we were in Alaska on a cruise. I teach art and paint full time. I'm in the studio painting about three days a week and spend many more hours looking at my paintings. I draw everyday because I teach 400 students art each week.

My ritual has become an important aspect to my practice and developing my craft as a painter. I begin with saying a prayer sitting in front of the blank canvas or standing in front of it. I will open every quart of acrylic paint and look at the colors. I decide based on my experiences that day or emotions which 2-3 colors to start with. As the painting progresses, I will introduce new colors to the painting. I just take off and work on instincts the first session which can last 3-5 hours.

"Alive" 38x38 acrylic on canvas

"Alive" 38x38 acrylic on canvas

After that, I spend hours or days just looking at the painting and deciding how can I make it better before painting again. Usually, I will spend 3 sessions on a painting and I work on just one painting at a time because I cannot focus on multiple paintings at once (like most artists). So, that's about 15-25 hours of painting time, and I would say twice as many hours at least looking at it. I'm not sure many people understand the hours that actually go into creating an abstract painting.

Tell me about a hurdle you've had to overcome in your artmaking or art career.

I broke my right hand in 3 places almost 12 years ago. I spent about 5 years painting only with my hands because holding a brush was too painful. I have 3 plates and 13 screws in my hand. It was a blessing though because my paintings got better and more expressive. I try to take the negative things that have happened in my life and turn them into something positive. There's really no hurdle to overcome because putting in the work is better than being talented. I didn't have the best skill or raw talent in college but I did work harder than anyone at Western Kentucky University. I had to work hard to get better and compete with those artists. 

What is your educational background, and how does it influence your creative work, if at all?

I graduated from WKU with my B.A. and obtained my M.F.A. in 2000 at ETSU. Currently, I am at Milligan College getting my teaching license.  My education and what I have learned is in every drawing or painting I create. I believe even if you are an abstract artist you need the skills to draw and paint well. I think my strong work ethic comes from working in tobacco from age 9 to 19 but college helped me with creating a routine and ritual. I'm grateful for my education and that is why I teach to give back and inspire students. 

"All Things Beautiful" 36x48 acrylic on canvas

"All Things Beautiful" 36x48 acrylic on canvas

What are you most excited about in your creative landscape in the moment?

At the moment, I am excited about my first New York City exhibition in June 2017. I was one of 33 artists selected to show at M1-5 lounge in Tribeca. I finally feel my paintings are at a quality level that should get into any gallery. I strive to get better each year and that is exciting... just thinking about what the quality level will be in the next 10-20 years. 

Share your favorite local hangout & or another hidden gem.

I don't really have a hangout because I am either painting, teaching, or with my family. I have a daughter that plays on two softball teams--middle school and travel ball, a son that plays on two football teams including middle school. So, I am busy with art, teaching, and my family. No time to hangout anywhere, but I wouldn't change my life at all. 

Where can we find you on the interwebs?

Instagram: @tonyhensonart
Portfolio: Tony Henson Art
Facebook: Abstract Art
Artsy: Tony Henson
Elsewhere: Zenith Gallery

Tony Henson also gives studio tours! You may e-mail him or call (423) 360-1543.

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See all the Appalachian artist interviews here.