The Feral Child
By Britta Lokting
“Untitled,” by Tom McNease. Reverse glass painting. Courtesy of the Tom McNease Estate Collection
After a death in the family, a father and son become unwitting art dealers
everal weeks after Tom McNease, a sixty-six-year-old artist who lived alone on the banks of the Old Pearl River, shot himself in bed, his next of kin went to survey the family property. On a December day in 2014, Tom’s older brother, Larry, and Larry’s son, Lance, drove four hours east across Louisiana along Interstate 10, a dull highway lined with billboards for boudin and cracklins and not much else. When they arrived, Lance was so shocked at the property’s disarray, he wasn’t sure they had the right address. The family house, called the Home Place, had always been tidy. His grandma had cut the grass twice a week and planted flowers. Tom inherited the Home Place after she died in 1999. Now, the roof leaked. Termites had eaten away the wood siding. Weeds and ferns sprouted up. A decade ago, Tom had intended to rebuild the foundation after he discovered dry rot and mold; clearly he hadn’t.
The sight of the Home Place devastated Larry. Tom’s mercurial temperament had made their relationship difficult—at one point, Larry didn’t visit him for three years—and seeing the Home Place falling apart wracked Larry with guilt. When he saw the Medicare book lying open on the bed where Tom died, he felt terrible at the thought that Tom wanted help despite his distrust of doctors (the coroner concluded Tom had ruptured his gallbladder and was likely suffering from excruciating pain).
The inside of the Home Place was in total chaos. Tom had stuffed painted canvases into cabinets, spread them over countertops, and laid them on the floor. Skins of acrylic paint draped from the ceiling beams like clothes hanging out to dry. There was also art on the porch, in the three sheds, in Tom’s workshop, and placed in the woods. The bed sheets hadn’t been stripped since Tom died and were stained with his blood. Tucked in Tom’s briefcase, Larry and Lance found a will Tom had typed out on his computer, signed and dated January 21, 2000. Though the will didn’t include the two witness signatures required to make it legal, Tom had intended to leave all his belongings to Larry. He began the letter by asking Larry to cremate him and scatter his ashes next to his second wife’s ashes at Johnson Beach in Perdido Key, Florida, “approximately 75 yards from end of road, then straight out to the beach . . . where lovey’s ashes were scattered.” Then, Tom addressed the business of his art. “Now Larry,” the letter read. “I know you don’t know shit about art but DO NOT destroy my work.”
In the months following Tom’s death, Larry and Lance traveled back and forth to the Home Place, organizing and relocating Tom’s artwork, in disbelief at the overwhelming number of pieces he’d left behind—more than five thousand in total, greater than the entire collection at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. Tom had started his career as a photographer in the 1970s and had turned to abstract expressionist painting in his later years. He was among the original group of artists who used the “skin” technique, swirling and splattering acrylic paint in psychedelic patterns on glass until the thin sheets were almost dry but still malleable like putty. He then peeled off the layers and hung them from the rafters in his studio or folded them into wave-like shapes. The skins became sculptures and collages with an emphasis on texture—some smooth like ribbon candy and others rough like lava beds. Tom secured the shaped layers to cardboard, wood, and even insulation foam. Sometimes he added text: AND THE DEAD LISTENED TO THE RETREATED WHISPERS OF THE BEGUILED.
In mid-February, I visited Lance, Tom’s nephew, in Lake Charles. A year earlier, I met a man named Peter Falk, who finds, exhibits, and promotes forgotten artwork. Falk had recently taken on Tom’s estate and I found the story of Tom’s suicide, intense emotions, cloistered life, and constant self-doubt to be tragic and striking. His family seemed earnest in their desire to place his works, but their naïveté about the complex business of art had left them in a vulnerable position. In addition to seeing Tom’s work, I also wanted to understand how the family was handling his legacy. Tom went years without showing his work to anyone and even burned pieces he thought were bad. His will had said he wanted the works “dispersed” and to “go to well run environmental causes,” so it was easy to think that Tom, who once wrote that art is too often “made to sell,” would have been torn about having his works packaged for general consumption.
I visited from New York the weekend that Lance and his wife, Sheree, were preparing for their krewe’s annual Mardi Gras costume party. The theme was Who Let The Dogs Out, and Sheree was going as a pink poodle and Lance her dogcatcher. As I entered their neighborhood, I recognized their house by the green-purple-and-gold “Krewe of Barataria” flag waving out front. Inside, Sheree, a hair salon owner with big curls, had hung Mardi Gras masks in the entryway and placed embroidered hand towels in the bathroom. The house was big and empty; their two sons are in college. We sat at the dining room table eating shrimp scampi and after learning that I had never tried king cake, Sheree sent Lance on a run to the grocery store. While he was gone, she talked about Tom. She told me he wore the same outfit every day: a white L. L. Bean shirt, red suspenders, and khaki pants. She found him odd and intimidating, particularly his behavior whenever he attended their sons’ league baseball games. “I’d be taking pictures and I’d turn around and he’d disappear,” she said. “He’d just drift off in his own little world.”
Tom was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1947, five years after Larry. The family moved to the Home Place in 1952 to live on the river. Their mother was a nurse. Their disciplinarian father worked as a railroad engineer. As boys, Larry preferred the outdoors while Tom read in his room, and Tom’s surly temperament created more distance between the two brothers. After leaving Louisiana State University two weeks into his first semester, Tom re-enrolled at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science and a fiancée named Pat. Over the next several years, he began a steady stream of odd jobs to offset his burgeoning interest in art, quitting each job whenever he felt like it. He taught elementary school, worked as an editor, and took photos for a cookbook called Cooking with Chris and Goffredo.
He also taught himself photography, influenced by Clarence John Laughlin, a surrealist photographer from New Orleans who manipulated photographs with double exposure and collaging. Tom’s works took an abstracted view of the nature and the swamp around him. In the darkroom, he painted with chemicals on light-sensitive paper; the mirrored splotches that emerged looked like Rorschach tests or X-rays. One silver gelatin piece titled “Gather The Soul of Departed Thought” featured three ghostly, swirling blobs that seem to rise off the paper. “They were not typical photographs, they were more abstract in nature,” said Joshua Mann Pailet, Tom’s former art dealer and friend and the founder of A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans. “They were just about light in the universe. It’s not really able to be put into a category.”
In the mid-1970s, following a debut in Switzerland’s Camera magazine, Tom showed at several small but well-known photography galleries, mostly across the South and West. He gained a modest renown, having exhibited at noteworthy spaces like Afterimage Gallery in Dallas and the 4th Street Photo Gallery in New York, where some photographers have launched their careers. But most of the gallerists and artists I tracked down who had crossed paths with Tom couldn’t recall details about him. “Boy, I don’t remember much about it,” said Ben Breard, the owner of Afterimage, where Tom showed in 1975. “He had black hair, kind of longish.” Tom was allergic to art shows and believed exhibitions spotlighted the artist over the art. He would struggle with this tension his entire career, prizing the unfettered creative process over the politics of the market. As he speculated in his diary decades later: “Because of my nature and total disdain for the outside art world, I think my efforts [are] better served in ‘marketing’ (yuck!) my imagery through the impersonal means of the computer.” Pailet noted, “He unfortunately wasn’t seen by a lot of people so we didn’t sell a lot while he was alive. He didn’t really put it out there much to be sold.”
After Pat and Tom divorced in 1983, he began to drink heavily. At the time, Tom was working one of his odd jobs at Banner Chevrolet in New Orleans, where he met a fellow employee named Karen Gregory. They married a year later. Karen, who often wore blue jeans and walked barefoot, shared Tom’s affinity for living off the land. They fished and rarely ate out. “They lived a solitary lifestyle,” said Leah Gregory, Karen’s sister.
Tom and Karen lived in an A-frame house called the Camp on the Mississippi side of the Pearl River. Karen supported them financially as a manager of a retail outlet store while Tom worked at home, in a room overlooking the water. For a brief period, Tom was making photo collages and then he began his reverse glass painting, transferring the acrylic skins to other surfaces. Sometimes, Karen scoured stores that were going out of business in the shopping center where she worked and picked up discarded sheets of glass, bulbs, paints, and shirt cubes for Tom. This delighted him, a rare occurrence among his bad moods. He often grappled with his temper, trying to rein in his cynicism. Many times he would reread his diary entries and find their negative outlook abhorrent. This only put him in a worse mood. Lance keeps Tom’s diary entries, which are sheaves of loose printer paper full of ellipses and grammatical errors, neatly stacked in chronological order in a plastic bin. During my weekend visit, I spent hours going through the entries. For decades, Tom wrote each day, sometimes more, except for one three-year period. I didn’t see a single entry between 1996 and 1999, the years Karen was sick with bone cancer.
Tom was devastated by the deaths of Karen and his mother in close succession (Tom and Larry’s father had died years before of a heart attack). Already an eremitic man, he became more reclusive, spending his days kayaking alone in nearby Honey Island Swamp or working inside the Home Place, where he had moved in. His paintings turned dark and ever more abstract, often set against black backgrounds. He started addressing his journal entries to Karen, whom he called “lovey.” “I cannot escape the black hole. My sense of loss has reached desperation. How can I continue when half of me is missing?” he wrote. “You know lovey, as I was just taking my shower, I had this thought of I really look forward to not being a human being again.”
Though he was lonely, he kept his distance from others. “Ironic that the more contact I have with people the more ‘all alone’ do I feel within the context of my species itself,” he wrote in his diary. He grew angry with his neighbors, particularly after one hung a Confederate flag. “I am desperately tired of living amongst these rednecks,” he wrote. “Neighbors on either side who delight in throwing trash, raw sewage, beer bottles into the river as they fire off round after round of bullets. My little eden, my little perfect world, is nestled in the midst of pure human trash.” Mostly, Tom seemed concerned with living a simple and pure life, but always in the shadow of his agoraphobia. A routine stop at the grocer for a sandwich once induced a panic attack. “He was basically a hermit,” Larry told me. “To the outside world, Tom didn’t exist.”
“You know lovey, if I am ever ‘remembered’ by humans,” Tom wrote in 2002, “I would like it to be as the feral child.”
The McNease family never quite understood Tom. During family outings, Tom would vanish. He’d light firecrackers with his cigarettes and throw them in the air. He listened to Mozart and Beethoven, which no one else in the family did. In one infamous family story, Tom asked a neighbor to tie him to a pole as Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The winds whipped around Tom, who screamed with delight.
Lance, in particular, wasn’t sure what to make of his uncle. My first night in Lake Charles, Lance took me out to his workshop, where he makes prayer kneelers, to show me one of Tom’s collages. Lance, a dark-haired and big-boned man who worked his whole life in the oil fields, did not appreciate Tom’s work when his uncle was alive. “When we’d go over and visit and he’d joke, ‘My art is very valuable don’t laugh at it.’ And to us, it was like ‘Uncle Tom is out in the shed drawing worms,’” he said. “We’re like, ‘Man this guy is weird.’”
But when Lance returned to Lake Charles from the initial trip to the Home Place after Tom’s death, he inspected a collage he had grabbed on his way out. Three images in the piece surprised him: the Trinity, the archangel Gabriel, and what he described as a “comic nun” (which was Miss Clavel from Madeline). A religious man himself, Lance always assumed his uncle was an atheist, but those images indicated to him that perhaps they shared similar views. Lance framed the piece in cypress. He wasn’t sure if his uncle’s art was worth anything, but he and Sheree believed the collage was fate and that he was meant to see Tom’s legacy honored. “I said, ‘Lance, this is no mistake,’” said Sheree.
Trying to place Tom’s works proved challenging, time-consuming, and futile. At one point, Sheree became so frustrated that she no longer wished to participate. The McNeases’ unfamiliarity with the art world only made the task more daunting. Not knowledgeable in handling art, Lance and Larry quickly learned some basics: that if they stacked the canvases without padding, the paint would warm and stick like taffy; that if they broke the safety glass, it would shatter into hundreds of tiny pieces.
After all the works had been hauled from the Home Place, Lance started reaching out to anyone he thought had expertise about what to do with his uncle’s body of work. He showed a piece to a local artist and hairdresser who worked in Sheree’s salon; she told him to take the work to New York, but that was a cutthroat, risky, and expensive proposition. He spoke with the directors at the Imperial Calcasieu Museum, but in order for there to be an exhibition, the pictures needed to be framed and they weren’t. “It would have been an expensive endeavor for the family,” said Devin Morgan, the museum’s interim president, who likened Tom’s paintings to Jackson Pollock’s. J. Armin Rust, a lawyer who described himself as someone who helps heirs make money from their deceased relatives and is himself a photography collector who once visited Tom’s studio at the Home Place, underscored the challenge: “It’s very hard to go find somebody to promote a dead artist. You’d be very lucky if somebody would find the McNease family.” Lance’s emails to galleries went unanswered. “Nothing seems to be going my way,” he wrote in his personal log. In need of money, he decided to sell the Home Place.
One day in the summer of 2015, Lance googled, “How to sell or market deceased artist works,” and came across a website called Rediscovered Masters. Now renamed Discoveries in American Art, the company intimidated Lance with its vetting process and credentials. On its website, DIAA says it works to sell pieces by marginalized or unknown artists, “opening doors to discoveries that encourage everyone interested in art to think and see out of the box.” Lance emailed a cover letter along with a few pieces, scared to send the entire sample pack of Tom’s work. He promptly received a reply from Peter Hastings Falk, the site’s chief curator and editor, requesting images.
A self-described detective, Falk travels the country looking to unearth the collections of lost artists. His clients, often the families of the artists, must have a large body of work and a compelling backstory. “I get angry about why certain artists, whether they have mental issues or drug issues or [were] women, were totally unnecessarily bypassed,” said Falk, who writes detailed essays about each artist to accompany the collections. When Falk saw Tom’s works, he was impressed by Tom’s self-taught skin technique and his secluded life in the swamp. “I recognized right away the qualities we’re looking for. We’re looking for innovation and not an artist who was the slavish follower whose works are clearly derivative of others.”
In 1975, Falk was a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design when he wandered into an antique shop and came upon drawings by a turn-of-the-century marine illustrator named Milton Burns. Burns worked mostly from the Americas and Europe, but also sailed the Caribbean. Falk purchased the drawings and began researching Burns, which eventually led him to a log cabin in Arlington, Vermont, to see the collection of Alfred Waud, a Civil War illustrator and Burns’s father-in-law. Waud’s great-great-grandson kept the drawings in wooden chests chewed through by mice. With help from his mother, Falk bought the collection, which he then sold to the Historic New Orleans Collection at a profit. With the money, he paid off his student debt and bought a boat for his mother, a fisherwoman in Connecticut known as Bluefish Patty. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, there have to be more artists like this that people don’t know about,’” he said.
“That’s the eternal question: how to find the next great artist. Everyone is looking for the next emerging artists but it’s not always about getting that. It’s about getting the quality that we haven’t necessarily seen,” said Robert Berry, the former sales director at the UNIX Gallery in New York, who knows Falk. “A lot of these lost artists were just making work that they needed to make and I find that far more interesting than an artist who is making a red painting just to sell.”
As part of Falk’s marketing tactic, he often ascribes his artists a catchy title. An artist named Leo Jensen became the Pop Master of the Midway. Sailor-cum-artist Reid Stowe is the Psychonaut on the High Seas. Falk dubbed Tom McNease the Feral Abstract Expressionist of Honey Island Swamp.
The second day of my trip, Lance and I drove thirty minutes to Lacassine, Louisiana, where Lance’s parents live. In the pickup, Lance discussed the present situation, occasionally pausing to spit his dipping tobacco into an empty Coke bottle. In the two years since he signed with Falk, there’s been little progress. Tom’s art still sits unframed in storage. “We’re moving along, it takes time,” Falk had told me. “I do have some interest starting with a chorus of museums in the South, in Louisiana.”
We turned off the main highway onto a country road edged by cow farms. We drove past the Lacassine Bayou where the lumber for Lance’s parents’ house was milled, and arrived at their one-story home. A giant live oak tree stood out front, which Lance said his father refuses to trim.
Lance’s mother, Yvonne, opened the door wearing a blond hairnet, a holdover from the days she worked as a substitute lunch lady. Inside, she was fixing a lunch of meat and rice, coleslaw, deviled eggs, jarred figs from her backyard, fig cake, and biscuits. As she prepared the meal, I sat down at the kitchen table with Larry. At seventy-seven, he refuses to get a hearing aid and he won’t see a doctor about the golf-ball-size lump protruding from the left side of his head. Despite a shared wariness about doctors, Larry maintains that he and his brother had little in common. He spoke about his fractured relationship with Tom and how their only prolonged time together as adults was a yearly pilgrimage to their parents’ graves in Laurel, Mississippi. Larry had difficulty describing the Home Place after Tom’s death. “It was hard to walk into that house after the suicide. It was like it was when he shot himself—blood on the bed, linens,” he said, shaking his head. “Oof.”
After lunch, we went to see the bulk of Tom’s works in the large shed out back, which is not climate controlled. The pieces were just as wild and unhinged as the pictures I’d seen online. There were hundreds of glass sheets stacked on shelves and boards with Pollock-like splatters bound together with lime green twine. A film of dust coated the canvases. Light bulbs were nailed to wooden planks among swirls of paint and geometric cutout shapes. Along the ceiling beam, about a dozen acrylic sheets hung over household objects, like a mop handle. I mistook the skins of two kingsnakes resting on a wood board as part of the mixed media.
Larry said his only concern now is establishing Tom’s status in the community. “I’m not interested in making money off Tom,” he said. Lance agreed they were doing right by Tom. “Not to say if somebody came to me and said to me, ‘We’ll give you two million dollars for every piece here,’ I’d tell ’em to write the check,” he said.
As Lance and Larry walked around the shed, I stood next to Yvonne. So far, Larry had done most of the talking and I wondered what she thought about Tom’s work. She told me she liked his photography from the seventies but did not understand his later paintings. “We way out in left field, we’re not even at the ball game anymore,” she said, gesturing at the art. She didn’t seem to want to talk about Tom. Instead, she told me that the pan she used for the biscuits was her grandmother’s and had been passed down in the family for a century. We walked outside and she pointed to the fruit trees she had planted in her backyard. There was one for each family member who has died: a Satsuma for her daughter Lori, who was killed in a car crash, a lemon for Tom’s wife Karen, and a kumquat for Tom.
As we said goodbye at the car, Larry steered the conversation back to his brother. He reiterated his belief that Tom would have appreciated all their efforts. It was hard to tell whether he truly believed this or just wanted to reassure himself. Then Yvonne shook her head at him and said what was likely in the back of all their minds: “Tom would have a fit if he knew we were doing this.”
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