tom potocki encourages viewers to interpret his fluid abstractions


A slogan is posted in Tom Potocki’s studio: “The Magic Is in the Mess.”

To me, there are a few ways to interpret that slogan, but for Potocki the “magic” likely refers to the mysterious spark of creativity that inspires his work.

“I’m intrigued by the process,” Potocki says. “That’s what it’s all about—taking paint and putting it on a surface and seeing what happens. I’m not trying to make a picture. I’m trying to make whatever energy it is that creates a picture.”

Even if the process is fluid or indescribable, Potocki understands that you have to make time for the work. And that’s what he does every day.

“It’s really simple,” he says, describing his routine. “We go for a dog walk. We go to the studio and we make stuff. I spend my whole day doing that. I might not be creating every minute—I might be prepping or working on photos or organizing— but I go to the studio and make stuff.” With his golden retriever, Blue, at his side (the “we” Potocki refers to), he treks to his backyard studio, a spacious barn renovated to admit lots of natural light, and puts paint to canvas.

In the studio, drips of paint litter the floor and large canvases are stacked together to dry. He’s preparing for an upcoming exhibit at Charleston’s Mitchell Hill gallery, where he’s represented.

The paintings are full of motion, streaked with colors and pulsing with vibrancy. On canvas, his acrylic paint finds its own path, distilling energy and influences into busy, kinetic artwork.

Sometimes he uses brushes to move the paint, other times he uses his hands, his fingers or pieces of foam core to spread paint around. The result is abstract, experimental images that don’t fit neatly into a preconceived notion. If you’re going to take in Potocki’s work, be prepared to use your imagination.

“The paint may come out to be some sort of object or imagery, and the viewer basically has to interpret that,” he says. “In a way, I’m forcing viewers to get out of their normal way of thinking, to break out of the box and use their imagination with something that’s not totally representational.”

Potocki doesn’t dislike representational paintings or realism, though. He has plenty of artist friends who work in that style. He simply chooses to work in a different way.

“It’s not my personality. I just happen to approach art more spontaneously,” he says. And that spontaneity is good for breaking viewers out of their comfort zones, too.

“There’s a big difference between people who need realism and people who don’t need it,” says Potocki. “I’m trying to get them over their sense of what something should be.”

Potocki’s artistic experiences and influences run deep. As a child, he helped his dad paint billboards and advertisements. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, he experienced the pop art movement firsthand in New York City. He also traveled across Europe before earning his Master of Fine Arts degree and teaching in different colleges in Pennsylvania.

Channeling that energy requires focus and peace of mind, however. Potocki lives in rural Hollywood, west of Charleston, an area that helps him “recharge the batteries.”

“Cities have their own energy, but I feel more comfortable in a rural setting where you can have a dog and feed the deer in the backyard,” he says.

I admit, it’s a treat to speak with Potocki in his home studio away from the hustle and traffic of Charleston. A sense of calm pervades our visit to the woods. It may be unconventional, but that’s exactly what Potocki aims for.

“That’s how art advances—by breaking the rules,” Potocki says. “You have to break the rules and try to go beyond them. I like breaking things down. And I want to push myself. For me, that’s what it is all about. It’s all part of the process.”

Scott Elingburg is a freelance writer in Charleston.

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