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Artist takes skill from large canvas to small

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By Ron Benningfield

As a body repair man, Tommy Gardner mixes various textures and colors of paint every day in his shop about a couple of miles out of Hodgenville off U.S. 31-E.

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He also works with paint in a very different way, however, when he applies his skills to canvas instead of autos.

“For me, painting cars is a job; painting on canvas is a passion,” said Gardner. “While working on cars, I find myself duplicating and replicating, but I can be as creative as my imagination will allow when I get my oils out.”

That creativity shows in the various subjects and surroundings he chooses for his works. Most are outside scenes, but their time periods vary from Medieval, complete with knights and castles, to modern.  

“Sometimes I’ll start with a picture of a scene, or it might be a memory of a place that I have visited, but either way, I find myself adding people and things so that it tells a story,” he said.

Gardner mentioned as an example a painting that he termed his “garbage can rescue.” That painting included a landscape of trees, shoreline, and water he had produced from memory of a visit to Freeman Lake in Elizabethtown.  

“I actually had discarded the painting, but as I was going through my stack of rejects, I pulled it back out and as I looked at it, the thought came to me that it needed some people in it,” he said.

Transferring imagination to canvas, he added a young couple holding hands at the edge of the water looking either at something on the lake or in the sky above it.

With the painting now starting to tell a story, Gardner “saw” some other things that answered his next question as to what was holding the couple’s attention.  In the distant background he added a castle. On the lake, he placed boats, some with people in them, fishing rods in hand, other craft occupied by people seemingly on a pleasure outing.    

“Adding some hot-air balloons would also tell more of the story,” he said.

His brush strokes produced several balloons soaring at different heights, some up close, and others smaller and higher, but all brilliantly colored.  

With balloons wafting above the young couple, people fishing or just enjoying each other’s company in the boats on the lake, and a castle to add a little exotic flair, his painting, though once rejected, now was a keeper.

Painting lessons
Though he painted his first car when he was 16, Gardner, born in 1960, didn’t take his first art lesson until 2001.

That instruction came while he and his wife, Eulane, a registered nurse and fellow artist, were members of Severns Valley Church in Elizabethtown. Gardner learned of lessons that Dr. Robert Claggett, an Elizabethtown Dentist, was giving at the church on Monday evenings.

“I never took art in high school, but I was interested in learning how to paint, so I started attending,” Gardner said.  

After the first lesson, his passion for art had ignited. Wanting to learn more, he watched episodes of the late Bob Ross with his “Joy of Painting” PBS television show. He also took lessons from others, gleaning every bit he could from them, but remembering what one of them told him, “Make your own way; learn what works and what doesn’t for you.”

Tools of the trade
Now, 12 years later, that passion continues to grow. Inside his body shop he keeps two very different kinds of toolboxes – one with instruments for repairing and repainting cars, the other filled with artist’s brushes and paints. Gardner uses both in the course of most days.  

Near the toolboxes on a table sat an unfinished painting of the memorial building at Lincoln’s birthplace. Beside it lay a photo of the building and a sketch pad on which he had roughed in trees and other objects he had created to include in the finished work.

Looking at the painting he was completing for a friend, Gardner offered, “I enjoy watching other people’s reactions as they view my paintings. That’s what gives me personal satisfaction.”

He has shared his works at Lincoln Days art shows and other exhibits, often receiving compliments for their quality. A painting he donated in August for a Community Health Clinic of Hardin and LaRue Counties’ fundraiser brought $300.

“Sometimes people will look at my paintings and say, ‘Man, you’re really talented,’” he said. “I tell them, ‘No, I just practice a lot.’”