"Big Pine" Oil on Canvas by Tom Bassett-Dilley


December 9, 2022 | Tom Bassett-Dilley

When I took my first drafting class in 7th grade, I felt for the the first time in a classroom (well, aside from Band) that I was doing something enjoyable and natural to my way of thinking. Organizing my thoughts visually, thinking about a 3d object described in 2d, developing technique of lineweight and lettering–these were all fully engaging. This took me to architecture, whereupon I discovered Frank Lloyd Wright, and in his unique American Arts and Crafts work was a love of nature, and an architecture full of emotion. It felt right to me, a kid who found his greatest satisfaction outdoors with the trees, the birds, the colors and cycles of Nature.

And with that inspiration I was off! This led to a career that has been wonderfully rewarding, especially in my firm from 2006 to now, since I’ve been able to pursue energy efficiency and an ecological approach that I deem valuable and important. However, much of my focus in architecture has been problem-solving, figuring out new ways to build so we can make zero-energy buildings. Always in my mind was the goal of beauty and nature-based design, but I didn’t have a language as strong for that as I did for the technical.

Now for years, really since college, I felt the urge to paint when looking at the landscape. I’ve enjoyed Impressionism and Japanese prints most, also Diebenkorn and Rothko and other greats. But after successfully establishing a technical basis for Passive and zero-energy buildings here in the Midwest, the landscape painting urge became unstoppable. I believe I needed to learn the language of beauty as found in Nature, or at least develop my dialect of it, to balance what had become a more technical approach to architecture. I needed to reconnect to the source of the beauty and emotion I saw in Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Coming back to painting after 30 years meant there was also an internet–so I was able not only to learn techniques, but to get inspired and learn from the likes of David Sharpe, Terry Miura, Marc Hanson, David Lidbetter, and many others–really too many to list, there are so many fine painters out there. In late 2018 I dove into landscapes, mostly plein air painting, with forays in other directions, but always coming back to landscapes. What a wonderful and endless pursuit this is–with each step a new dimension unfolds, new terrain to be discovered in one’s soul or with technique, new clarity to the bring to the question “why paint?” and “what is beauty?” 

I recently got David Cleveland’s wonderful History Of American Tonalism and was, first of all, floored by the works of the likes of Birge Harrison, Charles Warren Eaton, and Henry Twachtman, but equally by Cleveland’s essays on the spiritual underpinnings: Thoreau, Emerson, the Transcendentalists–guess what, the same underpinnings of Frank Lloyd Wright! The other crucial influence was the Civil War. We don’t have that tragedy and carnage in our recent memory, but we have a new inescapable tragedy: the desecration of wilderness and natural order through what we call civilization. This is a massive weight to grapple with, and I believe that many of us painting landscapes are paying homage to what may be a vanishing order, while our self-created existential threat crawls across the land.

It reminds me of another hero, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Elves describe the sorrow of the passing of the golden days, as their power fades with the destruction of the One Ring. Nothing lasts forever–we grow, flower, and fade, but we celebrate the beauty even in the passing.

Tom Bassett-Dilley Architects | Contact