Artist of the Month: Tony Alderman

Tony Alderman at the down east fishing communities

North by Northwest’s artist of the month this May is Tony Alderman. Tony is a realist painter who is passionate about capturing real moments along the North Carolina coastline. And in particular to raise awareness, and document through painting, the changing reality faced by the North Carolina fishing communities. 

In a conversation with North by Northwest, Tony explained how he has been painting for 40 years. He has enjoyed a successful and robust career, holding exhibitions, publishing a book of his work, and selling numerous paintings, but he entered into the craft somewhat by accident. 

Getting Started in Watercolor

“I’ve always been a doodler,” Tony said, “but in the early 1980s my wife Catherine was taking a watercolor class as part of her art minor degree [at The University of Mobile, in Alabama] so I asked her to show me what she was doing. I did a couple of paintings and she took them with her to her class jury. The professor said ‘These aren’t your paintings are they?’ she explained they were mine, and I was asked to come and talk to him. At that point I was invited to come back to school with a scholarship to study painting.” Tony said prior to that he didn’t know he had a painting ability but he has been painting ever since. 

The North Carolina coastline as depicted in a realist painting.

Tony has enjoyed experimenting with multiple forms throughout his career. Though, he worked for the first 15 years almost exclusively in watercolor. Then he tried egg tempera, which as the name suggests involves adding egg yolks to powdered pigment, this technique has been used since the Renaissance. Tony worked with egg tempera for about ten years before switching to predominantly murals where he used acrylics. “During that time I was making a lot of specialty finishes, such as when you make columns look like marble,” Tony explained. But doing mostly murals, began to burn Tony out and he took four years off altogether from painting.

Finding Motivation in Oil

I asked what changed to get him motivated again. “One day,” he told me, “I was at my favorite coffee shop and I turned around and saw the reflections in the glass. It was so perfect and all of these images started showing up in my head. That’s when I went and got a canvas and started painting again. I made the decision then not to do any more mural work. Then, a year and half ago I started working in oil and that’s my primary medium now.” 

Tony considers himself “a realist, across the board” but is inspired by abstract ideas. Especially if those ideas involve age and history connected to them. He likes to work in the community because there is so much history involved and you can experience the “bare bones of life”.

“I like painting in winter for that reason. Because you can see the bare bones of the trees, the land, and all of these things go along with creating an image that is exciting. I like to see the presence of life that was there. While at the same time trying to focus on things that are in the here and now.” Tony explained that as part of his process he doesn’t go back and try to find history. Unless it’s to give context to what he’s painting.

“I like to capture things as they are now so future people will see that, and feel connected to that area. That’s my philosophy.”

Tony Alderman
A view from North Carolina fishing communities in a realist painting

Drawn to Fishing Communities

When I asked what it was like being a part of the artistic community in North Carolina, Tony told me that it is a growing community as far as being collaborative. “For the most part it’s a bit isolated, but that’s being an artist in general,” Tony told me. He doesn’t mind a bit of isolation since Tony considers himself an introvert. But that hasn’t prevented Tony from becoming immersed in communities at the North Carolina coast and making meaningful connections. Tony became passionate about coastal communities from a young age. “I’ve always been drawn to the water. Ever since I started painting, life on the water has crept into my work. The University of Mobile is near the water. And my wife’s family are Cajuns from South Louisiana. So water has always sort of been a spark in me,” Tony said. 

A friend of Tony’s suggested that he travel to Varnamtown. This is how he first became interested in fishing communities along the southern North Carolina coast. After his first series of paintings there: Beacon 1 Seafood, Tony knew he wanted to invest himself in the community and what would ultimately become the Varnamtown: An Aging Life project. “When I drove down to the waterfront there, I knew I was going to be there for quite a while.” The Varnamtown project took Tony three years to complete. It culminated in a big show. Most of the paintings from that collection were sold. Then a few years later, Tony was again drawn back to the North Carolina coast. This time to Down East, which refers to a historic 30 mile stretch of traditionally fishing co mmunities from Beaufort to Cider Island. 

Heading Down East

“I saw an image a woman had posted from Down East on social media. I reached out and asked her if I could paint it. She was happy for me to do that and today that painting is called ‘Ripple’. A year later I got to meet her, her name is Cathy Rose and she knows everyone in the entire Down East. She has helped me understand and form relationships with people within the community. That is essential to really understand what’s going on there.” 

painting of the down east fishing communities by Tony Alderman

However, when Covid-19 struck, Tony felt stymied like so many people around the world. He found it difficult to get back into painting and has spent over a year working on the piece he’s working on now. Nevertheless, he is committed to his forthcoming Down East project. Tony hopes the next few years will see it come to fruition in the form of another book. Currently, he plans a series of paintings under the working title Down East: A Cultural Heritage

Support and Awareness for Fishing Communities

Tony hopes that his work will help people recognize that North Carolina’s “indigenous coastal communities” are in dire straits. Especially the fishing communities. “Everyone in those towns are involved in the fishing communities in some way,” Tony relayed. “Whether it’s through seafood houses that are family owned, to the fishermen themselves, a large part of the problem is that these days there isn’t a lot of money involved in that way of life. And the children of these communities are going off to college and aren’t coming back to live and work there.”

What is more important is that people inland, who enjoy fresh fish, don’t always recognize the reality of what’s going on at the coast. Tony hopes that his work might help them to more appreciative of local fishing efforts. As well as to take that extra step and buy local catches straight from the farmer’s markets in their communities. These catches regularly transported from the coast. “It’s important to help sustain that,” Tony reflected.  

Artistic Inspirations

Tony’s been greatly inspired by contemporary American, realist painter Andrew Wyeth, whom he described as quintessential. “But if you look at his work and pre-studies it goes back to artists like Franz Kline. It is an abstraction in the idea, and I try to keep that in my work. In that, it’s abstract in feeling. And then I put the layers of realism on top.” Similarly, Tony has been inspired by abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Because Tony says if you take the time to look at his paintings you’ll find the design. With Pollock and Kline, Tony appreciates the use of design and the time it takes your eye to travel through the paintings. He also appreciates the watercolors of John Singer Sargent. “These things affect me,” he shared. 

fishing communities fishing boats in a realist painting

I asked Tony what he was most proud of in his work. He said that from the Down East series so far there are two pieces, one is called “Breath of the Sound” and the other is “Sound Sisters”. From his previous years, his work “If Tables Could Talk” stands out and was done in Varnamtown though not part of that collected series.

“With my work, I don’t paint pictures of pretty things as much as I’m trying to hit at the core of a moment in time. They are glimpses of the things that could catch your eye if you were walking by. My real goal is to help people understand a little bit of life that they don’t have access to and see the beauty in that. I think I make beautiful paintings without painting pretty things.”

Tony Alderman

Interested in Learning More?

Tony does work on commission as long as he can get the client’s vision. But he doesn’t work on projects that he doesn’t think he would enjoy or where he wouldn’t have artistic freedom. He is also open to collaborative work, and thinks collaborating on a commissioned project is fun. If you’re interested in learning more about Tony’s work or are interested in commissioning him for a project please get in touch.  North by Northwest believes in supporting local artists. If you are an artist or creative in North Carolina who is interested in being featured, please reach out to us. We would love to connect and learn more about you and your work.