“At some point I’m going to make a living as an artist and today’s the day. But I forget exactly when that was,” laughs T. M. Nicholas, who is, by his own admission, not very good with dates. He is, however, an extraordinary painter, as is his father, Tom Nicholas. Together, they are beloved on Cape Ann for their talent and devotion to the region they have called home since Tom and his wife Gloria first moved to Rockport in 1962. The stories and laughter they shared should fill a book.
Tom, Sr. is equally as witty as his son, yet both are surpassed by Gloria’s gift for storytelling. Listening to the three of them reminisce and chronicle their careers, the history of art on Cape Ann, and the history of the Cape Ann School of Painting, demands a visit to the Tom Nicholas Gallery in Rockport. The gallery, now celebrating its 59th year, is staffed by all members of the Nicholas family and you’ll be as enthralled by the art as by the conversation.
Tom, Sr. began drawing with his mother at his dining room table and “all through school, that was the only thing I was good at,” he laughs. He was encouraged by teachers along the way and studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Gloria recalls that when she met Tom, their “Sunday dates were in the attic while he painted!” His compulsion never waned. Tom Sr. first visited Rockport when he was 15. The car he and a friend were riding in broke down, right near a garage on Dock Square, and while the car was being fixed, Tom Sr. became smitten with the town. Five years later, he introduced Rockport to Gloria just as his career was taking off. Grants sent him abroad; shows in New York sold out; and in 1962 he and Gloria moved to Rockport and opened the gallery. When T. M. was just three and a half, Gloria recognized that he shared his father’s gift and supported his pursuit. Knowing the rather solitary road that lay ahead, she and Tom Sr. encouraged T. M. to “enjoy high school, sports and friends because once you start working as an artist,” Tom Sr. explains, “you’re pretty much alone.” When did he realize his son was ready to study seriously? “He would ask his father,” Gloria shares, “When are you going to teach me?” “That’s what I was waiting for,” says Tom Sr., beaming. T. M.’s studies took off. “I told him, ‘I’m going to leave you alone but I’m going to give you discipline. He was terrific from the beginning.”
What was it like, learning from a master who is also your father? T. M. knew that “the doors will open because of my father’s name, but once I get through them, it’s harder. I have to prove myself twice as much.” Yet he adds that studying with his father “outweighed any disadvantages from trying to get out from under his shadow.” Gloria adds the punch line, “Now people come into the gallery and say, ‘Oh, his father paints?’”
Neither father nor son ever considered an alternative career. T. M. started in watercolors and worked his way to oil. He taught art and held other part-time work until things clicked. Both have shown all across the country; have traveled and painted the world; and have established a base of collectors that helped to populate a recent show at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, entitled Tom and T. M. Nicholas: A Father and Son’s Journey in Paint. Comprised of more than 40 paintings and drawings, it’s the first museum show the Nicholas men have had together. T. M. describes the experience as “surreal” and an “honor.” Exemplifying the traditions of the Cape Ann School of Painting and showcasing the mastery with which both men approach the canvas, the show speaks to art patrons of every age and experience level and tells a beautiful story. “Some people think about art and artists as some distant historical thing that happened years ago. They don’t really know that we’re still here, doing it. That it’s contemporary… It’s always changing this career. Always moving.”
Today, Tom Sr. doesn’t paint as much as he used to but he’s “at it once in a while. I’m semi-retired,” he laughs after 60 years. T. M., with nearly 40 years behind him, is as obsessed as ever and still travels extensively to paint, “maybe too much. I like the regimen of just painting away, day after day. The long [studio] hours. I have to get back to that.”
And Cape Ann, he adds, “has everything for a landscape painter that you would want. The harbor, farms, marshes, ocean.” “And the one thing that everybody says they like about Cape Ann, the light, which is so hard to capture,” adds Gloria. Tom Sr. interjects with a smirk, “The light shines everywhere. I don’t think there’s a difference. The light’s the light, you know,” he laughs.
The article originally appeared in the 2020-2021 Cape Ann Guide & Directory. Reprinted with permission by Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce. Copyright 2020.
Tom and T.M. Nicholas: A Father and Son’s Journey in Paint has been extended at the Cape Ann Museum through November 1, 2020. The Museum will reopen to members on September 24 and to the public on October 1. Hours will be limited and preregistration for timed ticket entry is required. Visit capeannmuseum.org for more information.