Tommie Wallace: A Heartside artist rooted in history

This month we sat down with local Heartside artist Tommie Wallace, aka Town Hall Auk Med to learn more about his life, distinct artistic style, and the roots of his imagery/meaning.
When we started this series of one-on-one interviews with individuals in our community who are creating an impact in our region, I knew we would discover fascinating stories along the way. 

We started this series as a way for local people to engage around a topic that they have lived and share through the art of conversation. 

This month proves no different as I discovered in June when we sat down with a local Heartside artist Tommie Wallace, aka Town Hall Auk Med, to learn more about his life, distinct artistic style, and the roots of his imagery/meaning.

Wallace came to our attention via Art Gallery & Studio Coordinator Johannah Jelks of the Heartside Art Gallery (a program of the Heartside Ministry) who reached out to share his story.

On July 6, the First Friday event at the Heartside Art Gallery will feature the work of their clay studio artists, but Wallace’s latest (portable) mural will be on display near the corner of Commerce and Weston on this day. (We got a sneak peak at it, too.) 

Most of all, Wallace's story inspires us to think about other's experiences in this life and how the sharing of our history still has tremendous power...even when the method of delivery is a simple as applying paint to the canvas or a building's wall. 

The future needs all of us. - Tommy Allen, Publisher 

Tommy: When I was a kid I started with a camera that my father gave me. How did your art exploration begin?

Tommie: I was in ninth grade at Kalamazoo’s Loy Norrix High School when I picked up a paint brush for the very first time. But it wasn’t until tenth grade that I started to discover my own style of painting. 

Tommy: Often times, folks help us along the way define our style. Was there anyone or -thing you can recall that might have had an influence on your early work? For example, I can see from a few of your works that history is an important part of your paintings.

Tommie: As far as style goes, in high school I enjoyed the work of [painter and muralist] Charles White, but I also admired Michelangelo and Van Gogh in those early years. 

As to the history, I am a fine arts major with a minor in history that I received from Wilberforce University in 1983. (Wilberforce University, established in 1856, is the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans.) Over time, I have developed a style in my work seen more clearly in the expressions via the eyes and lips. These are distinct to my style.

Tommy: But you sign your paintings not with “Tommie Wallace,” but with the name “Town House Auk Med.” Care to tell me about it?

Tommie: It was while in college I came to use this new name that I now sign on all my paintings. During that time I was somewhat interested in the Muslim community. These guys would visit the colleges in the area where I was studying. I never changed my religion, but was impressed by them as I adopted some of their ways. 

Tommy: And the “Town House?”

Tommie: The first part, Town House, goes all the way back to grade school. The kids on the bus used to call me Town House because of where I lived. 

After I got to college (and as Tommie Wallace) the folks at the Rippler Brotherhood, where I pledged, when they learned of my childhood nickname also started calling me by it. 

So because of my time with the Muslim community and my brothers at Rippler, I decided to sign my artworks moving forward as Town House AukMed. 

Tommy: I understand from an earlier conversation that you might be in recovery. Could you elaborate? 

Tommie: I am in recovery. My biggest problem back in those years was that I thought I could do this alone. But over time I have come to discover support groups who helped me through. On July 20, I will have been [painting] sober, free of alcohol and drugs, for 29 years now. 

Tommy: Congratulations. I know from friends who battle with their addictions that this is not an easy path. 

Tommie: When I was using, I was not doing art. I was trying to do it all, but not. I wanted to tell on myself [as an addict], and yet, it took me a while to figure it out.

Tommy: Did you subject matter change as well?

Tommie: It did not change my style. But as I start to return to painting I did get an opportunity to create a mural for a deacon’s conference in Kalamazoo. This first mural featured people in recovery. I titled this work, “Life” and showcased folks who were once addicted being redeemed. But it also featured a person in a coffin since I knew this is was all part of the “life” of addiction. Once I started this mural, I found I was able to begin painting again.

Tommy: Why do people feature so prominently in your work?

Tommie: I like historical imagery. When you look at my paintings, like this one of black leadership, it features folks like Martin Luther King, Jr., Elijah Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan. 

Tommy: But then we have this work that was emailed to me from Heartside’s art director. Let’s talk about this large work of children. Are these kids part of a history that I am not aware?

Tommie: I don’t know who they are but I have tried to research their story. I just liked these children who appear from their clothing to be from the 1920s. This new work, that will be in ArtPrize this fall, is seeking to transform a black and white photograph into a colorful representation of these people’s lives.

Tommy: What happens when we make people the subject of a painting as you do here?

Tommie: When we create an image of people we know (like I have done with black leaders), we can see it and then quickly say, “Oh I know that person. I know their story.” But when they are people, like these kids featured in this new painting, people spend more time with it.

Tommy: I understand the mystery of paintings to reveal themselves overtime. May I ask what painting you are hoping to create next since this one appears nearly completed?

Tommie: I am excited to start a new painting I call the “Hometown Favorite,” which is about Derek Jeter. (Jeter hails from Kalamazoo and is the son of mixed race parents.) 

Tommy: So where does your inspiration come from for these works?

Tommie: It is the images that come to my mind or is of those things that others are not creating. And while I don’t do rapper paintings, I have featured other styles of music like that of Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., and Michael Jackson. I have even painted a Janet Jackson portrait.

Tommy: Tell me about your mural works.

Tommie: The first one I did was called, “Yes, We Were There” and it featured black men and women who have served in the armed forces of this country. 

Tommy: Is it still up?

Tommie: No. It was taken down when a business needed to expand where it once stood. That mural had civil war patrons, New York’s Harlem Hellfighters, Buffalo Soldiers, and three black soldiers from Grand Rapids who lost their lives in war. 

Once while I was working on this mural, a man passed by and yelled, “Why are there no white people in this mural?” So I had him pull over and I showed him how I had indeed showcased white people in this mural.

Tommy: How were white people represented?

Tommie: In one scene within the mural, I featured the Spanish-American War’s Battle for San Juan Hill. In this scene I have black people carry the dead and wounded, which were mainly white soldiers.

Tommy: What does the title of the mural mean to you?

Tommie: When you look at our history books, you do not see us in there. And yet, we were there. 

Tommy: Representation in art helps how?

Tommie: Well, when people see the mural and then trace the stories back, they can begin to see how we were there. The mural involved a lot of research before I could even begin to create it.

Tommy: Any other folks stop by during any of your mural creation period?

Tommie: (Laughs.) There was one guy who stopped by once as I was painting a Navy guy. He said I got the hat wrong that I had created on the solider’s head. So I changed it to reflect the correct hat that he would have worn. 

Tommy: How important is that we honor black individuals’ contributions or that they are simply seen living out in life?

Tommie: I think it's very important because we need to know their contributions. [Looking back on] those early years, I could not imagine that today we would arrive at a time with all these younger people [of color] here now in the present as vice presidents of companies and all that. In my art, we can see the efforts of these people and what they had to strive through to get to our present.

Tommy: You are a student of history as well as art, so why is it important to have conversations around your paintings’ topics?

Tommie: Because it let’s folks know that you know that these other people did exist. A lot of times we hear young people going on about Martin Luther King. I add, “But don't you know there are other people like Rosa Parks and so many others who were in the fight?”

And not even just that—because we know we can go out of our color and have talks about other people who advocated for us to thrive—like those John Brown’s of history. (John Brown was a white, American abolitionist who believed the best path to abolish slavery was through violent means.)

Tommy: Is there a mural you would like to create next?

Tommie: There is indeed. I don’t want to talk too much about it. The mural is a collection of things from our past centered on a portrait of Marvin Gaye and how these different rings take us into the future. It is called, “What Is Going On.” And yeah, it deals with the first black President but also touches on a worldwide exploration of our culture. 

I think we need to consider how we teach American history and begin adding everyone to it. Because we are a melting pot, we have of a lot of different races who are here. So we should teach that history to the American people.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.