A lack of clear direction felt liberating as Rebecca Tombaugh unrolled a 12-foot piece of heavy paper in her backyard and got to work, she said.
The 59-year-old artist had been tasked with painting a mural of sorts for the Nonprofit Village, a coworking spot that soon would open at 31 W. 31st Street. It’s co-founder, Mehgan Flynn, saw Tombaugh’s pieces at the Buttonwood Art Space in Midtown and thought a few original works would brighten the new space.
Flynn told the painter to tap into her own creative inspirations for the project, Tombaugh recalled.
“I said, ‘OK, well then I’m going to do whatever I want,’” she added, laughing.
The result was a panoramic cityscape of Kansas City, splashed with color — now hanging prominently in the Nonprofit Village’s conference room.
“I really love Kansas City’s buildings — the Uptown, Liberty Memorial and other iconic structures,” Tombaugh said. “When I think of Kansas City, I picture all these beautiful buildings in different parts of the city and I just kind of mushed them all together in one big piece.”
The Nonprofit Village is planning an artists reception for Tombaugh 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. July 26, in hopes of showcasing the unique vision of her native Kansas City, Flynn said.
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Sticking with a lifelong, but renewed talent
Tombaugh still seems tickled that art lovers are willing to pay for her work.
“There are a couple of people who even collect my stuff now,” she said, giggling in her South Kansas City home.
That sense of disbelief could stem from her previous reluctance to step out onto the Kansas City arts scene, she said. It wasn’t until her adult children started attending First Fridays and encouraged her to take her stacks of paintings to the Crossroads that she agreed to make the leap.
“I Googled ‘art galleries’ and it was just a foreign world to me,” she said.
Tombaugh humbly debuted her work in about 2010 — in the bar area at the Ramada Inn, she said.
“The bartender was fine with it,” Tombaugh added. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll have an art show right here.’”
As her confidence developed, she pushed her paintings out further — to coffee shops, boardrooms and eventually even galleries, which had at one time seemed so intimidating, she said.
“I’ve always felt like I wasn’t a real artist because I didn’t have a degree,” Tombaugh admitted.
But it wasn’t until she discovered plein air events — typically outdoor landscape painting competitions — that she truly tapped her passion, she said.
“They’re for nobody’s like me — I don’t have a name or reputation; I just love to paint outdoors,” Tombaugh said. “You compete for two hours and there’s a judging at the end. It’s a very friendly environment. I’ve won one, so anybody can win.”
At a recent event, she forgot her brushes and pens, so Tombaugh painted with a stick she pulled off a tree, she said.
“It was great!” Tombaugh said. “I thought, ‘I might just paint with a stick from now on.’”
Transformative creativity in KC
A former Kansas Press Association journalist of the year honoree — “I got fired from a lot of the best newspapers in Kansas City,” Tombaugh joked — the artist lived all across the metro for her work as a reporter at The Kansas City Star, The Kansan, Independence Examiner, Blue Springs Examiner, and Hiawatha World, she said.
It afforded her plenty of opportunities to examine the greater city from all sides, Tombaugh said, noting the experience began as a child.
“I remember my grandfather taking me down The Paseo, Gillham and to City Market. There’s a sense of old Kansas City, with a rusty red color and balconies,” she said. “In my 20s, 30s and 40s, I became more interested in the skyhooks, the shuttlecocks, the Nelson.”
“I really like the mix of old and new downtown,” Tombaugh added. “The streetcar provides a real contrast, and I love seeing the old buildings that are being restored instead of just torn down.”
She loves the transformation of the local arts scene during the past few decades — now a more welcoming place, she said.
“Kansas City has always been wonderful, but I think it’s really turned into such an art town, a creative town,” Tombaugh said. “There’s such support for creative people of all kinds — not just painters or artists like me. Everywhere you go, there’s creative stuff happening in coffee shops.”
An artist’s eye
Inspiration comes from all walks of life, Tombaugh said, noting the opportunities for an artist that lie in simply observing the world around them.
“I couldn’t hire a model, but I really needed to practice figures,” she said. “I noticed the people at bus stops — they’re completely unposed because they’re just there waiting. So I would sneak a picture of them. Driving down Main, they have the best bus stops. ‘Click! Click! Click!’ I’ve gotten really good at it.”
Much of Tombaugh’s style developed organically — and sometimes by accident, she said. For example, she once had a dream that she painted with a calligraphy pen, so she woke up and tried it, Tombaugh said.
“I hid in the bedroom, just in case this was nuts,” she said. “I got some ink and started going. I was like ‘This is it!’ A few years later, I was working on one and I spilled some water on it. And I liked how it looked. Now I do it all the time. The accidents work.”
Admittedly, that doesn’t mean her completed pieces are universally understood, she said.
“When I paint, I’m trying to paint the feeling of what I’m seeing, rather than paint what it looks like. I try not to overthink it,” Tombaugh said. “My mom had a hard time looking at my art. She’d say, ‘I just don’t know what it is. Can you give me a little hint?’”