Chasing the Light

Photo by James BunoanA few months ago, I ran into Thomas Jeffrey Aloysious Dougherty III in a Costa Mesa coffeehouse. He told me he was leaving—not just the coffee house, but Costa Mesa. California. The West—for New York City.

I thought he meant leaving for good. Then I ran into him a few weeks ago, and he was already back.

Dougherty grew up in OC and taught himself to draw. He turned out to be one of the county's most talented painters, producing somber, angular portraits and still-lifes as if transcribing for an angry god. His paintings seem to spring from no known local source: they owe nothing to the California plein-air tradition, nor to the Laguna Beach commercial scene. They are strangely urban—brooding, dark, injured, as if he painted with a knife.

He accomplished that—and a metamorphosis—here; more recently his work has taken on new light. His paints are more vibrant, his canvases more political. It's hardly a surprise that he was recently popped by officers of the CMPD for drawing on the exterior wall of a Diedrich Coffee. (Dougherty says he had the permission of company founder Martin Diedrich; a company executive says that isn't true.)

The move to New York City seemed oddly conventional for such an unconventional guy. For at least a century, American artists have left the hinterlands to make it big in New York City. Like Wyland's whales or Kinkaide's cottages, moving to NYC—our own Rome—is an art clich.

But it turned out Dougherty wasn't leaving for good—for several months, perhaps, "to get charged up." Travel, he explained, really does broaden the mind. And then there's the light.

You managed to get charged up when you produced your early work here. How'd that happen?

I had no influences, and maybe at that point in my development, that was good; there are very few [influences] around here because artists don't get together a lot to support each other.

Is it stretching to say that your art is a reflection of Orange County to the extent that the place is atomized? That artists are pretty much on their own here?

Could be. That's one thing about a city like New York: you have to avoid getting all caught up in what's cool, what's hip. I don't worry about that, not here or there. I stay away from hip spots or listening to people's input as far as what's in. That's not what I'm listening for. I'm listening for different philosophies or maybe the passion of people for their own work; I get charged up from how people are devoted to their work.

How does that happen?

The walking cities make that happen, any walking city—not just New York, but Paris, Toronto. A lot of times I just walk in New York. Hours every day. Shoot pictures. Meet people. I think it's just the different conversations, the different points of view. You don't even have to ask; they'll tell you what they think. I'm collecting their stories. And the buildings—the way they change, the graffiti with someone walking past it.

And the light! That's another reason I love New York: so much different light. You're on one street; you have lunch there. You go down the street, make a left, and you're in a completely different light. I love the constant changes in light.

And you can't find that here?

Not the same light. The light's great everywhere; the light's great in your mailbox. But if you're bored, sunlight reflecting off the Seine will bore you.

How about the light here?

I know the light here: everything is really light, almost washed out, almost monochromatic, even—from the street to the colors of the buildings to the sky. It's almost monochromatic. Which I like. What's perfect is that I'm here for a bit. When I've had enough monochromatic, I leave. I'll go to New York.

Why come back here at all?

Because there's a lot that's great about this place. The family's here—my mom and brothers. I love the beach. Look, I don't leave here thinking, "I have to get the hell out of Costa Mesa." It's just about stimulation. Travel is stimulating. Really important for the artist. For anyone. If I could live anywhere, I'd live in Costa Mesa, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Havana and Paris.

When you think of OC art, what do you think of?

Safe. Because the place is safe. There's a lot of fear.

There's no fear in NYC?

It's strange, I know, but I find less fear there. People tend to be more mature there. I've been schooled a lot in New York. You have an idea, an inspiration here . . . Let's say you want to build a 25-foot sculpture of a chicken. You say to some guy, "I was thinking about building a big, huge chicken!" And maybe the people around here won't really support you, might even tend to be a little negative.

Is that an autobiographical observation?

No. I just find more support in New York for ideas—a "just go do it" attitude. Art here is often only about money. It's often just an investment. And if you're not making money to begin with, it's hard to make money. And if you don't make money, you're not a success. There's a lot of ridicule—whether said or just felt. An artist goes to New York or in Europe, and success there is measured by whether you're just doing your work.

So, for you, artists should travel because . . .

Because travel broadens the mind.

That's the clich.

Sometimes clichs are true.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >