New Jersey State of Mind

If, in his canon of music, Bruce Springsteen distills the ethos of the New Jersey experience, presenting the angst of youth and a panorama of the Jersey Shore, Tom Birkner (RC’94) has created the visual equivalent in his critically acclaimed art. His oil paintings are avidly collected for their evocation of New Jersey, although their ultimate appeal may reside in the paintings having a timeless, placeless allure. Whether in his serial portraits of “Jersey Girls” or in scenes of towns and their inhabitants, Birkner is always in a New Jersey state of mind.

“I like painting things that appear visually as people see the world. I find subjects for painting in vignettes and scenarios that occur by accident. They are far more interesting than my dreaming them up. Long ago, I stopped intellectually questioning stuff and became the painter I was supposed to be: a realist painter.” Birkner lets the moment suggest itself to him, as witnessed in Cheerleading (or Battle Cry). At a Scarlet Knights game in 2007, he was suddenly riveted by a blond-haired cheerleader being hoisted into the Thursday twilight, high above the rest, her back and leg arched in celebratory defiance, an arm thrust into the air to summon victory. He knew immediately he had to paint her.

Education of an Artist

By his early 20s, Birkner was making a living from his paintings. By then, he had graduated from Hunterdon Central High, had attended a school of illustration, and had taken classes at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. It wasn’t enough, and he developed the burning urge to attend college. After cramming for SAT exams, Birkner was accepted at Rutgers in 1989, at the age of 23—to this day his proudest achievement.

While he majored in art at Rutgers, he found the cornucopia of the liberal arts opened up vast new worlds that he devoured with relish. Birkner had found that the professional art scene tended to have an insular quality. “That’s why studying subjects outside of art seemed vital,” Birkner explains. “It was a way to push past the confines of the art world.” (He later received a master of fine arts degree from Penn State.)

Birkner’s paintings often have a photojournalistic feel to them in that they capture an unrehearsed moment. But they are not static. “My work has a tendency to have a psychological charge to it, even if it’s quiet,” says Birkner. “There is a suggestion that something is going to happen.”

Excerpted from Rutgers Magazine, Winter 2009.