Eyes of Eau Claire: Tom Gardner

Local photographer layers images to make art

More stories from Elizabeth Gosling


Photo by Elizabeth Gosling

Tom Gardner has a studio and shows his work in the Artisan Forge Gallery. Gardner practices digital photography.

Art comes in many forms, and for one man, it comes in the form of layering photos to make a creation reflective of the Chippewa Valley culture.

Tom Gardner is a teacher and artist, his main medium being digital photography. Gardner learned the passion through his mother, who used 35-millimeter film and produced the images in the darkroom in his family’s basement. He said it took a lot of time and he didn’t have the patience to continue.

He bought a digital camera in the 90s and hasn’t looked back on film since.

“I could almost make magic with just the elementary stuff,” Gardner said.

Now, Gardner calls Artisan Forge Studios, located off Clairemont Avenue, home. A series of studios and workshops comprise the location, along with a gallery to show and sell artwork made in the Chippewa Valley.

The former industrial building houses 23 other artists besides Gardner, ranging from graphic designers to metal workers. They are also finishing an additional structure, which includes about 35 more individual studios.

Before joining this artist collective, Gardner had a studio in Banbury Place for two years.

“But what was lacking was the sense of community that is there at Artisan Forge,” Gardner said. “Nine out of ten conversations with people started with ‘Boy, I didn’t have any idea this place was here.’”

The owner and founder of Artisan Forge, Greg Johnson, said art is emerging in areas outside of the downtown.

“It’s (Artisan Forge) getting to be a pretty big player in the community, so we are excited about that,” Johnson said.

Last weekend, journalists and writers from around the country came to Eau Claire to discover the community, especially the focus the city has on the arts. Visit Eau Claire, along with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, coordinated the event.

Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, said Artisan Forge Studios is like a “microcosm” of the city.

“It’s Greg, helping artists connect to each other, collaborate with one another, get some skills that they might not get on their own as individuals,” John said. “I think it’s definitely a one-of-a-kind type of a facility that could only be born out of somebody’s crazy ideas.”

Even Gardner said the atmosphere of Artisan Forge Studios impacts his work. He said his photography skills have improved, and he is interested in a variety of subjects for his work. He said he also was commissioned to do pieces, which would not have happened if he stayed at Banbury Place.

Artisan Forge Studios’ mission is “to foster creativity through community, education and collaboration,” Gardner said.

“Those were magic words,” Gardner said. “I see all sorts of possibilities, combining arts and education. We’ve brought a bunch of different groups of school kids to the studio on field trips, and they love it. It’s amazing to see these guys just wandering through with their eyes shining, wide open, interested and engaged and seeing themselves there doing stuff.”

Besides digital photography, Gardner has written and self-published a book and plays the guitar. Everything in the environment inspires him to make art, because he said he wants to capture the emotions life brings.

“In the world today, there is a dearth of kindness, of compassion, of acceptance, and we are seeing so much ugliness that stems from folks who can’t get that,” Gardner said. “They put greed and the self before others … if you start everything from a point of kindness or love and move forward from that position, even if you are only coming into contact with a small circle of people, you have the opportunity and the ability to make somebody’s life just a little bit better.”

More information about Artisan Forge Studios can be found on its website.