The fantastical world of Thomas Hieronymus Towhey

“Breaking out the Magic Monkey, a 40 Year Retrospective” opens Feb. 4

Thomas Towhey has spent a lifetime steadfastly marching to his own singular drum and richly kaleidoscopic view of the world. 

With his long, wavy hair tumbling down his back, he may look like he would prefer to be living in the 1960s, but his artistic vision is not defined by time. His vivid and sometimes humorous paintings encourage us to look beyond the surface, and remind us of what is beautiful and expressive about life and the world around us. 

But now it’s time for a retrospective of his work, opening Feb. 4 at Caza Sikes Gallery.

Thomas Hieronymus Towhey
Thomas Hieronymus Towhey

From the moment you push open the wooden gate to Tom Towhey’s property in Norwood you have the distinct feeling you’ve entered an Alice in Wonderland world. Shade trees and bushes and bamboo are the backdrop for his historic Victorian home with its large carriage house, which is his studio. 

Garden paths lead you through a variety of sculpture, hostas, a gazebo (which doubles as an outdoor painting space) and seating areas, where you can sit by a fire pit and lose yourself in his peaceful urban oasis of art and nature. 

Thomas Hieronymus Towhey, aka “2E,” grew up in Milford, raised by a single mom, with two sisters and one brother. He was highly competitive from an early age, but his aspirations as an athlete ended when he was injured in a car accident at the age of 16. From that day onward his full attention and passion focused on creating art in different mediums. As a young man, he even legally changed his name in honor of one of his artistic heroes, Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch painter (c. 1450-1516) often called the first surrealist.

After graduation from Milford High School, he studied at the Art Academy and the University of Cincinnati, but left school after a short time because “I quickly realized art school was not for me. Surrendering my individuality to learn to think and create like any other human seemed counterintuitive.” 

Thomas Towhey, “Sockie Lock Key,” 2021, 60” diameter, oil on canvas
Thomas Towhey, “Sockie Lock Key,” 2021, 60” diameter, oil on canvas

His career path led him to designing cards with Gibson Greetings for a while, and he traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he maintained a studio for a year so he could work in the desert’s pure light and immerse himself in what he described as the first “real art scene” he had experienced. The intense light inspired him to use a wider palette of bright colors in his paintings, as he tried to capture the vibrancy of hues. “I saw what pure light really is. It heightens your senses.”

Upon his return to Cincinnati in 1991, Towhey became a founding member of Maintraum, a shared studio space on Main Street, with fellow artists Robert Morris, Steve Geddes and Dana Tindall. Maintraum (a reference to the street name but also “main dream”) helped establish Main Street as a local hub of creativity in the 1990s, and Towhey created what he described as abstract expressionist paintings.

He also began creating works of sculpture during this time, usually constructed of metal or wood with various found objects. His artistic partnership with Denny Wallace has produced wondrous pieces of various sizes and shapes. A large outdoor metal piece they created 24 years ago, titled “Miracle Grow,” has been selected for an exhibit at the Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum in Hamilton in the spring of 2023.

Thomas Towhey, “Mighty Testy Tina,” 18”x14”x16,” stainless steel
Thomas Towhey, “Mighty Testy Tina,” 18”x14”x16,” stainless steel

Towhey is well known for his teapot paintings. Shortly after the wake for his beloved Irish grandmother, he found himself staring at a canvas, wondering what to put on it. She had been a tea drinker, and as thoughts of her filled his mind he was inspired to paint a teapot. Since then, he has incorporated many teapots into his artworks. 

Since settling into his home in Norwood in 2000, Towhey has created some of Cincinnati’s most colorful and expressive works of art. His paintings bring to life unique characters and fanciful landscapes because Towhey, a self-described loner, has been a lifelong student of nature and human nature. “I don’t just paint a landscape, I paint the feeling of the landscape,” he said. “The people in my paintings are characters, not portraits, and are often placed in surrealist situations. I want people to read their own meanings into the works.” 

Thomas Towhey, “Buster,” 2019, 24”x18”x16,” ceramic and stainless steel
Thomas Towhey, “Buster,” 2019, 24”x18”x16,” ceramic and stainless steel

Another element of his work is humor, both in concepts for the paintings and in their titles. He is known for often hiding objects in his paintings, so the viewer can discover new things over time. His works challenge the viewer to see things in a new light, and his extraordinary use of vibrant colors invites you to share his artistic vision. “Color unlocks the imagination, and saturated color demands attention,” he said.

According to friend and fellow artist Saad Ghosn, “Tom Towhey’s art is unique in both its aesthetic quality and in its content. His colorful images are complex, yet carry the viewer to a deep and secret world that begs to be discovered, and in which many recognizable elements connect to nature, to living beings, and to fragments of his subconscious. The result is magical and surrealistic, shapes and colors metamorphosing into each other, surrounding and engulfing the viewer.”

Towhey, now 63, has been a guest lecturer at the Taft Museum and the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. He also helped develop the after-school art programs for Cincinnati YMCA and its outreach to Children’s Hospital. He was a volunteer art teacher for St. Rita’s School for the Deaf, and often is a contributing artist with SOS Cincinnati, a group of artists founded by Ghosn working to encourage peace and justice. 

Thoms Towhey, “Bastard and Bitches” 2000, 44”x60,” oil on canvas
Thoms Towhey, “Bastard and Bitches” 2000, 44”x60,” oil on canvas

Towhey’s array of work (line drawings, sculpture, fantasy landscape and surreal paintings) has been widely exhibited, including shows at the University of Cincinnati, Art Academy of Cincinnati, Springfield Museum of Art, Atlanta Art Expo, Art EXPO (NYC), Andrew Vincent Galleries (Australia) and notable solo shows at Miller Gallery and Carnegie Arts Center (Kentucky). 

 But perhaps the most exciting exhibit of his work is the show that will be held at Caza Sikes Gallery. 

“We are thrilled to present the work of Thomas Hieronymus Towhey in his retrospective exhibit ‘Breaking out the Magic Monkey,’ ” said gallery owner Evan Sikes. “Tom is a true artist, one who has been dedicated to his work for the better part of his life. In today’s world, this is truly a rarity and a great accomplishment. The vast amount of work compiled over 40 years by Mr. Towhey displays not only a highly skillful painter, but also an individual with great imagination and humor.”

“It has been a trip going back 40 years to look over the art I created,” Towhey said. “It’s hard to believe I’m this old and have spent my entire life doing one thing.”

Thomas Hieronymus Towhey: “Breaking out the Magic Monkey, a 40 Year Retrospective” 

Feb. 4-April 9. Caza Sikes, 3078 Madison Road, Oakley. 

Opening reception: Feb. 4, 5-9 p.m.

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