By Allison Plitt
When one looks at any of Preston Trombly’s mixed-media collages from his “Sonatas” series, one gets the idea the artist had a very frustrating piano lesson, broke apart the piano with a hammer and then decided to put the parts of the instrument back together in an undefinable collection of bits and pieces.
In more professional terms, Trombly, who has a studio and displays his works at Diego Salazar Art Studios & Gallery 21-25 44th Ave. in Long Island City, is actually using a creative process called assemblage which consists of creating multi-dimensional compositions by putting together found objects.
Since Trombly is also an accomplished musician, some of his assemblages are created from parts of instruments such as piano keys and cello strings and he names some of his series of collages based upon music terminology like sonatas and toccatas. Trombly maintains, however, that his mixed-media assemblages titled “Nocturnes” are not influenced by music but by a series of paintings by American-born, British-based artist James McNeill Whistler who coined the term “nocturne painting” to describe works he created with twilight and evening scenes.
As piano keyboards and cello strings cling to his assemblages, the viewer does see the influence of music in Trombly’s life. Nevertheless, Trombly insists that he paints with the intention of making his artwork unrecognizable.
“My series of assemblages titled ‘Sonatas’ and ‘Toccatas’ use parts from an old piano. I paint and otherwise modify them so they become less identifiable as piano parts. I then use the resulting abstract shapes as compositional elements in each piece. This way, a viewer is more likely to become engaged visually with the work as a whole, rather than say ‘Oh, that’s a piano key over there,’” he said.
To truly understand the intricacy of Trombly’s work, one must know more extensively about his musical background. Born in Hartford, Conn., Trombly grew up in a town just east of there called Manchester. When he was younger, he learned to play the cello, saxophone and piano. He earned his bachelors of music with honors from the University of Connecticut and his master of musical arts from Yale University’s School of Music.
“I was pretty involved in the music world,” Trombly said. “In graduate school I spent a summer studying up at the Tanglewood-Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts with Leonard Bernstein and composer George Crumb and that was a pretty illuminating piece of my life.”
Besides being a fellow in composition and conducting at Tanglewood, Trombly received grants to study classical music from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Another notable achievement for Trombly was receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship to compose music in the 1970s. He is one of the youngest people to ever receive one.
During this time he was composing classical music and conducting orchestral concerts all over the United States and Europe, but when he returned to New York City after one of his trips, he became interested in the visual arts for the first time.
“During my Guggenheim Fellowship year, a friend had given me a camera and I got hooked on black and white photography,” Trombly said. “I also got involved in doing my own darkroom work and wanting to emphasize certain parts of a photo by rubbing the image with my hands during the developing process. It was maybe five or six years later that I followed through on my impulse to get my hands involved by learning how to draw and that feeling went all the way back to the camera work in the mid-1970s,” he said. “I also composed music in that year as well and for a while afterwards there was an overlapping period when I was working both in music and the visual arts. After a while my musical work dwindled away as the visual arts took over.”