Out artist Dr. Tony LaSalle
by Shawn Walker
Dr. Tony LaSalle paints personal and reflective pieces that reach out, touch you, and ultimately teach you something about yourself.
“Go on, touch the acrylic,” LaSalle says to a group of potential clients perusing his Asbury Park gallery. “When you feel the texture, you can enjoy it.”
What I’m most struck by, as I sit down to learn more about the prolific Pennsylvania-born artist, is how effortlessly effervescent he is. There is a hand-written sign on the door that says: “Open. Pets + Ice Cream: OK.”
As we set up for our interview, a woman walks past the door with an enormous Great Dane. “Come on in,” Tony motions with his hands. In a feat that would make most gallery owners gasp, the gigantic dog makes his way into the middle of the space, surrounded by open cans of paint and colorful floral prints.
LaSalle’s soothing energy enchants the dog, as it does with everyone he comes in contact with, and the pup patiently watches the artist at work.
Tony is in the middle of tweaking a new black-and-white abstract piece (he tells me he paints 3 or 4 pieces at a time to avoid the plague of perfectionism), and continues to make conversation with customers, all the while jostling paintings around to see what they look like from a different perspective.
“I like that one in the frame, but it doesn’t have to be in the frame,” he says to a couple purchasing a pair of his popular sunflower paintings. Throughout our hour-long interview, there’s one thing that becomes clear. LaSalle is ready to reinvent himself. He might just have to break all the rules to do it.
How does your doctorate and background in education inform your work?
Tony LaSalle: My doctorate from Temple University is in education—specifically in teaching and learning. That is exactly what I’m doing when I’m creating art. Teaching and learning. People come in, and I learn from them. Or maybe I teach them something. Just like with life, it’s all a cycle.
Where does your inspiration come from?
TL: When you make art, you are making from something impressionistic. Our journey is to allow ourselves to explore those impressions, but it can be painful. My parents were Italian immigrants, and there was immense pressure to fit in. My mom had two sisters. The three sisters would meet for coffee, three times a day, and coordinate their outfits. They all fit inside their little boxes. They all followed the rules.
I was different. I found comfort in flea markets. They were eclectic, creative places to be. I still can’t stand regular stores where everything is organized and color-coded.
Why do you paint sunflowers?
TL: When I was younger, I never traveled. I was a closeted gay boy who grew up in Bristol, Penn. My big adventure was going out to New Hope on the weekends. I never left Penn., until one day I traveled to the South of France. I was driving in a car along the countryside. We turned around a bend, and I saw the most beautiful fields of sunflowers that absolutely took my breath away. I couldn’t believe all of the open space. The freedom. The yellow sunflowers facing me. It was breathtaking.
Why the recent focus on abstract?
TL: So I had my studio in Lambertville and I sold a lot of paintings. Flowers were always safe to paint. The motions were familiar. But at a certain point, I felt like a flower factory, and I wasn’t happy. I leaned into how I felt and opened the gallery in Asbury [Park] to explore abstraction. I was used to the strokes of the sunflowers, and wanted to explore different motions. Abstraction opened me up to change.
What’s the most challenging part about being an artist?
TL: The need to constantly grow and change. When I was a kid, I got the feeling that I wasn’t good enough, so I always have to change. I’m constantly reinventing myself. You can’t stagnate as an artist. Your work should evolve with you. That’s the hardest part of life though. Facing the challenges of being creative. Stepping outside of the box. Breaking the rules. It can be uncomfortable to break the rules.
What’s the most rewarding part?
TL: The most rewarding part is interacting with people. Getting their comments and feedback. Talking about the art. For me, the piece isn’t finished until it’s engaged with. The art comes alive when I talk to people, because of their feelings.
What role does your art play in the LGBTQ community?
TL: Art belongs to everyone. Creativity comes from suppression, whether we know we’re being suppressed or not. As gay people, we’ve always had to live outside the rules. We couldn’t conform, even if we wanted to. Channeling that non-conformity becomes art. Your whole life becomes art—the way you take on risks and challenges. Art allows for a bigger box. It opens up the walls and the windows. It gives you more options to be yourself.
What advice do you have for future artists?
TL: It’s all about learning who you are and appreciating who you are. Tell that story. Let it out. Artists have to let it out. You evolve from the inside out. It’s all about the core. You feed the core and the core feeds you. You have to give yourself permission to acknowledge your feelings. You can’t make it or force it, but you can allow it. Also, you have to move. You can’t paint six-foot canvases without moving. You need to jump and to spread your wings, but I think most people are afraid to fly.
Dr. Tony LaSalle’s work has been exhibited in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, as well as in Paris, Tokyo, Taipei, and Lebanon. Dr. LaSalle is also a professor at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Penn. He maintains a studio in Lambertville, NJ, and LaSalle Gallery at 619 Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park, NJ.