When Truman Adams was a little boy, he used to sit for hours at the kitchen table, drawing and scribbling in notebooks and coloring books.
His focus was so intense his mother never considered that her otherwise easily distracted son suffered from attention deficit disorder. Instead, she included him on all her arts and crafts projects.
She took him to art fairs. She taught him how to stain and antique wood, how to paint details and properly clean a paintbrush.
She let him explore the quiet desert landscape surrounding their Las Vegas home. And in fifth grade, when Adams painted an image of a Christmas tree in front of a fireplace, she beamed with pride when another parent offered to pay him $50 for the work.
It was the first painting Adams ever sold. He was 10 years old. He bought a pair of Z. Cavaricci pants with the earnings.
“My mom is an artist,” Adams says. “But she never did anything professionally with it. I definitely think she lived a little vicariously through me.”
Adams moved in 1996 to Sarasota to attend the Ringling College of Art and Design, where he majored in illustration and honed his portrait-painting skills. By the time he graduated from college, he was working as a portrait painter and a mural assistant for a faux-finishing company.
He nabbed his first commission at 22. It was of two boys — a 1-year-old and 5-year-old — sitting on a bench in their backyard. The older boy was looking at a leaf while the baby gestured toward the sky.
“Once you can paint a child’s face, you can basically draw anything,” Adams says. “You can paint the world.”
The 32-year-old seems to pull from an endless stream of existential thoughts, referring repeatedly to manifestations, the universe and synchronicities, which could come across as New Age mumbo jumbo, if Adams weren’t so earnest and his portfolio so thick with commissions.
But, in this context, coming from the artist as he sits on his front porch off Ashton Road, smoking Winston cigarettes and drinking Key West beer, it makes sense.
When you work as an artist for 10 years, you have to develop certain life philosophies to keep you going when the work dries up.
The evidence of Adams’ portrait career is everywhere, from the windowless garage studio in his backyard to the binder of portraits that serves as a kind of yearbook of affluent families.
Adams has painted well-known Sarasota philanthropists, doctors, lawyers, boys in pressed white shirts, girls in lace socks and prim dresses, cherubic toddlers and happy babies.
“It’s all about measuring and angles,” Adams says of portrait painting. “It’s very mathematic, yet it’s not.
You have to do it on the spot and do it pretty fast. I also feel you have to do it with love and trust. If not, your ego gets in the way.”
For 14 years he’s painted his daughter, Aurora, a clever teenager who inherited her dad’s creativity. Her latest projects include designing costumes.
“She’s cool and artsy,” Adams says of his daughter. “If she wants to do something, she does it.”
Portrait paintings, however, are a luxury item. Most families would rather frame a good photo than shell out $2,000 for an oil portrait. In an economic downturn, people don’t book portrait commissions.
“I’ve had to expand my hustle,” Adams says. “But it’s not as scary as it seems, going broke. Once it happens, you find the universe still provides for you in some way. I always find work. Even if I go broke, I’m only broke for a day.”
He’s varied his portfolio, taken on freelance illustration assignments, participated in two Sarasota Chalk Festivals and completed several large-scale art commissions, most recently a mural inside the pro shop at the Bobby Jones Golf Club, a glass mosaic for Church of the Redeemer and three large-scale paintings of Hollywood starlets for The Loft, a new nightclub and restaurant on Fruitville Road.
And, then, there’s the tattoo kit he just purchased, which he plans to use on himself first, to ink the Sanskrit expression “Tat Tvam Asi” on his leg.
“It means ‘You are that, that you are,’” Adams says reflecting on the heaviness of three small words, repeating something he said earlier about his childhood. “You know when they give you those tests in high school that tell you what your career path should be? Mine was always art. Always.”
On playing the guitar: “In March, I played at the Noise Ordinance CD release party. I would love to be able to do more with my music.”
On portrait painting: “There’s so much tradition in it. All the old masters have done it. Now it’s up to us to keep it up.”
On painting his daughter: “I’ve painted her every year since she was born. She’s good at posing. She knows where to put her hands, where to look.”
On his first Sarasota Chalk Fest: “I had two days to do a 10-foot street painting. It’s when I realized I can work really large, really fast.”
On painting children: “To get the age right; the softness; to not make the child look older. Children are one of the hardest things to paint.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].