Psychological Realism, Humm Magazine

Humm Magazine reviews Tompalski’s Paintings, Sally Hansen 2005

Ottawa’s Humm Magazine reviews Tompalski’s Private Moments, Talking Portraits and Body Language Paintings in a piece by Sally Hansen, December 2005.


Sherry Tompalski describes her painting style as “Psychological Realism — an attempt to capture the psychological experience of another person in paint on canvas.” Looking at her Private Moments series of 16 portraits done in vivid oils, I experience a strong visceral reaction to the emotional power of her faces. The canvases are large and the faces dominating them play havoc with my preconceptions of what people look like. They command attention and evoke response.


Mutual Realities

In this series, Tompalski explores the question “Is there such a thing as a private moment?” As a practising psychiatrist, Sherry is acutely aware of how we co-construct our reality. Unlike Freud who believed that the therapist should be a neutral figure, she knows that people construct a mutual reality. When we are with someone, the other person affects how we behave. Are you the same person with your buddies as you are with your mother-in-law? Even when we are alone, we are influenced by what others would think of us if they knew what we were thinking or doing.


Tompalski’s use of “ironic colour” is one reason her portraits have such a powerful and disconcerting effect. By choosing colours that are in opposition to the manifest meaning of the painting, she stresses the complexity and ambiguity of human emotions and interactions. For example, in three self-portraits, she paints an expression of obvious mistrust using warm red and brown tones, and uses disturbing blue/lavender/grey tones for two happier, more relaxed expressions. The incongruities trigger a deeper consideration of the intended meaning of the conflicting messages.


Art Imitates Psychiatry

Tompalski credits her medical training with enriching her art and giving her the self-confidence to paint and exhibit her work. Her biography is fascinating reading. In 1973 she studied Fine Arts in Sculpture from the University of Saskatchewan. Her first love was Theatre, but she lacked the confidence to thrive in that extremely competitive program. In 1986 she received her Doctor of Medicine degree at UBC, where she met her husband, new media artist Graham Thompson. After further studies at the University of Ottawa she became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in Psychiatry in 1991.


In 1995 she took a painting class at the Ottawa School of Art, and it was the thin edge of the wedge. She started taking Friday afternoons off to attend art classes, met some very supportive women who encouraged her, and had her first show with the “Group of Five” a year later. She did further studies in art and art history at The Santa Fe International Art Academy of New Mexico and The Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Now she is painting five days a week, and practicing psychotherapy from her downtown Ottawa office two days a week. Her paintings have been exhibited or featured in print, art mail and on film in 16 different venues in 2005 alone, in settings from NYC to Frankfurt to Argentina, Malaysia, the Philippines, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.


As a therapist, Dr. Tompalski is trained to be attentive to clues about what is going on at the subconscious level, and her figurative paintings offer penetrating glimpses beneath the surface demeanours of the faces she paints. She quotes renowned psychiatrist Daniel Stern’s claim that “90% of what goes on between people is unconscious.”

Talking Portraits

In collaboration with her husband, Sherry has taken her interest in the largely unconscious “dialogue” that takes place between an artist and her model (or a therapist and her patient) a step further. Together they have created Talking Portraits — an installation that includes the use of audio samples and time-lapse photography from the actual portrait sittings by fellow psychiatrists and artists for Private Moments. Tompalski strives to be completely open to her models, and the audio and video tapes are a record of the interactions with them that influenced their portraits. In her words, “The installation illustrates the concept of co-construction: the reciprocal, mutual influence between an artist and a model that is interactive, bi-directional, and largely unconscious.” The installation was exhibited throughout November at the Steam Whistle Gallery in Toronto.


Another series I found particularly compelling is her Passenger Series. The three paintings consider the choices one can make in traveling through life, balancing conflicting needs for predictability and spontaneity. Sherry expresses this dilemma through her use of colour and by changing the way in which she positions the Passenger figure in relation to a frame. It is clear that her art is strongly aligned with her study and practise of psychiatry.

Violating Expectancies

Tompalski’s fascination with nonverbal communication is brilliantly evident in her current Body Language series, where she depicts the multiple “voices” emanating from male and female figures. When I comment on her originality, she credits psychiatrist Frank Lachmann with this wonderful definition: “Creativity is a violation of expectancies.”


theHumm Backgrounder

In a nutshell, theHumm’s mandate is to “foster a positive and dynamic vision of the communities we serve by promoting the local arts & entertainment scenes and providing a forum for opinions and ideas.“


We actually wrote that back in 2000, when we mapped out our business plan (with the help of Business Plans for Dummies — no kidding). At the same time we wrote the following objectives, which are just as relevant today:

  • to promote and increase awareness of local entertainment, artistic cultural and community events, both within and without the area we cover;
  • to connect artists, performers, venues, organizations, patrons & audiences;
  • to appeal to both residents and visitors;
  • to provide a comprehensive calendar of events as a single source for monthly happenings;
  • to encourage readers to shop, dine, and be entertained locally, and to actively participate in local organizations and events; and finally,
  • to provide a forum for alternative-to-mainstream opinions and ideas!