By Jerelyn Craden
If I didn’t know that Bob “Omar” Tunnoch was a two-time Juno award-winning musician and songwriter, a founding member of the Canadian blues band, Fathead, and a visual artist whose paintings can be found in private and corporate collections across North America, I would still have been extremely impressed with his stunning, intriguing, brilliantly crafted, and even humorous art exhibit: THE MUSE, under the thin blue line, at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery (AJG) Minden, on now until Dec. 20.
It was standing room only at Tunnoch’s artist talk on Nov. 5, and he was thrilled. “I met so many interesting people,” he said.
Transcending the walls of the AJG, Tunnoch’s paintings drew me into his strange, fascinating and beautiful world where nature and man meet in the most intriguing and unusual settings. I could hardly wait to ask him: Why are reptiles and amphibians so prominently featured in your work? Which came first, your music or your art? And, why are you called Omar when your name is Bob?
Warm and welcoming Tunnoch began: “When I was in high school, I used to wear those big farmer overalls that were way too big for me, so they used to call me Omar the tent maker, and the name stuck like glue.”
As for featuring exotic creatures in his paintings, “When I was young, I was always catching tadpoles and salamanders. I had frogs and turtles, snakes and lizards. I was breeding chameleons. I love all wildlife.”
Fortunately, Tunnoch’s parents supported his interests and presented him with a pet iguana. “It was in an aquarium and one summer our cleaning lady thought, Oh I should clean the aquarium. So, she takes the top off and, of course, the lizard moved, and scared the living daylights out of her. We had to get her husband to come and get her because she was running down the street screaming.”
Heart-set on becoming a herpetologist, (who studies reptiles and amphibians), Tunnoch sent numerous letters to Canadian universities only to have his dream squelched. Unfortunately, there isn’t a big call for herpetologists in Canada due to the lack of reptiles.
Nevertheless, he continued to draw and research his creatures of interest.
“As a kid, I was into the magazines, Creepy and Eerie, horror art. “The artists were amazing, and I’d always try to emulate them. Bernie Wrightson’s pen and ink work was incredible. Frank Frazetta was great.” And, later on, Salvador Dali became an inspiration.
Music came in his early teens when the Beatles hit the charts in North America. “I first started playing guitar in a band and was told, ‘You stink on guitar, you’re going to play bass.’” He’s been playing bass ever since, drawn to the blues and root music.
After studying painting at Humber College and the Vancouver School of Art, Tunnoch made the rounds to a few Toronto galleries as a complete unknown without personal introduction, and, like so many young budding artists, found the response nothing short of lip service.
“This creative thing is a blessed curse,” he said. “You just feel like you have to create. It takes over. So, it’s either music or art, and you just do it with no real rewards in sight.”
Then came Fathead.
“Music went fairly well for me, but there’s a big joke among musicians that goes, ‘There’s hundreds of dollars to be made in the music business.’”
When asked about the element of hyper-realism in his work, Tunnoch said: “I get sucked into the painting, and I’m gone.” Referring to his painting, Undercover Amazon Horned Frog.
“It’s the first time I ever tried to paint glass. It’s the study of whites and greys and blacks. I was fascinated. It drove me nuts, and I’m already nuts, so I didn’t have to get any nuttier.”
Yes, he is a funny person who brings humour to much of his work (paintings and songs). In this same piece, which features wine glasses with frogs in the foreground, Tunnoch’s description reads, “The Amazon horned frog is an ambush predator. It sits patiently and waits for unsuspecting prey to wander by and then eats them. In this painting, the horned frog sits among a group of ceramic frogs thinking he’s unnoticeable, waiting for an unsuspecting victim.”
Tunnoch’s favorite painting in The Muse exhibit is In Session – Carnivorous Plant Choir. Around a microphone are five exotic open-throated plants. “I like the idea of it. I like the oddities of the animal world. I just like to make people aware of what’s out there,” he said. “Sometimes people ask, “How did you make that thing (creature) up?’ And I say, ‘I didn’t. It actually exists,’ which opens up a conversation, and usually people are flabbergasted by the life history of these things and how they interact.”
There is a stunning luminous quality to the wallpaper that Tunnoch paints in several of his pieces, the likes of which I had never seen before. “How in the world did you do that?” I asked. He joked: “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.” Actually, he did tell me, and I’m still here to tell you that he generously explained it to me, and out of respect, I choose to keep his unique process a secret.
What I will tell you is this – the process has a myriad of steps and layers and requires an inordinate amount of time, patience and experimentation. But when Tunnoch is in his artistic “zone,” eight hours becomes a mere blip.
Asked about his favourite self-penned song, Tunnoch said, “Just another day. It’s about how fragile life is. A friend had passed away and I thought about things that are so precious in life, like family and friends, and trying to make every day special.”
The lyric begins, “A willow weeped for water on a hot dry day. A shadow in the valley trying to find its way. The silence in the distance so hard to hear. What can you do? It’s just another day.”
Today, Tunnoch makes each day special, living with his wife in a log cabin on ten acres in rural Malone, Ontario.
To see more of Tunnoch’s artwork and for contact information visit www.bobomartunnoch.com
AJG is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.mindenhills.ca/en/things-to-do/agnes-jamieson-gallery.aspx