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Tools for Discovery: Tom Loeser

When he's not in the studio woodworking, WID collaborator and Art Professor Tom Loeser uses digital and collaborative tools to fuel new connections and ideas.

The Stoop Project by Bird Ross and Tom Loeser. Madison, WI

Pictured above: Tom Loeser (third from left) showcases the large, wooden seating structures he crafted in his studio.

Tools for Discovery is a monthly profile series that inspects the computer programs, gadgets and methods behind WID’s ideas and discoveries.

Tom Loeser is a professor of art, chair of the UW–Madison Art Department and WID collaborator.

What do you work on at WID?

Tom Loeser by Tom Loeser

Tom Loeser

As Chair of the Art Department, my interest and goal is to build lateral networks through any means possible to develop connections between our department and WID. This happens through individuals engaging and cultivating relationships. My role is to facilitate. For the 24 years I’ve been on campus, I’ve heard much talk about finding ways to integrate the arts across campus units, but WID is the first entity that has made it a rewarding and positively charged and fun process, by being willing to try all sorts of things and seeing what “sticks.”  We are still just dipping toes, and I’m guessing that we don’t have any idea yet what is going to produce surprising and worthwhile results.

What are your tools for analysis?

My own creative practice is as a woodworker, primarily a furniture maker. If you came to my “lab” on Madison’s East Side next to Sector 67, you would be in a full-blown woodshop. Lots of sawdust. I have power tools that are indispensable and help move things quickly, but the hand tools are the ones that usually prove the most rewarding. I have an eccentric collection that I have gathered from yard sales and international travel. I love trying to piece together what might be valuable from the various woodworking traditions that exist around the world and collecting the hand tools associated with that tradition and then trying to learn what they can do. Working with a tool that you have gotten really skilled at using is one way to get at new ways of solving old problems. Once you get really good at manipulating a tool, or using a certain joint or other woodworking skill, then you can start to break the rules. Most of the time it works out that you learn why the rule was smart and why your new idea is not so smart, but the better your understanding of tool, material and structure, the more likely that every once in a while you will be able to make it work and that is when I can get that stay-up-all-night kind of excitement that makes my studio practice worthwhile.

“Working with a tool that you have gotten really skilled at using is one way to get at new ways of solving old problems.”

– Tom Loeser

Tools for writing?

My dad was a relentlessly rational lawyer. His late night, and usually unwanted, editing sessions on my grade school homework have proven to be the most valuable additions to my writing toolkit. On the more mundane side, my kids describe my handwriting as looking like an ant with dirty feet was walking around on the paper. I blame this deficiency on an overly progressive 1960s elementary school education. My laptop helps to hide my deficient handwriting. I outsource a large part of what I’m supposed to remember to Evernote and use it constantly as a location to brainstorm. iPhoto is not a writing tool at all, but I think visually and I am in and out of iPhoto all day long. I have 49,000 images in the program that are fairly well ordered and systematized. I use it as an idea archive and a location to organize and cultivate different strands that might come together on future projects.

Book Cart at Kohler Art Library

Loeser’s favorite book cart at Kohler Art Library

Tools for collaboration?

The critique process is so embedded in how we talk and teach about art that we underappreciate and forget how unique it is within our educational and research models. When we get it right, critique involves rigorous group analysis of on object/image/video/performance, so as to tease out constructive conceptual and aesthetic information. The ability to translate visual information and bring it to bear on other questions is the happy result of good visual arts training. This is the territory where the arts are going to bring new and useful filters, language and perspective for collaboration.

Your ultimate tool for discovery?

My vice is the rolling cart in the Kohler Art Library where they put out the newly purchased books each week. It makes me look at things I otherwise wouldn’t. Don’t bother locating the cart, I’ve already got all the good books.


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