By Anna Merlan
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Tom Birkner (painter) and Claire Tondreau (advertising account executive)
Income about $200,000 (1998)
Health Insurance $40/mo. (partially covered by employer)
Nobody in a Tom Birkner painting has any money.
There are kids in bad cars, men with fat arms in T-shirts. They all look like they want to spend the day having sex in the back of some building behind a scrap heap. Sometimes a gas station is involved.
"I come from a long line of coal miners and factory workers who have some janitorial experience as well," Tom Birkner, 33, says, sitting in his wife's midtown advertising office that has a view of almost everything in New York. "I'm from Rahway, New Jersey, best known for the Rahway prison. I grew up in a house that looked like the kind in a kindergarten picturelittle smoke coming out of a chimney, a door, two windows.
"I didn't go to college until I was 23. I had a lot of jobs. Scholarships came almost as accidents. I didn't have the institutional savvy to know how to apply. My family was not exactly part of the higher-education circuit. When I got into Rutgers, I was eligible for a federal grant that paid for everything because my income level was so low." Birkner says he has been supporting himself by selling his paintings since college 10 years ago. "A 36-by-36-inch painting, then $700, is $2500 today."
When it was time to go to graduate school, he was accepted at Yale, which is politically a wonderful place for artists to graduate from. But "I had a choice between going to a school where I could come out $45,000 in debt or a school that was willing to pay for everything, give me money in addition, and let me study with a painter who could empathize with what I do." He got his M.F.A. from Penn State.
In 1991, he went to see Backdraft at a movie theater in New Jersey and met Claire Tondreau, then a marketing director at a company in Pennington, New Jersey, that dealt in Hummel figurines. "GIs brought them home from Germany in the '50s," she says. Anyway, "Tom was 24. I was 33. It was summer. He was sort of like a cat. I fed him and then he never left."
They got married in 1995. They live in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Tondreau, who is from a Catholic doctor's family of five in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, is now executive vice president at Ammirati Puris Lintas and the account person on Unilever productsSnuggle, Wishbone salad dressing. "I went through college in three years," she says. "I really wanted to work. In one class someone was talking about the evils of advertising. It sounded great, all that hucksterism. But I'm not motivated by money. Though Tom thinks that's why I chose advertising."
"I'm not accusing you of selling your soul," he says. "But how could you not expect to make money in that business?"
"I was 21, what did I know. I started as a receptionist at $10,000 a year." Anyway, "Money can't buy what we want," she says. "We're both yearning for Tom's career to take off." That would mean "being recognized as the century's best realist painter," he says. Though he adds, "Nobody in their right mind would decide to be a realist painter in New York. The art scene is dominated with alternative media and radical academicism."
He has a show currently at a gallery called dfnDowntown Financial Network. The gallery's owner is also a financial adviser who has helped Birkner and Tondreau invest in the marketthough Birkner says he is a whiz himself and does much of his own stock buying by phone. "When the market took a plunge last September, I was rabid to get money in there," he says. "We invested about $50,000." Tondreau says, "He turned it into $150,000."