Art Republic sat down with Tom Lewis to discuss what he is influenced by, how his love of art grew as a child, and he talks us through his creative process.
AR: Your work is a massive blend of influences from mythology to oriental design to street art. So where do you take this inspiration from? Can you explain these influences a little bit more to us?
Tom: A long time ago I started being interested in automatic writing and subconscious mark making, and I did a lot of that when I was at university. I also invented an ancient philosopher and a set of rules by which he lived by and I was his modern-day pupil, tasked with using those rules to extract ‘truth’ from the world around me. I’m fascinated by the 'making your own meaning out of anything' discourse - choosing and inventing your own material. I was also always drawn to Chinese and Japanese neon signs. I'm not entirely sure what that allure was; it's like there was some kind of hidden magic in symbols you don't understand that forces your brain to start inventing meaning.
I started using this to try and suggest more than there perhaps was in a picture. I was into the idea of taking absolute nonsense and giving it the feel of something real that had history and depth and was worth investigating. I wanted to see how far I could push that, and whether I could make people feel something; whether I could in fact hijack the meaning making process itself. With my little pink figures called the Mysterious Burobbu I wanted to give them an almost religious feel. This ultimately led to an interest in what it means to be human and how we interpret the world on a wider scale. I think a human might just be a jumble of constantly competing stories and I like to play amongst them.
AR: Are your stories abstract concepts? Or does each piece hold their own narrative?
Tom: They are chunks from non-existent stories. I used to paint stills from animations that didn't exist. I like trying to make people want for these films to exist, and to lure them in. I had a weird moment in the studio a couple of years ago, where I had a moment of insight. It felt like I had taken mushrooms and lasted for about an hour and a half. At some point during this my interest stopped being about the stories occurring in the little pictures and became more about the overarching idea of what a story is. Sort of like a meta story. The idea of a hero instead of what a specific character is doing. Then I realised this character I had created Megan hadn't got an actual narrative, she just ‘was’. I will just admit here that I find this quite tricky to describe without sounding like a prick. But, it revealed why I've always been hesitant to tell the long story. I like to keep things open. I wanted to write or paint something that doesn't tell a story, just provides an invisible framework for you to hang yours on.
AR: You describe your works as having “beautiful nonsensical meaning” - can you explain what you mean by this a little bit more?
Tom: I’m fascinated by the idea of meaning. What is it? How does it come into being? Why do you feel it with some things and not others? What makes one thing feel like it is rich in meaning, and another utterly devoid of it? When I was at university, I was trying to paint pictures that I thought were beautiful and was getting shut down all the time. I found it really frustrating, although naively tried to sidestep it rather than lean into the discussion. I wasn't allowed to just explore pure aesthetics, each piece had to have a deeper meaning. It made me want to break the meaning-making process into bits and rearrange them, to maybe either try to trick someone into feeling like something had value, or to shine a light on how odd the whole thing is.
It has taken me 20 years to get to a point where I even vaguely feel comfortable talking about it. I came up with the phrase "beautiful nonsensical meaning" in a desperate attempt to try and simplify all of this, whilst writing a bio for something about 20 years ago. Feels like it still makes some sort of sense though.
AR: You have such a unique style, where did that originate from?
Tom: My first love is painting. I’ve always been a huge fan of abstract expressionism and painters like Cy Twombly. I’ve also always been into computer games and digitally creating work. I had a program for the Amiga when I was about 11 called Delux Paint that I was obsessed with. It felt almost unbelievable to be able to make an image out of pixels. Computer graphics were still fairly new and it all felt thrillingly cutting edge! Ha, I’m not even that old I promise! At some point after University I got a job in an art shop to fund my painting habit. Whilst I was in the shop I mostly just sat at the desk doodling. It was lovely.
Another artist that worked there at the time called James Vinciguerra suggested that I stick one of the doodled characters on the landscape painting. This turned out to be rather good advice! I then entered that work into a local art competition and from there I got chatting to some publishers who said they’d like to give it a go. This tied together my favourite way of making pictures, traditionally painted backdrops with digitally created elements on top and that mixture has probably become my sort of signature style. That and pink. I appear to be quite a fan of pink.
AR: When did you first realise you wanted to become an artist?
Tom: I can pinpoint it exactly to a family holiday in America when I was about eight. We went to an artist's studio for some reason. I think his name was Neil Brown but I’ve never been able to find him online. He was an Abstract Expressionist who painted massive canvases and whilst there my mum was almost in tears. Her emotional response was so strong that it made me want to be able to do the same thing. Ha - I don’t mean all I wanted to do was make my mum cry. There was something powerful going on that I didn’t understand, but wanted to. He also had his own free coke vending machine in his studio. My mind was blown. From then on, all I wanted to be was a painter.
AR: Can you talk me through your creative process a bit more? How do your ideas develop or begin? Are you the type of artist that has the little black book that's constantly jotting down ideas, or is it more methodical?
Tom: I always think I'm that kind of artist and then I always buy little notebooks and draw one thing and never come back to it again! To be honest I don't really know how my creative process works. I wish I did and I've been trying to explore that for a couple of years. I always set regimes for myself and never stick to them. Then I go the other way and think, "right, I'll just play computer games for four months, and see if my brain vomits something up during that".
I suppose I get interested in an idea, or a combination of ideas, and it sort of sits in the back of my mind until I get the urge to make something. Sometimes it’s a bit like doing exercise after a long break - I really want to sketch, but I also sort of fear it because I know at first it’s going to be creatively painful. I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s true! Once I can convince myself to start (throwing my phone across the room often helps) it tends to build momentum and ideas start to generate other ideas but I have to be careful not to overthink why I’m doing what I’m doing. I'm currently in a "not sketching" phase…
AR: When you say you're in a "not sketching" phase, does that mean that you're just not creating whatsoever?
Tom: At the moment I’m all over the place! Because I mostly work independently and sell direct (Art Republic are one of only a handful of galleries I work with), I find myself having to switch between creating mode and selling mode. Lockdown seemed to mean a lot of people were putting prints up in their homes which has been absolutely wonderful, but also that this particular selling phase has gone on for longer than I imagined it would! I’m looking forward to moving my studio to the countryside in the next few weeks, and getting stuck into an equally long creative phase.
AR: How important are joy and humour in your work? What is the lasting impression that you want to leave on viewers of your work as they turn away from your paintings?
Tom: I started off by selling my own work at market stalls and one of the loveliest things that used to happen was when you watched someone walk towards your stall, slowly breaking into a smile, and then just stand and take everything in. This, almost always, led to an interesting conversation. I’ve realised recently that the reason I loved doing market stalls was talking to people, and humour just opens that door. I’m not sure my work is trying to be funny any more. I think as I’ve developed my understanding about why I paint it’s evolved into something more interested in hope and facing challenges and maybe bravery? Humour permeates everything though. I don’t know how you would do anything without it.
AR: I like an artwork that makes me laugh. It puts you at ease, doesn't it?
Tom: Yes! And you can’t avoid it. I can happily not think about something intense and difficult to understand, but if it makes me laugh it’s out of my control. I have laughed at things in some of the most inappropriate places you can imagine.
AR: Is there any particular artwork or artists that has changed the way you view creative expression?
Tom: I saw an Anthony Gormley exhibition at the Hayward at some point when I was a teenager and I didn't know what to expect. Standing at a doorway and seeing this sprawling field of these little figures looking up at me really blew me away. I’d never felt like that before in a gallery. I mentioned him already but Cy Twombly is one of my favourite painters. Massive paintings that just make you think ‘oomph’, and want to make you do something more than just stand and look at it, but I don’t know what that something is.
AR: Obviously the pandemic and lockdowns disrupted the routine of many artists, so how did your routine alter? What does a typical day look like for you now?
Tom: My studio is separate from my house, and I’m the only one here, so I was luckily able to cycle there throughout. Everyone seemed to start adding to their print collections though, so for the last couple of years I’ve been more of a printing factory than a painting studio. I am looking forward to the studio move, and starting a new creative regime. Ask me again in six months!
AR: How do you see your art developing in the future? Or do you feel like you found your niche now?
Tom: I hope not. For most of my artistic career I've had a distant vision of what I want to create, that’s always been tantalisingly out of reach. But interesting things happen along the way. That vision got a bit lost during lockdown, as I had just started to dream of big immersive installations. I’ll have to see what emerges after I restart my creative engines.
AR: If you could give one tip or piece of knowledge, essentially to new art collectors, what would it be?
Tom: This is going to sound pretentious, but ask yourself why you like it? The answer is more valuable than the art. I would also say an awful lot of art is made from a deeply cynical commercial starting point. So explore! It can be hard to get out beyond it, into the strange half-light where independent artists scurry around in the dark, but once you catch one it’s all weird, delicious and interesting ideas.
AR: Final question. What's next for you?
Tom: Fresh air and being able to see the stars. Then we shall see…
To discover more about Tom’s work and get inspired by his magical prints, visit his artist collection page here.