In the Studio with Hannah Thomas

In the studio with Hannah Thomas, whose works depict a combination of abstraction and biomorphic shapes stemming from ideas of Absurdism and personal freedom. We met with Hannah to tell us more about growing up in Berkshire, their greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 

When I started painting, back in 2018. I felt that I was doing something artistic when I was a  photographer, but I didn’t really feel like an ‘artist’ proper until I began painting. That  probably has more to do with my own romantic notions of what an artist is than any  practical reasons, but it also came from a strong, steady feeling that I was finally doing what  I should be doing. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your  work? 

I went to school in Berkshire, but I spent the first 10 years of my life going abroad regularly  as a result of my father being a geologist. I have sensory memories of being in South Korea  when I was very little and then Indonesia later on. There were many other places too for  shorter periods. I think the main effect this had was to give me a real sense of rootlessness,  and a taste for new places, for which I am very grateful although it has meant a rather  fractured life. That contributed probably to my permanent sense of being an outsider – although I did feel at home in London always, that city is my spiritual home. 

The work is definitely guided by my outsider sensibility, it is also probably a contributing  factor to the exotic and tropical elements that find their way in to my work, shapes  resembling palm trees, lots of snake-like shapes, the presence of predatory mouths and  backgrounds of partially seen activity – they make me aware of hazy memories of jungles. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then  continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were  on the right track? 

Well, I discovered photography around the age of 20, which led to University and a long  standing love of my camera culminating in my moving to London and pursuing music  photography. These experiences were all an important part of my journey. However, I was  ambitious but also unsure how to steer my career and quite what I wanted out of it.  Circumstances ended up leading me to painting eventually and out of London, and  somehow I was able to focus much more clearly.  

Maybe I was overwhelmed by external stimulation in London and so when that wasn’t there  I had time to look internally, I had recently divorced as well and life was evolving. At that  moment a lot of things seemed to coalesce within me and I felt like I was doing what I was  meant to do finally. 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come  from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

Well, my work is heavily imbued with ideas of Absurdism, which is based on the theory that  humanity always seeks to find meaning and significance in an existence and universe that  doesn’t inherently have any, which is the cause of a lot of their unhappiness and frustration. 

I hope my art conveys a sense of flux and chaos, dark and light, and a healthy dose of the  absurd because I think it’s by far the most liberating philosophy I’ve yet come across. 

Each individual must simply find their own meaningful pursuits and stop proselytizing to  everyone else about what they consider to be important, because, ultimately, none of it’s  that important. Personally, I find that liberating, but I know many wouldn’t. 

Also there is always a personal plea for freedom and autonomy in my work, a desire to  release one’s potency in a world that increasingly restricts and confines. I hope this comes  across strongly.  

I have always had a fear of confinement and formality, I am one of those people that likes to  know where my exits are, so freedom of movement is a necessity for me. That partly comes  too from a life on the move as a child, there is a heightened sense of perspective that comes  from not staying in one place for too long, I always had a fear of my world being small and limited and push myself out of my comfort zone constantly to ensure that I don’t fall prey to  that. 

My aesthetic has changed over the last couple of years, I’m not sure where it fits exactly in  the painting world. It is less strictly abstract now, it has zoomorphic and biomorphic forms  and elements, there is often a kind of alien landscape to the works. I have trouble when  asked to categorise them.

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

Francis Bacon first and foremost. Also HR Giger’s Alien, the films of David Lynch, Basquiat’s  paintings.  

More recently I discovered the work of Adrian Ghenie and went to see his works in  Thaddeus Ropac gallery in London. I find them mesmerising, the style and application of the  paint is wonderful to see, there is an obvious Francis Bacon influence in his work, but in a  completely positive way. They are still very unique. 

An unexpected source of inspiration? 

Well, music is often inspiring in unexpected ways, usually it just fuels a mood, but  sometimes it can actually ignite ideas and imagery out of the blue, something magical can  happen. I was listening to The Nutcracker recently and the Arabian Dance is just so  mysterious and melancholy, it affected the palette, the rhythm of the brushstrokes,  everything.  

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the  audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

Not really, no. I am a firm believer in the artist making the work for themselves and then  sharing it, the audience will respond in their own way. I have no interest in gearing the  work to elicit a particular response, and I don’t make work with political or social agenda’s. 

I hope that my audience will recognise something of their own life or their own ‘id’ in my  work, or at least recognise a particular nuance of feeling or atmosphere that resonates.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your  art evolved? Do you experiment? 

Starting painting as a self-taught artist, completely from scratch, entailed a lot of  experimentation, and that practice has continued to this day. I think it’s critical if an artist is  not to simply endlessly repeat themselves. Most of the elements of my current work were  simply the result of either happy accidents that revealed a particularly pleasing effect; or  trying something new that excited me. Earlier works were more concerned with abstraction  and were often less confrontational, but that gradually evolved into something more  particular to me and my personality I think, finding I wanted to represent definite ideas and  paint in more committed way that has become a distinct, signature style now. But, it will  continue to evolve and I will continue to experiment, there must always be growth and  evolution. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work? 

It’s just random really, there’s no particular set of conditions. The right mood, the right  momentum within a painting series, or with a new set of ideas. The most important thing is  sustained studio time, the first couple of hours are just a warm up, I need to be in there and  pushing it forward for that easy, effortless painting to start coming and then it’s very  exciting.

Something in the future you hope to explore? 

I would like to start working with oil paints when I have a suitable studio space, and perhaps  more mixed media. I have some ideas but for the moment, I need to keep it to simple  acrylics, my studio space is fine but not for anything with extended drying times, storage  issues, strong smells etc. I would hope to be moving into a bigger and more fit for purpose  space by the end of this year, so then I may well look into playing around with other  mediums. 

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art? 

Very important, I always work to a soundtrack. Jazz, Scandinavian Metal, Film Soundtracks,  Classical, a real mix of playlists. 

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received (any quotes or mantras you particularly connect  with)? 

I don’t tend to heed advice much. I like the quote “I realised that most people waste their  lives earning a living, and I wanted to live’ (credited to Soulages)  

I mean, I am passionate about earning a living at my art obviously, but having done many  pointless day jobs to earn my rent over the years, this is a strong truth.

Is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d like to this year? 

I’m quite interested in trying an artist residency, but for the moment I would need it to be a  UK based one and even then it would be a bit of a logistical nightmare, so will probably  leave it till next year.  

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice? 

Autonomy in everything, I am very independent. Then Travel, Movies, Boyfriends, Cats, the  occasional cigarette. 

What is your relationship with social media? 

Begrudging. I’m not a natural at it, I have stopped twisting myself up trying to fit the format  and instead just post now and then something I feel like sharing. If people are interested in  my work, they will follow. Really, it’s a useful tool for work, but otherwise I’m careful not to  spend too much time on there, all that scrolling is so mind numbing.