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In the Studio with Taylor Thomas

American artist Taylor Thomas explores the use of gestural paintings to manifest her daily experiences and ways of seeing. We met with Taylor to talk a little bit about her artistic practice, influences, and how she began her journey.

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

From my youngest memories I know I have always seen myself as someone who makes things. When I was a kid everything I did revolved around making – be it  drawings, making signs for lemonade stands, ordering our silverware drawer, or making up dance routines to my favourite Spice Girls songs. Being a creator is part of my nature. That said, referring to myself as an artist didn’t happen until I really considered the responsibility of what that word means to me. I started calling myself an artist after I graduated college, when it became more than an inherent aspect of my makeup and instead an active choice around which I started to base my life and identity. Choosing that definition for myself in my early 20s wasn’t necessarily about naming who I knew myself to be already. If anything, calling myself an artist was about committing to a role I wanted to live into and the growth, challenges, and goals that would inevitably come along with it.

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

I was born in Birmingham, AL, but I grew up in Nashville, TN, and consider it my home. I come from a pretty traditional, middle-class family; my norm looked like Catholic schooling, endless extracurricular activities, and a relatively sheltered mindset that left me largely focused on getting straight-A’s and performing my best. My childhood was filled with opportunities and a lot of sacrifices on my parents’ behalf, and I credit much of my determination in pursuing my art career to the encouragement I was given to ‘go after my dreams’ as a kid. 

That said, I also see my upbringing as one that was marked by my self-inflicted pressures to live up to societal structures and the expectations in which I found myself situated. For a long time, painting was just another medium by which I could demonstrate control – striving for symmetry, adequate renderings, and an ability to follow steps to get to a resolved image. My turn to abstraction was the moment that I went from making art, to adopting a practice that meant something to me, and that challenged me to grow as a person. Painting ultimately became (and remains) a way for me to tamper with the rigidity and perfectionism that I had long held as ideals. To this day, my studio is the one place I am able to forget about time and tasks. Had I not grown up as I did, I likely wouldn’t be so insistent upon examining the intuitive, the relationship between the mind and body, and the many unknowns that the process of painting poses.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

I always took art lessons in grade school and high school, but it wasn’t until my second year of college that I focused my education on the arts. After taking a step away from my initial decision to get a pre-medical degree, I switched my college major to Studio Art and filled my schedule with anything creative that I could: art history, drawing, sculpture, lithography, poetry, creative writing, you name it. After graduating with my Bachelor of Arts in 2012, I worked a myriad of jobs within the art community – artist assistant, gallery assistant, arts program coordinator, art instructor– but none of them quenched my need to create. I quickly made the transition to being self-employed and painting full-time, and I haven’t stopped since. It was vital for me to take some time after college to work, to just be in the world, and get a sense of what it could look like and the effort it would take to paint full time. After working with a few galleries and doing a residency or two, I decided in 2016 to jump back into school and earn my MFA. I am so grateful I had three years to invest in my practice and to meet such fantastic artists and mentors in the process. My artistic journey has woven in and out of a lot of phases and supportive outlets thus far, and I’d say it’s been equal parts self-propelled as well as supported by invaluable instructors, employers, and peers along the way. 

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose?

My work allows me to question what it means, feels like, and entails to live fully into the body, engaging and understanding the world around me by way of the physical. This inevitably and directly relates to how deeply I can perceive and digest my daily experiences. Even as an artist who may use her hands more so than the average professional, I still spend such a large amount of time behind a screen (emailing, posting, messaging, scrolling, texting, searching, editing, browsing). And I find myself easily entranced in a half-hearted, mindless repetition of looking but not wholly seeing. That said, my work is the outlet by which I can re-posture myself into learning through moving and touching. 

I believe in the essential interconnection between one’s physical being and one’s mental processing, and I aim to bring forth an awareness of that through my paintings – both for myself and others. I learn about my hesitations, my fears, my pride, and my fixations when I direct attention to how I resolve problems of paint against a surface. Spatial relationships, gestural acts, and colour interactions are all a result of moments where intuition co-mingles with intention. At the end of each painting I make, I often get a sense of what it represents and says to and about me, but I also conceive of it as a site for others to view the work through the lens of their own backstories of actions and reactions. The canvases serve as an embodiment of being – my being, their being, and being present with one other through a surface.

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic?

I’ve always been drawn to German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Colour Field painting, and learning about those movements initially played a role in how I first thought about abstraction and constructing paintings. I am a sucker for textural variation in a work and I love when the placement of two colours can cause my eyes to vibrate. In the past couple years, a term I’ve mulled over in regard to aesthetics is ‘awkwardness.’ Amy Sillman wrote a piece called ‘Shit Happens: Notes on Awkwardness’ in Frieze magazine back in 2015 and I love how she described the visual notion of an awkward painting. Since then, I’ve noticed just how drawn I am to images with qualities that hang in the odd space between refined and awry, upright and slanted, playful and serious, deliberate and sensitive.

Who and what are your greatest influences?

When I think of questions like this one, I typically see images of artworks by powerhouse painters (past and present) flash across my mind – Joan Mitchell, Milton Avery, Charline von Heyl, Cecily Brown, Ed Clark, Karel Appel, both Elaine and Willem de Kooning, to name a few. But even more so than individual artists’ works, a large influence on my practice has been my understanding of the history of art, how a movement’s trends and value systems would gradually become replaced or expanded upon by a new generation of artists and thinkers. Having this grounding of the artworks that have come before me has really made me think about where my own work stems from and with what or whom it may be in conversation with now. On the other hand, as much as my current practice is inspired by dipping into the past (especially from a conceptual standpoint), my daily interactions with my environment direct much of my works’ imagery. Florida’s quirky palettes, the broken tiles I pass while biking to my studio, the sand particles that rub away the sheen of our floors, or the concrete legs that allow bridges to hover over the ocean – all of these forms and visual records weave their way into my painting process.

Joan Mitchell, Bracket, 1989

Are your works planned? 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?

I never know how a work is going to turn out before I’m knee deep into it – even then, it’s sometimes a mystery. I spend a lot of time considering the overall gesture of a painting, and I do many digital drawings to experiment with the movement I want to convey in a piece or the potential colour interactions I want to create. I hold those plans loosely, however, with the knowledge that once the painting begins, there must be space for intuitive action and decision to come into play. I want people to engage with a work, far away and up close, to the extent that they start to question and envision the body and motions behind it. With this in mind, I find that too much planning can suck the life out of a painting and leave an image too resolved or posed to approach with inquiry. I think less about the audience as I’m making and more about whether I’m feeling forced or fluid in my painting actions – if the former, I need to shift directions and shake myself out of my own control. 

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work?

There are so many benchmark moments that have propelled my work forward and affected my practice, on both small and large scales. All of them revolve around other individuals and the significance of relationships. I think about my graduate school friends and professors, and how they allowed my schooling to be a time for me to push beyond my comfort zone and form my own voice. I think about my husband and the ways our marriage has drastically changed my relationship to painting – his resilience is contagious and has caused me to return to my work even when I have doubted it. I think about artists whom I’ve gotten to meet during my travels and our dialogues over the state of painting today and the various approaches to navigating the contemporary art world. 

I definitely don’t stick to one medium, and I absolutely rely on experimentation to keep my practice playful and interesting (for myself). I am devoted to discovery as much as I am to self-expression, and mixing up my materials – from pastels, acrylic, and paper, to oil paint, oil stick, and crayons– allows me to uncover more textures, marks, colour interactions, and byproducts than I would have access to otherwise. There are certain parameters that I inherently lock in as constants for my practice, like the obvious confines of the canvas, the use of non-objective language, or my arrangement of painterly (rather than illusionistic or logical) space. Establishing these and other limitations, I find, provides a foundation on which I can build an image and push boundaries elsewhere.

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

Music that makes me swoon, emails on silent, the willingness to get to a “bad” piece of work before I get to a “good” piece of work, physical energy (because painting often feels like a workout to me), mental awareness of the shapes and lines that I pass while I’m in transit, material accumulation (papers, scraps, textured tools) to pull from and manipulate, enough floor space for multiple canvases to develop at once, patience to mix colors, speed to manifest gestures, and a sense of trust in my muscle memory. 

What are your goals for the future?

A big focus of mine over these difficult months has been collaborating with other artists, galleries, and platforms that are instigating positive change. So far, I have gotten to help raise money for frontline workers, Black Lives Matter organizations, and fellow artists’ practices, and my goal is to continue making space and time for these important efforts moving forward. I am also excited to start conceiving of a new body of work that will be exhibited overseas next year. I’ll be having my first duo exhibition at a gallery in Sydney, Australia, and I can’t wait to develop paintings to fill the space.

How has your art practice been affected by self-isolation?

I’m an artist who doesn’t easily thrive off of moments of anxiety or distress, though I have come to appreciate the fruitful repercussions that can come of working through such periods. Painting, for me, is most accessible and abundant when I can imbue my practice with a sense of hope, potential, and discovery. As one may imagine, COVID-19 hasn’t readily created an environment in which positive mantras are easy to embrace. But, when walking into my studio over the past few months, I have been grateful for the way this time has forced me to reevaluate my role as an artist. I have questioned the value of my work during this phase of unrest. I have attempted to lean into the uncertainty and inject it into the works that I make. More than anything, being alone has only made me more grateful that I can still be surrounded by my materials and somehow make meaning on days where I’m tempted to believe it’s meaningless. Though the experience hasn’t been without its struggles, my self-isolation has provided silver-lining effects that I want to preserve.

Are you creating new work while social distancing?

Yes, I have been lucky to have access to my studio while social distancing and it has been the one “safe” place apart from my home that I’ve been able to frequent. Right now, I’m thinking less about a cohesive series of works and more about showing up without a limitation placed on the sizes, surface types, and approaches I’m utilising. There are a lot of things in process, from prints and medium-sized drawings to quick, small paintings and larger scale works that take months at a time. Amid their independent qualities, the paintings start to speak to one another either subtly or overtly over as they develop. 

How are you staying creative?

Apart from being in my studio, I have been creating many line drawings throughout 2020 as well as deepening my yoga practice, which I actually find is quite relevant to my creative practice. The more ways I engage my body throughout the day, whether through the minor shifts of my drawing hand or the expanding stretches of my spine, the more gestures and speeds I have to consider when returning to my studio. I’ll also say that staying creative has involved maintaining conversations about my works in progress and ideas for future paintings with others. Thankfully, my husband is a writer, so there is never a shortage of critical dialogue in our house; we get to be sounding boards for one another’s practices, and I love having a partner who is able to share in that aspect of our life together.

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