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A Conversation with the Artist: Elaine Thomas

31st March 2016

Artist Elaine Thomas in York's According to McGee

Artist Elaine Thomas in York's According to McGee

Elaine Thomas’ current exhibition, ‘Divine Antics on Wood’, opened last week with a Private View at According to McGee, Tower Street, York. Before the arrival of guests, including the Mayor of York and Chief Executive of Yorkshire Museum Trust Reyahn King, Elaine sat down with York College student and artist Janet Easton. Janet and her her team of co-York College students Vincent Lyles, Tom Child, and Liz O’Connell-Ward had just finished curating and hanging the exhibition. "It looks beautiful," enthused gallery director Ails McGee, "and it’s testament to this team’s professionalism and the high standards set by York College." Janet asked Elaine about her practice and from where her inspiration comes. Q: I was just wondering what your journey was, to bring you to this gallery and to York.

A: The first time I exhibited here was two years ago. I showed ‘Divine Antics On Paper.’ I wanted to follow up with ‘Divine Antics On Wood’ because there is a continuity and a journey between the two bodies of work. I enjoy exhibiting at According to McGee. It’s a great York gallery. I come from the North of England (I was brought up in Accrington, Lancashire) I knew that this gallery has a priority to support artists from the North, people with connections in the North and that seemed relevant to me. Also when I met Ails and Greg, they were very enthusiastic about the first body of work and even more enthusiastic about the second body of work, which of course for an artist is always nice.

Q: How you are feeling about the launch tonight?

A: Excited, encouraged, thrilled, actually because I think the work looks really well in this space. It’s a nice gallery and the work is set off well because they are small dark pieces against the white walls so they look quite powerful. I think the groupings are helpful and might, I hope, help the viewers when they look at the work to see more of the narrative and the connections between the paintings. I’ve always had this view that my work should speak, to some extent, for itself. If people don’t like it, it doesn’t bother me.

I love it when people do respond positively to it, but I am conscious that mine is very particular work, quite idiosyncratic. The distinctive thing about a private view is that you are surrounded by friends and people who are interested in your work and it’s a social occasion. It’s an opportunity to bring a reasonable number of people into the gallery, which is always good. You are conscious that as an artist, you have many roles, but one of them is to support galleries and encourage people to come in off the street into galleries, because a lot of people still don’t. A private viewing gets people in who might come back, tell others and spread the word.

Q: I wondered if you felt the collection and its arrangement has an impact that is greater than the sum of its parts- a different narrative, beyond the stories that are in each individual piece?

A: I have learned over the years that if you put your work into a group exhibition it can look ok, but you are with other artists and it’s not the same. When you present a body of work like this, 32 paintings altogether, what you get is a kind of coherence and you get connections between them, which are perhaps different than if you just looked at one piece of work on its own. Presenting them together, perhaps in little groups, does create narratives and connections-some of which I might not have seen. It’s great for me, when I walked in yesterday I was so pleased, I thought that looks good there and I never thought of putting that next to that. You’re quite right that IS what happens. A good curation does enhance the work. Without a doubt - it can make or break it actually.

Q: I’m fascinated by recurring themes that explore biblical and mythological imagery - I wondered if there was a useful dynamic in the tension between that religious iconography and your own personal beliefs?

A: I was brought up as a Methodist and we didn’t have images in our churches, the whole notion was that one just worships and don’t get too distracted by superb imagery. I stopped believing in my teenage years and then as an adult, as my atheism and my cynicism about the role of religions in the world grew - coincidentally, I started to explore and look at the art found in churches, often in countries like Italy and I found them so inspiring. I began to realise that the stories, the narratives that go along with several religions - Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, for example and with some legends and Greek and Roman literature-that the stories were created to inspire people, to frighten people, to control people. That is what interests me - religions obviously have been and continue to be powerful in that respect. Particularly before the written word became so common, with the invention of printing and the printing press Christianity, obviously, relied very much on almost comic, narrative caricatures and stories. The exaggeration that you find in those in order to communicate some of these feelings, is something that has always interested me. I like distortion and exaggeration so in that respect, the storytelling aspect of many religions became something that I wanted to use.

Artist Elaine Thomas in York's According to McGee

Artist Elaine Thomas in York's According to McGee

Q: I was wondering if you had a favourite piece in the series?

A: I do have a couple, I like The Birth Of Venus and The Bringer Of Peace which are next to each other. You will notice in a few of the paintings, in fact, many of them there’s often a woman-sometimes a powerful woman, sometimes a beautiful woman, sometimes an ugly woman. In The Birth Of Venus I was able to make a passing reference to Botticelli because there is the shape of a shell, there’s beauty in it and there’s a figure, a woman, emerging from something complex, whereas The Bringer Of Peace is a smiley lady-she makes me think of angels, somebody nice. A lot of my characters are a little bit evil looking. Another one on the theme of threat, my other favourite is Raptor. In that you’ve got a female victim and a bird shaped creature who could be any gender, but implies male. That character of the bird and the notion of the bird of prey which is a raptor is dark and sinister and conveys threat and menace with her fear and reticence.

Q: Your pieces are small but layered with meaning, they are very intense, very impactful. There’s such significance they feel monumental to me. What made you decide to work on that scale?

A: You’ve used some useful words there-small and intense would always appeal to me rather than large and vacuous. When I was a student, in the late sixties and early seventies, large scale abstract paintings were the vogue. Figurative painting wasn’t acceptable, you were trained, as a student, to do large, abstract paintings. After I’d left college and started lecturing myself as a tutor in fine art I gradually found that my views changed, my work changed. I began to feel quite strongly that the large scale paintings represented a very macho, masculine approach which was a dominant thing in art schools then because the only tutors you ever had were men.

I was part of a generation who began to change things - women who started to lecture, women who started to be better known as artists, hopefully influencing other people, teaching students and encouraging female students. That’s all connected to notions of language like-decorative, small scale and graphic-various things which were frowned upon. Then gradually as art developed and changed and women started to be a bit more influential, these things came back in.

That’s a long answer to a simple question about scale but the smallness is part of that debate, part of making the point about small paintings, small, intimate and intense paintings being very powerful. A final point would be about domestic context. Since I retired, I have a large apartment but I don’t have a studio and I work at home. I work in my kitchen and I work on a domestic scale. That suits me, it suits the way my ideas flow. For me, because I use my imagination all the time and I work from my unconscious I need to be in a certain frame of mind and just let the ideas flow. Working at home I can do that. There’s a domestic scale for me but there’s also a domestic scale for people who might want to have one. Some people who might like to have something small in their home and take it away with them like a precious little object.

I was responding well to the grain in the wood with the marks I make, out of that I try to find images. If it was large scale that wouldn’t work, you could maybe do something very large where you might do lots of small images but the images still have to relate to the grain of the wood.

Q: In your exploration of human relationships, where do you think you might next find interest on your journey, how do you see your work developing in the future?

A: I don’t think it’s going to change radically, I think it’s always going to be about people-people and behaviours and relationships and psychology. I may draw inspiration from different sources as I continue to travel and look at things. I have gone back to watercolour paper and I’m now working on it in a rougher way-perhaps having been influenced by the work that I’ve done on wood. I am now being harsher. The process has always been important because the process is the way of finding the images. I’m trying different processes, I am rubbing and scrubbing in a different way. I’m reintroducing brighter colours because these recent ones, Divine Antics On Wood have become very monochromatic. I don’t usually plan, I just usually follow my instincts.

Q: I’d like to ask you about your working style, whether you created the pieces individually one by one or whether you worked on multiples.

A: At any one time I might have three on the go. They might not all work, so all the paintings in here are the ones I’ve been pleased with, I’ve got as many again, at home. As I am going along, I learn-sometimes you have to do some pretty useless paintings in order to get a good one. Each painting informs, often, the next one.

Q: I wondered how you had discovered the wood technique as the ground for your paintings.

A: It was pure experimentation based on instinct. I’d been doing the work on watercolour paper and I knew I wanted to try different surfaces. Old frescoes and icons, which are on wood, sometimes sculptures were inspiring me and I was realising that the surface was really important. I did a few things, I tried working on canvas for quite a while and that didn’t work. Then I bought some plasterboard and thought, if I destroy the surface of that, maybe I’ll get a certain effect and that didn’t work. Then I just had the idea of trying a bit of wood. I thought, there’s some potential here. It wasn’t necessarily what I expected and that’s what was nice about it because the wood created its own needs and took me in different directions. It’s cheap, it doesn’t matter, you don’t worry about it, which gives you the freedom. The cheapness and the durability and the fact that you can really scrub and scratch and work at it, and it can take it, is important.

Q: There’s obviously an interest in mark removal as well as mark making, I wondered if you could describe how the images reveal themselves to you?

A: On these works I start putting a white acrylic ground, then on top some brown and red acrylics. I wash it off, so that it creates a surface which suggests things - a surface which is attractive. I look at that surface when it’s dried, get my watercolours out and I play and doodle and squiggle and I wait until something comes. I follow the lines with paint and I use organic shapes, maybe draw something that might look like an arm, or the beginnings of a figure and then I’ll sit back and I’ll see it. It’s anthropomorphism, our predisposition to look at anything and find a human image in that object.

Q: Nomenclature- when choosing your titles-were they in your mind whilst doing the work or did they come after?

A: They definitely come after and for me, it’s equally important. The titling is just as important as creating the work and I spend hours on my titles. The title, ideally, gives a clue to the meaning for people. I can’t resist puns, so often, there are several meanings in the work and I’ll pick a title which will suggest those several meanings, or gives a clue.

So, in Skirting- the idea of skirting an issue, but there also happens to be a man, wearing a skirt. In Clipped Wings someone has their wings clipped both literally and metaphorically. It’s been nice this evening, because the people who have bought the paintings-every one of them has referred to the title as part of the choice.

Q: I really enjoyed your titles-they are evocative of Milton and Blake and thinking about the forms and about the dissonance they remind me of Bosch as well.

A: I did Paradise Lost at school and though I don’t consciously think of it, it’s there, in my head. I adore Blake’s illustrations, especially The Divine Comedy and I do love his work. Hieronymous Bosch! Fantastic, imaginative-oh, I adore him! Another artist I admire is Stanley Spencer. All of these are people who use their imagination. I loved English Literature when I was at school as well as Art. The titling, the use of the language, the literary references is really important.

Q: Is there anything that you have never done, that you would like to do?

A: No, not really. I’ve had a fantastic life and I have been empowered and enabled to do most of the things that I’ve wanted to do. I would say that I also operate and perform well within constraints-that notion of having to operate within margins is good. It’s a positive, not a negative, having some boundaries to explore within or push against. I’m not somebody who would go round spouting the idea of freedom, it can become a meaningless thing, to be free to do anything you want. Having said that, of course, in the secular West we have an amazing amount of freedom and I take it for granted, I know that I am in a fairly privileged situation though I also know that boundaries help with creativity.

Q: A final question- Would you have any advice for emergent artists?

A: Yes! The very first thing that comes off the top of my head is follow your instincts. Always follow your instincts and don’t conform too much. Do what comes naturally to you, even though I have just said that working within boundaries is helpful - follow your instincts.

Divine Antics on Wood is now at According To McGee, situated on Tower Street, York. Follow the links below to both the gallery and Elaine Thomas’ websites.

Artist Elaine Thomas in York's According to McGee

Artist Elaine Thomas in York's According to McGee

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