American Pie. Thomas: “The cardboard frame was covered in flyers and adverts for products, and the painting was done so that these showed through.”
While I was at school I excelled at drawing and painting and was, I remember, generally perceived as being the best at it in my year. Although this was a great confidence booster (I wasn’t great academically), I was unable to identify a direct use for my fine art skills and saw my future as being in design. I was also very good at CDT (Craft Design and Technology) and found that the design process I was being taught had a logic and purpose to it which I found to be lacking in painting. Industrial design was probably where I was headed at that point, or would have been if anyone had told me it existed, but the foundation course I took after A-Levels closed down my options rather than open them up, as I’d hoped it would, and with some uncertainly I found myself applying to study sculpture.
The course I eventually got onto included casting, welding, woodwork and stonework and there were also opportunities to venture into other departments, such as photography, printmaking and painting, so it was good for picking up a wide range of practical skills.
It wasn’t quite the design course I’d originally had in mind, but it was the closest thing I could find at the time that, for me, ticked certain boxes.
I quickly found that sculpture presented me with certain challenges which painting did not. In a painting, anything is possible, for it is only a 2D illusion. A sculpture, even if it is pretending to be something it is not, still has to abide by the laws of gravity, and therefore has a structure which is related to its appearance. Dealing with structural integrity was enough of a thing for me to get my teeth into while I looked at how I could use sculpture to express my ideas and satisfy my creative drive.
One particular concern of mine was the environment. Although I wasn’t interested in campaigning, it seemed crazy to me that things were made just to be thrown away. I have a love of old things – buildings, ruins, mature trees, household objects, furniture, books – which have a history and character, and I have always hated seeing such things tossed into skips (in the case of objects and materials), and pulled down (in the case of buildings and ruins). This concern, coupled with a lack of cash with which to buy new materials, soon had me pulling objects out of skips and using them to make sculpture.
At about the same time I also experienced something of a revelation, which was that nothing I could ever make or draw from my imagination, would come close to the designs of nature, which are the result of millions of years of evolutionary experimentation.
I looked at plants and thought, ‘There is no point painting that, it already is everything it needs to be.’ Nature has dealt with issues of structure, colour, texture, pattern, purpose and environment pretty thoroughly. I knew I had to make something different.
Similarly, when I started thinking about manufactured objects I noticed that they are often very beautiful in their own way, but realized that this beauty is not something contrived simply for aesthetic reasons. For example, the look of an object is usually a reflection of its function, and the materials used to make it will be appropriate for the job it is designed to do. There are other factors at play too, such as economics and the limitations of industrial manufacturing. I felt that nothing I could dream up would have the integrity of a found object, made to satisfy a multitude of demands.
What I realized I could do, however, was select objects and re-use them for my own purposes, and that is what I set about doing. I quickly discovered that each thing, whether it was an old window, bathroom tap or roof tile, brought with it its own set of associations which I was able to use and manipulate. When I say associations, I mean the memories and experiences each of us store in our heads in relation to the world around us.
At one stage during my teens I’d wanted to become an architect, so architectural structures, or discarded bits of architecture, feature frequently in my work. I also try to bring ideas of environmentalism into my sculptures, although this is a theme expressed, for the most part, through the use of certain found-object combinations, rather than any direct narrative.