Recently, Edward Winkleman addressed the question, “ Are Artists with Day Jobs Serious?” In response to a mega-gallery assistant director dismissing artists with day jobs as hobbyists, he wrote, “Until there’s ample, affordable studio space in the locations where it matters, to ensure we get the quality of art promoted that we as a society deserve, I think that old-fashioned notion of looking down at artists with other jobs has got to go.”
Most artists, especially emerging ones, do not make a living solely through their studio practice. Artists do other work. Some artists view needing a job to pay the bills as a sign of failure while others negotiate it as a compromise. Still others approach a day job as an opportunity which provides different (and valuable) challenges. “Artists Work” is Bmoreart’s new regular feature profiling artists who have found or created jobs that not only provide financial support, but also provide new outlets for creativity, practicing techniques, and collaboration.
Bmoreart invited painter/sculptor/installation artist/actor/illustrator/printer Tom Smith for our first interview. He was raised in Elkton, Maryland and received his BFA from MICA in 2006. Tom earned his MFA at the School of Visual Arts in 2008. He currently lives and works in New York City.
Lu Zhang: Hi Tom! Thanks for being the first artist to be profiled for our new feature. Let’s start by talking about your studio practice. Tell me about your work.
Tom Smith: Thank you for having me Lu. My paintings are about the visual filters we see life through. I’m especially interested in the ways our perceptions are shaped by the internet, TV and film. I recreate this phenomenon by making two closely related paintings on paper. I then slice them into tiny strips and alternate them on a panel. My sculpture work is created in a similar fashion using plastic-coated Styrofoam sheets that I splash with acid, paint and glue together.
LZ: Your work used to be very atmospheric with muted colors, now you use hard lines, almost architectural references and saturated colors. Additionally you’ve transitioned from painting, to sculpture, and some works even incorporate lighting elements. How did these shifts come about?
TS: All of those developments have come from my desire to create a surreal world. Painting was the first outlet for my imagination and lately I’ve been branching out and working with sculpture and space. Light is a natural vehicle for me because when I’m painting I’m thinking, “What kind of light is this color radiating?” I learned to paint looking at artists who made very moody/atmospheric paintings such as Anselm Keifer and Turner. At that time I wasn’t sure what my paintings were about. I needed a directive to continue. Carroll Dunham recommended I draw to figure out what I wanted to say with my work. So I took a few years off painting and I drew hundreds of little graphite drawings. I discovered that I have a perversity and amorphous figurative element that I want in my pictures. At the time I also started collaging found superhero imagery. A lot of my work still uses color sensibilities from comic books. Eventually I felt limited by using found images and started inventing my own pictures with acrylic paint.
LZ: What are you working on now?
TS: My last show at ROX Gallery had installation elements and I want to move forward with transforming spaces as well as introducing performance. This fall I had the pleasure of acting in one of William Rahilly’s video pieces, Humidity’s Jag. My character is a sci-fi diva named Tamala. Now I’m working on a piece that involves her in a performance/installation. It will incorporate pop vocals mixed with digital synthesizers. I have a picture in my head of an imaginary world and there are characters living in that world, like Tamala. I would love to create an experience that activates all the senses and has people interact with the environment and performers.
LZ: You make paintings, sculptures and installations, you work at a print studio, and you have a Masters degree in Illustration. How interdisciplinary is your practice or do you prefer to keep it all separate?
TS: I don’t think of my practice as interdisciplinary, I just do whatever I’m most inspired to do. I use illustration to create renderings for projects. I paint my sculptures as if they’re paintings. Mostly I work in 2D because it’s very practical in NYC since there is limited space to store work. During the week I work at Two Palms, a print studio in Soho. My job is great because it doesn’t take any creative energy away from what I do on my own. When I’m done working at the end of the day I’m excited to get to work on my own thing.
LZ: Tell me more about Two Palms.
TS: Two Palms is a collaborative print studio created by David Lasry that prints and publishes editions and unique works of art with established artists such as Chuck Close, Cecily Brown, Mel Bochner, Carroll Dunham, and others.
LZ: How did you get started working there?
TS: I visited Two Palms on a tour with the ‘MICA in Tribeca’ Summer Program while I was in undergrad. I loved the energy of the place and wanted to work there even though I had very little printmaking experience. When I moved to New York I called the studio until they had an opening for an internship and started in January of 2007.
LZ: What do you do there?
TS: I do many things at the studio. My favorite work is assisting the artists. A lot of the work we do at the studio is large, so it takes a team of people to move the large monotype plates. David likes every artist to feel like Two Palms is their studio while they’re working, so our environment transforms depending on what’s going on. My role changes every day. Sometimes I’m photographing or wrapping and shipping work, sometimes I work on printing an edition with a master printer.
LZ: Does your work at Two Palms relate to your studio practice?
TS: In a way it does. There is an attention and respect for process and craft I learned at Two Palms. My own process involves tedious repetition, which printmaking definitely does too. Beyond process I’ve learned a lot about my own curiosity at the studio. I’ve seen artists evolve and move through bodies of work. That’s something I’ve become aware of with my practice, embracing the slow evolution of my own work within a system that gives me structure.
LZ: You’ve just returned to NYC from Art Basel in Miami Beach. What were you up to there?
TS: I was in Miami working for Two Palms. We show there every year. It’s amazing what ArtBasel has become. There are more than a dozen other fairs that happen in Miami at the same time. During the day I work with clients, but I usually take some time off so I can visit the other fairs too. It’s a great time to see what other emerging artists are up to and discover new galleries from all around the world.
LZ: You mentioned earlier the limited space in NYC. Let’s talk about living in NYC. How did you decide to move there?
TS: I moved to NYC to go to School of Visual Arts (SVA) to be in the graduate illustration program.
Marshall Arisman, who runs the SVA grad program in Illustration is a brilliant man and amazing story teller. I wanted to be in his program because he seemed to be living the life I wanted, which was to do illustration on the side and work on my studio art. I love storytelling so illustration really spoke to me.
LZ: There’s been a lot of press lately about artists being priced out of NYC. What’s your take on this?
TS: There are many factors that make New York an expensive city but there are exceptions to the rules. Rent can be high unless you are lucky and find a great deal. Very few artists live solely on selling their work in NYC because of expenses. The plus side of living here is that there are so many jobs and galleries. Most of the American art market operates out of New York so there are a lot of opportunities.
LZ: How necessary do you think it is for an emerging artist to live in NYC?
TS: I think that depends on the artist and his/her ambitions and needs. Sometimes I think living here is the most important thing for me, other times I look at artists who are building a great name for themselves in other cities and think, maybe its easier other places because there are thousands of artists here. I’m very interested in showing in other places just to see how people respond to my work in other communities and cultures.
LZ: Do you have any upcoming projects?
TS: I’m very excited to spend a month in Rio this winter! The residency is called Largo Das Artes. I’ve been planning on painting while I’m there, and I’m also open to trying new things that are way outside of what I have been doing. I’m ready to have some play space. I love making art in foreign places, I become so aware of myself as an American artist while I’m in a foreign city.
* Author Lu Zhang is a Baltimore-based artist.