Breathing Things: A Conversation With Artist Taylor O. Thomas

Taylor O. Thomas lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee where she fills her apartment with large, but intricately layered color-filled paintings. Sometimes the images even outgrow her studio space. For Taylor, layering on the paint is only the beginning of her works’ “creation.”  She relies on written words and the interpretation of her viewers to bring full purpose to her art. Read the full interview to learn more about one of our new favorite artists. Then head to taylorothomas.com to see the visual stories that caught our eyes and captivated our imaginations.

Your current paintings have a myriad of colors, shapes and layers. What’s the physical process of creating a piece of work like for you?

Haley George Photography-TOTstudio01-all rights reserved-with permission on ecotheo.orgMy process can’t start without a cup of coffee, a Bible on my lap, and bare feet on the floor [wearing shoes just doesn’t do]. My process is messy. It involves my hands, my nails, my knees, my toes. It causes me to sing too loudly. It begins with a thin line or thick stroke—either way, it begins freely. I try not to put pressure on my first marks. From there, the constant question of “where am I being too comfortable?” or “which mark am I holding too tightly?” drives the painting forward. I fall in love with individual marks too easily—but so often, it is the destruction or letting-go of those “treasures” that allow the piece to grow as a whole. After a lot of making and unmaking, I put my shoes back on and call it a day.

I noticed a few of your photographs show you painting outside. Is that a common way you work? What changes during the creation process when you’re outside the studio setting?

Painting outside [in the woods, primarily] has become an act that reminds me how to show up before a canvas just “as I am.” It is an escape that I choose on days when I need painting to detach from the idea of obligation or work. Leaving the studio setting takes away a layer of control that I forget I have sometimes; twice I’ve been caught in a rainstorm during my process, and the pieces were better because of it.

Haley George Photography-TOTstudio15-all rights reserved-with permission on ecotheo.orgI will say, however, that my first venture to the woods honestly happened out of sheer necessity…I have been known to outgrow (and slightly destroy) the walls on which I work. When I dream up paintings, I never see them as being small. Getting to stand before or walk upon a massive canvas that I’m developing is a beautiful irony to me. This world reminds me daily that I am small, but how much better the story that someone like me could make art that stretches beyond myself—whether it be through its size, or through its impact. So, with that 12-foot piece I had in mind, I took to the nearest park and nailed it right into the perfect set of trees.

I can describe in detail every room and wall and window of my “one-of-these-days” studio, but for now, I will happily keep taking to whatever forest or lot necessary.

One of the things we love about your work is the pairing of visual art with written word. How do you view the relationship between these two elements?

I have always concerned myself with the question of “why does art matter?” There are some people who approach a gallery wall and effortlessly relate to the visual images before them. And there are those—the majority of my friends and family, included—who may feel as though they aren’t so much approaching that wall of art, but rather running into it. I don’t think that my work is always easy, but I do believe that it always matters, or carries purpose. My hope is that words can serve as another entry point for viewers to consider what they are seeing. Words help me slow down and understand my own work—the “why.” Whether viewers are interested in that added layer of meaning or not, I love how words provide them the chance to pause a bit longer.

When your work is on display do you incorporate the words like on your website?

Yes, in exhibitions, I hang printed text next to each piece when possible. The words get at the big ideas and questions behind each work—but are more like beginning than ending points. Online, I also display “Visual Stories,” or more in-depth mixes of words and images that I construct with my typewriter.

In your artist statement you reference relationship and breath given by a conversation between artist, art, and audience. The interconnectedness of life seems to be an important force behind your work. What motivates you to connect with your viewers most?

I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it is to share one’s story. For the majority of my adult life, I’ve been known as “the vulnerable one,” and I couldn’t be happier to wear the phrase. I will say, that it is not always easy to break down barriers between one person and the next. But once they are broken, it is amazing to see hope, big dreams, and rich joy become more possible. My pieces come from my deepest questions, struggles, and prayers, but are displayed so as to meet others in those places [their places], too. Receiving a story that builds and responds to the one I am telling is a crazy reward.

In April you took part in a special Tenebrae service at Warehouse 242. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what Warehouse 242 is?

Warehouse242 is a church right near the heart of uptown Charlotte. And when I say it is a church, I mean, it is a community of people that love running after God, and the people and passions that come into that process. I connected with Warehouse through their Studio242 group: an awesome collaborative force of artists, writers, designers, and photographers from all over the city.

Tenebrae is an annual service that involves all realms of media and art to approach/envision the Christian remembrance of Good Friday through a new lens. I was given written material to begin a piece, knowing that it would then be passed off to another artist to finish during the live service. We invested in our works, and then we let go of them to take on the work of another. 

The collaborative pieces you made while there are fantastic. What was that process like?

Haley-George-Photography-TOTstudio03-all-rights-reserved-with-permission-on-ecotheo.org-1200pxThe process was unlike any other I had experienced up until that point. One of the biggest battles that I face (as an artist and a 25-year-old Nashvillean) is the ease of believing “it is all about me.” It simply isn’t. I do not paint with the goal of self-promotion—but of promoting a story, a hope way bigger than what I have to offer. That said, the act of painting at a live service—not to mention completing someone else’s work—hinged on the word “humility.” I worked for hours on my piece; within 5 minutes of the service, Joel Hopler (an amazing local artist) had already covered the majority of its surface with wood. And it rocked. It was so far from my own—so detached from any ability to take pride in a thing we all shared.

How do you see collaborative work building on the themes within your solo pieces?

Collaborative work really mirrors the main goal behind all of my work as an artist and writer. As mentioned before, it is a reward to receive response to my creations. I think of paintings as “breathing things”; though I have begun them, sealed them, and signed my name, how other people relate and react is yet another layer in which I am equally (if not more) interested.

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