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Tom Wilmott

 Friday, 24th August, 2018

We sit down with Second Floor artist in residence Tom Wilmott about his exhibition ‘Ladders of life we scale merrily, move mysteriously around’


Why art?

Painting has been a pursuit I've naturally, instinctively turned to throughout my life. I was constantly drawing and painting as a child and throughout school it was not only the area I enjoyed most, but the subject in which I showed the greatest ability. By the time I was considering higher eduction there really wasn't a choice to be made as to the path I would follow. My father was a skilled and creative draftsman, painter and printmaker and although for him it remained a pastime rather than a career he was always making something or other and constantly encouraged my sister and me to do the same. For me, painting has been an ever-present, lifelong love and a connection to my father.


What is your process of working? Do you consider your practice spontaneous or more strategically planned?

I would say my practice is generally fairly planned. Of course painting cannot be entirely prescriptive and one must be open to the unexpected during the creative process, but on the whole the finished works I consider my most successful are those of which I have a pretty clear idea before I start.


What messages do you like to portray throughout your artwork?

Strictly speaking, I don't. Painting is a visual phenomena and my work subscribes quite faithfully to this. It has no narrative as such, being abstract, and as far as the viewer is concerned it is made to be enjoyable to look at. I don't seek to deliver messages through my work because I want it to be considered for what it is on an immediate, physical, tangible level, not what it may or may not be saying or doing. Furthermore, if at any point I should feel I have something important enough to say publicly, I'm not sure painting would be clearest or most straightforward avenue of communication.

The other side of this is what the work says to me, and that is something quite different. It is only relatively recently, after a long period of thought and analysis, that I have come to realise that in recent times painting has functioned as something of a refuge for me in times of difficulty. For a number of years I suffered with stress, overwork, fatigue and ultimately serious depression and throughout this period I retreated to painting in an attempt to snatch moments of my life back for myself. When I finally began to recover, again I turned to painting to help me. Thankfully things are significantly better now, but still I believe painting plays its part in maintaining that. I consider the process a mindful one, and indeed the resultant objects have the potential to be perceived in that way too. It's true to say there is no overt message in the work as such, but it certainly means a lot to me.


Who do you consider your biggest inspiration?

There are lots of artists, working in many different ways, who I greatly admire. A short but certainly not exhaustive list off the top of my head would go something like: Douglas Gordon, Howard Hodgkin, David Quinn, Adrien Ghenie, Robert Motherwell, Josef Albers, Susan Gunn, Anna Gaskel, Alexis Harding, Dominic Beattie, Gabrielle Herzog, El Greco...

My parents are an inspiration because they fully and unquestioningly supported my decision to pursue my painting when I was young, but I suppose my biggest inspiration now may be my wife, Alex. She is an artist working in various different media including photography, film, sculpture and text. Her work is about as far away from mine in subject and tone as you could get and I find the things she makes genuinely amazing. Aside from the work being excellent, which of course it is, it's that she comes up with ideas that I would simply never be able to - things that just wouldn't enter my mind, and I think that's one of the most powerful things art can do - show you something that would otherwise never have existed in your world. Check her work out here


Can you tell us about the name of your current exhibition ‘Ladders of life we scale merrily, move mysteriously around’ and the meaning behind it?

The phrase is lifted from a song by Nick Cave (it's not the first time I've stolen from him either). I must say that up until recently the titles of my paintings and shows really bore little relevance to the work itself - they were simply phrases I liked and were a lot more interesting than 'Untitled'. However in this case the title refers to the realisation I mentioned earlier, that painting came to function as a support structure for me, and indeed why this happened. The full line is "Ladders of life we scale merrily, move mysteriously around, so that when you think you're climbing up, man, in fact you're climbing down" and in my hands it refers to the period between 2013 and 2016 when I fell into depression. It resonated with me particularly because at that time I simply was not aware of what was happening to me and, with the best of intentions, I believed I was going about things the right way -  climbing those 'ladders of life' and supposedly making upward progress. As it turned out many major life decisions I thought were right at the time were entirely wrong such that, whilst I thought I was climbing up, man, in fact I was climbing down.


What do you feel when painting?

It's split, oddly, into two I think. When I'm actually applying the paint - right in the middle of applying bound pigment to a support with a hairy stick, I feel contentment, calm, perhaps relief or release of some sort. When I'm analysing the painting as a whole and trying to decide whether or not it works I can feel all sorts of different things. If it's going well I feel fantastic, but if things don't seem to be working out I can get very frustrated and despondent. The funny thing is, I can go to bed feeling pretty shit about a painting, then look at it again the next morning and feel quite differently. And the opposite can occur too!

Five years ago however things were rather different. In 2013, when I really began to struggle with stress, I devised a set of rules which essentially removed as much of my creative authority as possible. This was in order that I might function as a pseudo-mechanical 'painting machine' with the intention of achieving as much satisfaction from the process as possible. This was the protection - ensuring a moment or two of good feeling could be mine without the risk of my human fallibility throwing a spanner in the works and diminishing that enjoyment. Now, however, I allow myself to make many creative decisions and in turn risk a lot more suffering for it. Conversely, however, the more I risk making errors and potentially feeling bad, the happier and more content I must be within myself to entertain such uncertainty in my painting.


We recently read that you find happiness from painting of all sorts, whether it in a fine art context, or ‘painting a skirting board in household gloss’, can you tell us what it is about painting that you enjoy most?

That's hard to answer. Something about applying paint, the substance itself, it's raw physicality, its pure colour just works for me. It's sort of sub lingual I guess - unexplainable. It's like asking someone who loves marmite why they love marmite - they just do. In fact, when I encounter a painting I really like, I always describe it as delicious for that reason - explaining why you like a particular flavour is impossible. It transcends language.


At which point in your practice do you feel most satisfied; during the creating or once a piece is complete (if ever complete)? 

It would be at that moment when I'm applying the paint - right in the act. That's why I will return to it forever - to be in that moment of experience. In a way it's both an entirely unsatisfiable urge and an eternal pleasure all at once.


Do you feel that a piece of art can ever truly be complete?

Yes, certainly. When it's finished, it's finished. I'm not so precious about a completed painting that it becomes an ongoing matter. When it's done I can move on - keep pushing forward. There's so much to be made, and such potential to put new, beautiful, interesting paintings into the world that I don't need to fret over any one unduly. When a painting works (and many do not and are rejected), I feel I can identify that and step away. I don't need to fiddle endlessly with something I already know is successful.



Ladders of life we scale merrily, move mysteriously around' will be displayed across the Second Floor until 20th October. 

Join Tom on Thursday 20th September on the Second Floor for a drinks reception. Book in here.


Tom will also be exhibiting work at The Other Art Fair, 4th - 7th October.