Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Road Gallery artist Taylor Thomas. We covered a lot of ground including her early days, her inspiring and sometimes difficult journey, her route to finding balance between order and freedom and the centrality of spirituality in her life and work. The interview was a humbling and uplifting experience. Taylor was refreshingly honest and open about herself and the personal challenges she’s faced. It was a privilege to see behind the curtain of Taylor’s work. The interview will give you deeper insights into her approach to painting while still leaving you room to add your own interpretations and dialogue. This is one of Taylor’s hope for her artwork.
NJ: Tell me about your early days and upbringing?
TT: I grew up in a regular family. There was my mom and dad and my two younger siblings. I’m the typical oldest sister stereotype: a responsible, organized, detailed perfectionist. I was the kid who cried when I had wrinkles in my socks. I couldn’t leave the house without straightening them out. I always wanted to draw. My grandfather bought me coloring books of British kings and queens with their gowns and clothes and I’d color them in. If I colored outside the lines I would rip the pages out the book and throw them away.
NJ: So what role did you play in your family?
TT: I’ve always been the sensitive one. While everyone else has an easy time brushing things under the rug, I’ve typically been the one to confront things and put our mess out on the table and ask lots of questions. I push for conversation and have probably rocked the boat in the family more times than they would have liked. My brother and sister know that I have a really hard time making conversation that isn’t meaningful. I value going to a deep level with people. I’d always be the one to ask people how they were doing and re-asking, “No really, how are you doing?”
NJ: Were you the same way at school?
TT: My perfectionistic nature translated into school and how I carried myself. We grew up Catholic and I went to Catholic middle school. I had a rigid, routine-oriented mind set. My parents didn’t put pressure on me to be like that. It’s just how I was. In high school things changed from an identity perspective. In my sophomore year, I realized I couldn’t be the best at everything, nor was I. I realized that my fulfillment wouldn’t come from just me but I needed something more. After so many years of having my identity wrapped up in my achievements this was life altering. I asked myself, “Who am I apart from what I do?” I wish I could say it was an easy-answer situation, but it wasn’t. My mind was rocked, I became depressed, and I found myself not wanting to live anymore.
NJ: That’s a really significant realization. How did you get through?
TT: My spirituality came in and saved me, literally. I remember my soccer coach pulling me aside and asking me what was going on. I said, “I don’t want to be here, I’m tired of failing.” I remember being on the phone with the coach and wrestling back and forth with the things he said about my worth being in God and that I would come up short if I tried to find all my value in how I was performing. He asked me, “Taylor, when are you just going to give it up and see that you’re more than what you do?” At that moment, I was ready to start letting go. I have to repeat that to myself even now. “Who I am isn’t what I do.” I’ll always lean towards wanting to do my best but this began the process of pursuing things I was naturally more geared towards rather than trying to be good at everything. Art and creativity filled my mind and my soul beyond success and achievement. They freed me up.
NJ: Did you know you wanted to be an artist at that time or did you have other career plans?
TT: At the start of college I was 100% sure on pre-med and being a dental surgeon. I was never scared of blood. I had my finger stitched up in second grade and watched them sew me up and thought it was so cool. I thought that career was artistic and creative, not to mention attractive, from a security standpoint.
NJ: From pre-med to art, what changed?
TT: When I was in high school I had an eating disorder. I have struggled with anorexia for eight years. When I got to college, my control over school, my eating disorder, and my type A personality put me close to death, but I was determined to get well. I had to leave my freshman year of college in the fall semester. My dad came and picked me up and that’s when I realized I wasn’t capable of fixing myself. I went through a lot of physical recovery for a year and half to regain weight. It forced such dependence on my relationship with God and my spirituality. When I came back for my sophomore year, I thought I could still do pre-med but I knew that would mean a life of trying to control everything – I was drawn to the knowns. For the sake of my life, I dropped all my science classes and took a drawing class. I emailed the only art class available – basic drawing. The teacher told me the class was full. I said, “I’ll stand in the corner without a desk.” Her reply, “There are already three other people on the waiting list trying to get into the class.” I got their names, emailed them and told them how important it was for me to get into that class. I got in. It felt like I was 100% in control of the decision to be out of control and to enter into the unknown. I had no idea what would follow by majoring in art. It was the beginning of my art journey.
NJ: That’s true determination. Was there a painting or drawing that you remember that made you think you could have a future in art?
TT: In high school I did figurative and realistic drawing. I remember one black and white charcoal drawing of me and my sister. It was a Christmas present for my mum and took me a month and a half to finish. It was very detailed. My sister and I didn’t have the best relationship at the time, but the drawing united my heart and my passion. My sister was so free and social and I was so buttoned up. We didn’t know how to interact with each other, but the drawing showed how much I valued our relationship. It was the first time art represented something important and allowed me to express to my feelings.
NJ: How did your style evolve?
TT: It was at Davidson College. In my mind, my painting, drawing and print making courses all revolved around some kind of figure. I was feeling like I had an intense story and wanted to share it; to be vulnerable. To talk about humanity, I thought a human figure must be present. My evolution probably stemmed from a combination of not being great enough and not having the patience to learn the human antimony. It felt backwards to hone in on something so technical and detailed when, from an emotional and spiritual standpoint, I was falling apart beautifully. Sculpture was another love of mine. I started using found objects, my favorite being a piano I acquired free, via Craigslist, and deconstructed. I had all these bare piano keys and soundboard pieces available to manipulate into a sculpture. Free keys suspended as if they were going to escape from their board. This piece transitioned my work from figuration to abstraction and generated much more conversation about what it means to be free, and to be human. It was while studying a ton of art history and preparing for a big solo exhibition that I finally moved my 2D work into abstraction as well. The series was called Lifelines. The concept involved using lines to disrupt a figure as well as define it. We’re so drawn to lines – to calendars, boxes and following the leader – but what if they became the means of disruption? What if a line was a breath of life? It was a combination of self-expression, and self-evaluation, asking questions and hoping for what I could become. Could I deconstruct my control enough, and what would it look and feel like if I did? At that time, I didn’t feel completely free. I still don’t, but I am striving for it. I am more and more prepared to challenge myself and push past where I am.
NJ: As you continued to evolve, what were some of the biggest influences on your art?
TT: God has been the biggest influence. After I graduated, I went through a period of work called Systems. I noticed myself producing series of boxes in my work. That became my manifestation of freedom versus control, and order versus disorder. My hand was naturally gearing towards these broken boxes. Those, and the wiry lines in my work, were not gestures I chose, but marks that intrinsically came with my body movement, like handwriting . So I began wondering, “If God could paint, how would his marks look different to mine?” I am still asking that one.
TT: Beyond my faith, I have lists of artists who have affected my work. Many of them are from the UK. Cornelia Parker, a multimedia installation artist, was the first artist to captivate me. For her work ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ she had a huge steamroller run over found silver objects including spoons and candlesticks. She turned them into clusters of discs, which were then suspended off the floor. It greatly influenced my piano piece and longings for freedom and ascension. Agnes Martin is someone who impacted my Systems phase through her work’s repetition and gridded quality of line. She is also playful, to me, in integrating imperfection. Other big influences are Cy Twombly, his free-flowling gesture, and Helen Frankenthaler, her sense of color and boldness.
NJ: Has there been a crucible moment that has shaped you as an artist?
TT: There is one that really stands out. I had been working part time for a year for the Community School for the Arts (CSA) in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was very attractive. I had an office job during the day but then went to my studio, a small room in an office owned by my uncle, in the evenings. In September 2013 I was offered a full time position at CSA. I adored my environment, my co-workers, and my work, but my heart still sank at the thought of sacrificing my time for creation. I stayed up until two in the morning praying with my roommate. There wasn’t another job or financial plan in mind, but there was a confidence that drove my decision. The next day, a Thursday, I declined the offer. A couple of Mondays later, my first ‘I’m a full-time artist’ day began. “ At least I have my studio,” or so I thought. My uncle walked in that morning to tell me he needed the space back. I sat down and said, “This has been a gift you freely gave me.”
NJ: So what did you do?
TT: I was living in a tiny apartment at the time, with “no space” to create work. In reality, I was refusing to create small pieces because I have a longing to paint large; if I could paint over seven-foot paintings every day, I would. Since I couldn’t paint inside, I went to Freedom Park. It was a freezing cold day but I went anyway. I grabbed my ten foot canvas, found two trees far enough apart to nail it onto, and started painting. That piece is on my website: To Control, Love God. It’s God’s letter to me and my control. It was the breakthrough to having no studio space; I was in the woods by myself, but more free than I’ve ever been in my life. Fifteen minutes in, rain began pouring down, but I looked up and had the biggest grin on my face. I took the soaking wet canvas, folded it up and put it in the trunk of my car. What could be less controlling than doing that and seeing what would become of it? Once I got it back to my apartment, I laid it out on the floor, over the balcony and down the wall. It was the moment I realized you can make excuses over space and materials, but there will always be a way to create something.
NJ: I’m curious. What’s happened to your relationship with God as your art has evolved?
TT: I would say that every single piece is an opportunity for me to get to know God better and set myself aside. I have a huge tendency to fall in love with parts of my pieces at different stages of the process. It’s like storing up little treasures. My work halts because I am trying to persevere those little areas. My relationship with God is one of my being asked to trust him when I can’t see what’s coming next. Do I trust God to come through in my hands’ movements in the same way He has made my work and career far more beautiful than I could have done on my own? If I take the risk to let go of those little treasures, God will help me make the painting even more beautiful. There are moments when the risk pays off and it comes together in a way it couldn’t if I’d kept gripping what I saw as complete.
NJ: Tell me about the titles of the work? I’m guessing a lot goes into them. They really captured my imagination and heart.
TT: Titling my pieces is an important process and a time consuming one. It takes me days to think about it. I finish a piece and then for two or three days after I write about it. For me the process is so significant. I have a ton to reflect on. What was I going through? What was on my mind when I was painting? What was I journaling about? What was I reading in scripture? This is where my titles come from. I’m a huge poetry and prose writer. The concept flows through in verse and the titles happen organically from there. I try to play with words and hint at what’s going on in the work, but ultimately I desire to raise a question.
NJ: What has been the darkest or most challenging time for you as an artist?
TT: There was a period of time when I stopped painting in light of a lack of promise that my work would go anywhere. In November and December last year I didn’t have a clear vision for what was coming. My fallback is to get lost on the internet looking for supplementary income. That’s exactly what doubt is. I forgot how confident that decision to be a painter was. Typically when I’m seeking alternatives to painting, I’m worrying whether painting can or can’t sustain me. Every week is a risk, every time I buy materials it’s a risk. I’ve taken those risks really early in my life. I’ve made an investment that I am praying through every week. If I’m given the gift to paint next week, that’s amazing. Provision always comes, in even the most unexpected ways. When I’m not painting, it’s not a good thing.
NJ: What’s the most meaningful compliment someone could give you about your work?
TT: I’ve received a few emails lately that have been amazing. They’re based on the sense of God or hope that people get from my work. It’s beautiful when people can lay down a fear they have and hope the risk will be worth it. When they say, “I don’t know what it is about your pieces but whatever hope and joy I’m getting from them, I want to know more.”
NJ: What misconceptions have you heard about your work?
TT: My mum will never fail to see different objects in my work. “It’s a huge fish”; “a falling bird.” It’s funny to me. “Is that a human right there?” I never answer and instead ask, “What do you think?” I stay away from correcting people. In us, as humans, we want to figure things out and evaluate. We’re always evaluating our lives. We always spin our lives into these stories with a beginning, middle and end. We latch onto details that explain things and give us a sense of knowing. We want to be able to say, “I’ve mastered this piece, I’ve figured it out”. Something scarier is to stand in front of a piece and say, “I might need to revisit this.”
NJ: How do you evaluate your success as an artist? What are the benchmarks?
TT: From the very beginning of deciding to pursue this, I had to write down what success means to me. I had to force myself to say I’ll never define success as the number of pieces I’ve sold, how much money I have and how may viewers see my work. This would mean I placed too much of my identity in my work as I did years ago. Success is in glorifying God and living my values. Caring for and connecting with others is like a bonus. Whether I am introducing one individual to my work or impacting an entire community, it is success, and it is a gift. Some of the most rewarding moments are the one-on-one conversations about my work. That’s when art becomes something more than what’s hanging on the wall, more than a canvas I bought and put paint on. Success comes from every piece being meaningful, intentional and reflecting back to why I do what I do.
NJ: What motivates you today?
TT: Bringing hope and the ability for other people to reach a place of greater vulnerability and honesty. With my work, there is rarely an answer I want to convey. There is rarely a Taylor-driven answer. It’s more about the struggles I’ve had and the questions I’m asking others to consider. The conversation that a piece can ignite is just as important as the piece itself. While I may have finished the work, it’s open for more layers to be added by the viewer with their emotions and questions. I want to see art used as something more than just what’s on walls or in galleries. I see such power in sharing stories, and art can be something that affects communities as a whole.
NJ: I know social responsibility is big for you. Why?
TT: As an artist, the biggest struggle I’ve had is questioning my purpose, especially when it is easiest for me to see purpose in a nine to five job, getting affirmation every day. I get caught thinking, “How can I help people by hanging a painting on the wall?” But everyone has a gift that’s purposeful. If we all had the same one, there would be unmet needs and generations of forgotten people. I want to be a purposeful human being, which will always relate to serving others. I hope this gift can be my way to do that meaningfully.
NJ: How do you relax away from painting?
TT: Painting is active. It’s when my mind and heart is engaged the most. My linear drawings are the place where I let my hand be the freest. My sketches are small scale and involve less media so I feel less pressure to create an impactful piece because of that. They are fun processes of letting my hand move. I don’t have a TV in my house, but I sure do love Netflix nights with my roommate. The evenings when I get to sit around and play music with my friends are some of the most peaceful, though. We make up songs and fully envision ourselves as famous musicians. None of us play very well, but that’s the best part.
NJ: We just launched our blog, 48 Minutes, a place for busy people with demanding jobs and full lives to take time out. What would you do with 48 spare minutes?
TT: I would put my Chacos on and the backpack I’ve had since I was a freshman and just walk. It brings me back to feeling like a little kid. Like a 25-year-old Dora the Explorer. I’d go adventuring, going nowhere. It’s where prayer and conversation happens. There is no pressure to get someplace. I like when my mind can be still but my body can be active.
NJ: Finally, in what ways are you a leader?
TT: I see myself as a leader in vulnerability. My friends, my family and my audience will always pinpoint that in me. I have a whole lot of faults and I’m the first to admit to all of them, even when it really sucks. I’m so broken and there are many things I still struggle with, but at least I’m vulnerable about that. If I can say that I’m broken, I can help others feel okay about saying that too. I worked with high school girls for years, and it was only after opening up about my messes, that they felt willing to open up about theirs. When you demonstrate an attribute, others are more comfortable doing the same.
Discover more artwork by Taylor Thomas.
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Photo credits: Haley George Photography.
TT: Taylor Thomas, Artist
NJ: Neil Jacobs, Road Gallery owner and curator