Tom Arthur is an artist completely at play. From making “things” as a small boy and successfully turning that into a lifelong passion, his works are products of his own creative space. Across his large-scale works, smaller assemblages and drawings, he recycles and returns, taking his time to transform and create self-reflective work dense with memory and symbolism.
You were born in Boston, with Albanian parents; what was your childhood like?
My upbringing was pretty atypical, even for immigrant parents coming to a new place. My mother passed away when I was young. I think that the most significant aspect was the fact that culturally art didn’t exist in my early childhood. What did exist was the requirement for me to spend a lot of time by myself at home.
I had to keep myself busy – I used to draw a lot. My father was a tailor and he had this big old sewing machine that I used to take apart and turn it into other things. One of those things that I remember most fondly was turning it into kind of a sawmill using those big scissors that he had. The leather belt would turn on the treadle machine and a big staple on the belt would catch on the scissors, opening them up and letting me feed in a matchstick which would be cut in half when they snapped shut.
Your first assemblage …
Exactly. I trace a lot of what I am doing now back to then. It hasn’t changed too much (laughs). That whole process was involved in creating an identity. I was the guy that knew how to draw and knew how to make things, which in a way became a kind of social currency.
So those early beginnings led you to art school?
I always wanted to be an artist. We didn’t have much money so I was pretty much destined to go to a state art school. One of my teachers nominated me for a Ford Foundation grant and much to my surprise I got it. I then was able to go to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – my whole life and destiny changed, I was exposed to a completely different world from what I knew.
What drew you to study jewellery?
I thought I’d better do something useful, where I could earn a living, because I thought I am not going to earn a living by being an artist. I started studying, but I never spent a lot of time in that area. I hung out with painters and sculptors. Eventually the jewellery that I was making started turning into this other stuff – smaller-scale sculptural pieces – to the point where their only relationship to the body was that it was something that you could hold in your hand. And then from there it started to become other things.
Like sculpture and large-scale installations …
Yes, and smaller scale interventions, a lot of drawing and works on paper. I made my first larger-scale sculpture after arriving in Australia, ‘The fertilization of Drako Vülen’s cheese pizza’ (1975) which was shown in Project 3 at the Art Gallery of NSW. That was a breakthrough for me – it changed how I thought of myself and what I could do.
How did jewellery inform your large-scale works?
I really learnt how to make things, and the other thing was an attitude that I still bring to my work – no matter how big the work was it was made up of all of its component parts, which are of a particular scale, and when you examine that scale everything had to be right to the smallest detail. The works essentially weren’t about the detail, but the detail had to be there.
What sparked your interest in Australia?
When I was a student at the Museum School I saw a very small exhibition of Australian Aboriginal utilitarian objects at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was the pared back aesthetic that I was really excited about. A friend and I decided that we wanted to have some adventures and Australia was one of the places we talked about. We went to see the Dean about dropping out of school and we applied for passports and we got draft notices instead – the Vietnam War was on at the time. Luckily the Dean was a very reasonable guy and he let us back in. In a funny way he became a guy that I used to think about a lot when I was working at Sydney College of the Arts, especially during those years when I was the Pro-Dean of the faculty.
You were commissioned to create ‘Goodbye carpet, goodbye small door’ by the Newcastle Art Gallery in 1983. It was charged with energy by the play with light and dark, and placement of arrows. What were you exploring?
It was a very psychologically intense piece, really charged emotionally. You are looking at these two identical rooms – in terms of dimensions and shape – one side is literally a dark side and much more primal inside, with the earthen floors, flame and shadows, while the other side was probably was almost “renovated” as if memory itself had been papered over, so to speak. The arrows were sources of energy; I saw these things as almost being an accumulation of thoughts. The latent potential of energy in these things, and in the darkened room with all of the burnt holes in the walls, it’s as if some sort of event had occurred in there before, and whether it was the same event, you don’t know. It was a work that was very cinematic in terms of a kinetic element that was latent in the work, with the flames, light and arrows. It created a kind of hallucinogenic effect by moving the eyes across the work. By not physically entering into the work you had to imagine being in the work, which is much more powerful.
There is a life cycle in your works – resurrecting found objects and old drawings. What is the importance of time in your process?
Some of these works have extended over time, to years. It is a continuum of time when you actually get to experience yourself and the work in different stages through different increments of time. In the end it becomes one big continuum. ‘Nocturnal Emissions’ is the very first work that I started to make after arriving in Australia. It has another drawing underneath it. The materials are not archival, it was just paper that I could afford to buy. I knew that eventually, in time, the paper would become brittle and start to crack, revealing the drawing underneath. When you look really closely you can now see some of the linework that is visible through the oil-stained areas in the work. The whole idea was that this thing would ultimately reveal itself through its own lifespan as well.
Your recent exhibition, Alone at last, at Defiance Gallery was a long time in the making …
Yes. it was a long time. My production has always been more about spending extended periods of time with the work. Consequently there are not a lot of works of mine that other people have. The show at Defiance came about rather spontaneously. I’ve known Campbell and Lauren for a long time and I have contributed work to their annual Miniature Sculpture exhibitions for many years. It felt right to do the show with them of some of my unseen works that have essentially evolved from the large-scale installations.
While smaller, they are loaded with commentary, as part of a larger discussion …
They really start to tell a story of how some of the deepest thoughts and concerns are submerged in the works. In some of the recent works, it takes me straight back to environmental issues.
In ‘The Temper Under the Eyelid’ (2015), the skeletal bird figure with a speech bubble, what are they talking about?
At first I saw it as operatic, but then I saw it as this sinister thing, it was almost like this kind of dominant relationship, but what are they talking about? I hope the works direct the viewer back to themselves, to be more self-reflective, and to consider what they are talking about.
They conjure up issues, but not in an overt way.
There is a delicacy about them, with kind of a sting in the tail, like ‘Prophecy: the parable of the persistent window’ (2012) that takes you to some pretty dark places when you look at it. But it’s a prayer mat for all intents and purposes. The fact that this work has evolved over a very long period of time, there is a deluge that is going on there. There have been lots of catastrophes. It’s a dark history of the world.
In your statement for Alone at Last you included John Cage’s quote to Philip Guston, “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, your enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue working, they start leaving, one by one, until only you are left. Then, if you’re really lucky, even you leave.” Does that reflect the chapter you are in now?
Alone at last was referring to the fact that I am no longer teaching – I’m alone at last. I go downstairs, quite literally sub-terrain. With that quote what I relate to it is while making work, at a certain point, you’re not there anymore the work is there and you’re in the work. It’s not a conscious activity anymore; eight or 10 hours can go by. It’s really a meditation on life. The best part of working as an artist is the kind of life that you can make, and it is a very different kind of life to most people. Most people live in the world, but a few actually make their own.
It’s a circle, you’re downstairs in your studio entertaining just like your primary school self and getting up to your own mischief. Yes it’s that thing, I think it is attributed to Picasso – it takes a very long time to become young.
Tom Arthur is represented by Defiance Gallery, Sydney.