Artist Profile 14 – Emily Thomas 

Informed by our urban environment, sculptor Emily Thomas is a young emerging artist reimagining our sense of place.

Photography BERT SPANGEMACHER
Interview JUSTIN ROSS

Our pick for the Artist Profile this time is Emily Thomas who recently graduated from the prestigious Chelsea College of Arts in London and in just over a year since then has been touring the world, incorporating influences from many different cultures into her colorful, geometric sculptures. Her research-based practice takes architecture, history, and our urban environment as a starting point—basically the built objects that make up our sense of place—and through a process of abstraction and metamorphosis, turns these ideas into new gestures, colors, and geometries, that still retain a signature sense of space and place.

Having recently completed artistic residencies at both GlogauAIR in Kreuzberg, Berlin and Soulangh Cultural Park in Tainan, Taiwan, Emily Thomas will set off to Barcelona in early 2020, winning an award for a residency at La Escocesa from La Memoria Artistica Chema Alvargonzalez.

In 4SEE Artist Profile, we were able to meet up with Emily Thomas to see where she previously worked and was inspired during her residency at GlogauAIR, Berlin.

Interview from October 2019

4SEE Artist Profile, Emily Thomas, photographed by Bert Spangemacher
4SEE Artist Profile – Emily Thomas
Photography by Bert Spangemacher

Name Emily Thomas
Age 23
Nationality British
Medium Multidisciplinary (Sculpture, Painting, Photography, Collage, Installation)
Based in Somerset, UK
Recent/upcoming exhibition (projects)
Shapeshifter (9 July – 31 August) Soulangh Cultural Park, Taiwan
Birthday Exhibition (27 June – 3 August) La peau de l’ours, Brussels
London is Open (31 August) Global 12 Festival, London
Find more at www.ethomasart.com / instagram / Facebook

Did you always know that you were going to be an artist?

Not exactly, although I was exposed to creativity from a young age. After I was born, my mum became a child minder so she could spend more time at home. She is a very creative lady herself, and although she was never exposed to the ‘artworld’ as such, she spent most of her professional career as a primary school teacher where her natural artistic talents came out in art lessons and displays at school. We spent a lot of time painting and drawing together and with other children at home. We covered the kitchen walls with the artwork that we made. This included drawings, paintings and prints done with vegetables and polystyrene shapes!

I was always fascinated with colour, and building things out of wooden blocks and lego. There are actually a few visual similarities to be seen in things I made as a child and my sculptures now! My parents built and designed a lot of their house themselves. I grew up with this, and I think it definitely inspired a certain way of thinking. It showed me how to be resourceful and to solve problems through building and inventing. Although I wasn’t exposed to any art exhibitions from a young age, I was immersed by a different kind of creative practice through my parents. I think this was a genuine way to develop creative skills and interests, and this is something that I really value.

Both my parents are also classical musicians, and my father works mainly as an instrumental brass teacher. When I was nine years old, he set up a sort of music exchange with a close friend of his who was a woodwind player. The deal was that my dad taught his friend’s son the trumpet, and my dad’s friend taught me the clarinet. I began learning classical music very seriously, and was awarded a bursary to study the clarinet at a specialist music school at the age of fourteen.

At this point, I thought I would probably become a musician. However, the school I attended was very high pressured and rigorously structured, and it sadly sucked the fun out of music for me.
Meanwhile, I adored my art lessons and visited my first art exhibition with school in 2012: David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy of Arts London. This was an amazing experience for me as I had only ever been in a city a handful of times, and never before had I stepped into an art gallery. Hockney’s exhibition definitely nurtured my love of colour and inspired me to take this further in my practice.

At the age of seventeen, I found myself skiving lessons and skipping music practice to go and paint. It was at this point that I knew I wanted to be an artist. I switched my focus from preparing for music college auditions to building my portfolio for art school.

Do you find the art world (creative world) cutthroat and competitive, or is it also supportive and community-minded, or something in between?

I think you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot of common comforts and everyday social norms to be an emerging artist, but this allows you to be more genuine and less materialistic as you naturally discover what is important to you and in life. For me, it is the people that I surround myself with that make my own ‘art bubble’ so wonderful. Meeting and working with like-minded artists and practitioners with similar questions and curiosities removes the competitive side of the artworld from my immediate experience and everyday life. In this sense, the artworld can be what you make of it. I love that feeling of who/what/when/where/why in relation to my future, it’s exciting.

Artwork by Emily Thomas // Construction in collaboration with 林林書杰 Lin Shu-Jie // Photography by Rich Matheson // Exhibition supported by the Cultural Affairs Bureau, Tainan City Government // They Nailed the Colours to the Mast (2019) // Solo Exhibition Shapeshifters at Soulangh Cultural Park, Taiwan // Plywood, oil paint // 202 x 135 x 135cm
Artwork by Emily Thomas //
Construction in collaboration with 林林書杰 Lin Shu-Jie //
Photography by Rich Matheson //
Exhibition supported by the Cultural Affairs Bureau, Tainan City Government //
They Nailed the Colours to the Mast (2019) //
Solo Exhibition Shapeshifters at Soulangh Cultural Park, Taiwan //
Plywood, oil paint //
202 x 135 x 135cm
Artwork and Photography by Emily Thomas
Artwork and Photography by Emily Thomas //
Exhibition coordinated by 林林書杰 Lin Shu-Jie //
Exhibition supported by the Cultural Affairs Bureau, Tainan City Government //
Shapeshifters (2019) //
Solo Exhibition: Soulangh Cultural Park, Taiwan

What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment so far?

Earlier this year I participated in a three month artist residency program at Soulangh Cultural Park, Taiwan. With support from the Cultural Affairs Bureau of the Tainan City Government, I was able to produce an outdoor solo exhibition for the first time. One of the most insightful moments of this experience was when young families gathered to watch me working with wood and power tools outside of my studio. It struck me that you don’t often see women working in construction, particularly outside of Europe, and I felt both honoured and empowered to be setting this example.

I also made valuable friendships with my neighbours. I visited many places with them whereby I felt fully immersed within Taiwanese culture. I met many local people and had enriching
conversations about their life experiences, as well as their knowledge and experiences of different architecture in Taiwan. I also had the opportunity to collaborate with 林 書 杰 Lin Shu-Jie, a very talented technician and maker who taught me many new and valuable skills.

Categorised somewhere between architecture, object, painting and sculpture, my final series of work presented a timeline of architectural history within Taiwan. I combined the variety of architectural styles I discovered there in order to demonstrate the cultural fusion within the country and it’s rich political history. The exhibition aimed to uncover how architecture has previously served and will continue to serve as a literal and metaphorical ‘Shapeshifter’ of place identity through time.

Whilst I consider this residency and exhibition to be my biggest professional accomplishment so far, it was also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences I have ever had.

Does art always need to be relevant? Is there a place for aesthetic indulgence, or do politics come into play in your motivation?

I think that art can be anything. It is more the definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art that is a constant point of controversy, as it is of course subjective. Even if you tried to make art that is irrelevant to our society, it would automatically become relevant through it’s opposition. So in response to this question, no I do not think that art needs to be relevant, although it is very difficult to achieve complete detachment from everything through art, as it is such a personal form of expression.

I am personally more interested in artwork that is conceptually intriguing and tells a story through its aesthetics, however I do think that there is also a place for pure aesthetic indulgence.

Growing up in a small village with a population of just 300 people, I became fascinated by the city when I moved to London in 2014. During my studies at the University of the Arts London I gained an interest in the current housing crisis and gentrification. This triggered many questions which I am still exploring in my work now.

My work is inspired by architecture as an indicator of historical, social and cultural characteristics of a place. I identify these aspects by analysing the thematic, repetitive features of buildings, as well as their structural forms and materiality. The process of walking as research in order to take photographs of buildings and discover new places is the underlying foundation of my work’s creation. I carefully select photographs to communicate my ideas, taking both conceptual and aesthetic concerns into consideration. Collage informs and aids these decisions, as I am able to visualise the possible outcomes of my photographs as three-dimensional abstract forms.

4SEE Artist Profile, Emily Thomas, photographed by Bert Spangemacher
4SEE Artist Profile – Emily Thomas
Photography by Bert Spangemacher

What topics have got you inspired at the moment?

In January 2019 I began a three month artist residency at GlogauAIR, Berlin. It was here that I discovered the present housing tensions within the city. Walking as research around the local districts of Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Friedrichshain drew my attention to societal differences, indicated by contrasting building facades and gentrification. This led to my further studies of social housing and the history of Berlin’s urban infrastructure, whereby I discovered Bruno Taut’s Hufeisensiedlung, Neukölln (1925-1930). My final exhibition at GlogauAIR demonstrated my preliminary research of this housing estate.
I am currently developing my studies of the Hufeisensiedlung and five other Berlin Modernism housing estates built between 1919 and 1934. These include Gartenstadt Falkenberg (Treptow), Schillerpark-Siedlung (Wedding), Wohnstadt Carl Legien (Prenzlauer Berg), Weiße Stadt (Reinickendorf) and Großsiedlung Siemensstadt (Charlottenburg and Spandau). The aims of these building projects, including the Hufeisensiedlung, were to solve Berlin’s housing shortage after the industrial revolution. In 2008 they were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I would like to investigate what made these architectural projects so successful and whether similar ideologies and infrastructures could be used to improve contemporary urban development and society now that Berlin is once again a growing city. This idea was originally inspired by the designer and writer Ben Buschfeld.

Artwork and Photography by Emily Thomas // Project supported by European Cultural Foundation and Compagnia di San Paolo // Hufeisen (2019) // Glogauair Open Studios, Berlin // Emulsion paint on MDF // 200 x 400 x 70cm
Artwork and Photography by Emily Thomas //
Project supported by European Cultural Foundation and Compagnia di San Paolo //
Hufeisen (2019) //
Glogauair Open Studios, Berlin //
Emulsion paint on MDF //
200 x 400 x 70cm
Artwork and Photography by Emily Thomas
Artwork by Emily Thomas //
Photography by Juliette Szhw //
Project supported by European Cultural Foundation and Compagnia di San Paolo //
Hufeisen (2019) //
Glogauair Open Studios, Berlin //
Emulsion paint on MDF //
200 x 400 x 70cm

What is it like to be currently living and working between Somerset (UK) and Berlin?

I have spent most of this year living at artist residencies in different countries, where I have been developing my own projects. I am currently moving between the Somerset countryside (UK) and Berlin and hope that I will eventually be based in Berlin on a more permanent basis. Somerset is very quiet and I am mostly surrounded by fields. There is a really cosy local pub and small quirky characteristics such as a library telephone box and a friendly community shop. I enjoy seeing my family everyday and walking the dogs, and I am able to focus on my work without many distractions. I usually spend my time in Somerset catching up on admin, writing applications and collecting my thoughts. I lived in the countryside for 18 years growing up and it became a normalised way of life. I believe that I will come back to it in my practice and research for sure, it just doesn’t excite me to the same extent as the city right now.

Berlin is very different to Somerset and I enjoy this contrast. I am still discovering the city and it is always full of surprises.

What is next for you, an immediately upcoming project or chance to see your work?

I am very happy to announce that I will be heading to Barcelona for three months in January to begin an exciting new project and develop new research at La Escocesa. The exhibition dates for this project will be released on my website when they have been confirmed.

Where do you see yourself in ten years‘ time, where would you like to see your (art)work and at what scale?

Part of my love of being an artist is that I don’t know what is going to happen. I have many ideas and many dreams, but nothing is ever set in concrete. I am happy for my future career path to twist and turn – it keeps me on my toes. In that sense I don’t see myself anywhere in particular in ten years time. I have thought about the possibility of doing a masters degree, and I also like the idea of running my own artists residency program. One of my dreams from a very young age was to build my own house. I love the idea of creating a semi-transportable home just outside of the city. I sometimes get very excited about this and begin to imagine having on-site studios for artists, a co-working woodshop, a jazz club etc. Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away, but who knows what the future holds!

For me, it is not about where my artwork ends up or on what scale. I enjoy travelling and hope that I am able to visit as many countries as possible. Carrying out exhibitions abroad whilst being immersed within different cultures and collaborating with other artists and practitioners has been both inspiring and rewarding. I hope that I am able to continue doing this as much as possible in the future, and I am excited about the opportunities and collaborations that could emerge.

4SEE Artist Profile, Emily Thomas, photographed by Bert Spangemacher
4SEE Artist Profile – Emily Thomas
Photography by Bert Spangemacher
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