BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT | THOMAS WHARTON
Finding my artistic voice has been an ongoing process that I’ve come to accept as a journey that will have no arrival. I’m artistically a little like someone at sea who will never have a home country, but many ports of call. That said, there was a breakthrough moment and painting that showed me how to chart that course.
I came to the world of visual arts by walking away from a career as a classical pianist. At thirty, I dove into the commercial design and illustration world in New York City. I managed to have a thirty-year career there as a designer, illustrator, art and creative director, and children’s book author and illustrator. I was never a great designer or an important one, but I was successful and lasted longer than many of my friends who were talented, well-trained, dedicated and professional. I think the length and success of my career came down to one simple principle, which I followed religiously. Many of my design friends were deeply and personally invested in the work they produced, insistent about their ideas, and continually in skirmishes with clients. I wasn’t. I listened to what the client wanted and gave it back to them in the best form I could. I got paid.
The problem for me came when I began to try to produce fine art. Here, there was no client for me to please, no creative brief, no one telling me what they wanted or whether they liked an idea I had. It was just me and what seemed like a vast inner silence. For years I struggled with the idea that I couldn’t hear “my inner-voice.” I sidestepped the issue for a very long time. I studied (after all, who can’t use more skill), I did plein air work, and made hundreds of what seemed like derivative paintings in just about every genre.
At some point, probably in 2012, I went to a gallery show in New York that included paintings by some of my friends. The theme of the show was the male nude, and in the course of a conversation, one of the artists suggested that I should consider doing one. I hadn’t thought of it before, but after a couple of months, decided to try one to see how it might turn out.
I found a suitable model and after some preliminary experimentation, found a pose that he would be able to hold during the extended sessions. He came once a week for three weeks or so, and was very easy to be with and to have at the studio. I gradually became aware though that I really didn’t like the painting that was coming together. It seemed predictable and rather academic, and I decided in the middle of a session that I had no desire to finish it.
During a break, I told the him that I wanted to try something else. I got out my camera and told him that I wanted him to assume a pose, I would take a photo of it, he would change to a different position, and I would take another photo, etc. He was agreeable, so that’s what we did. When we were through, I had somewhere around three hundred shots. A few days later I went through them, and while many seemed interesting, I felt uncertain about what to do with them and not entirely comfortable with the idea of painting from photos. So, put them away.
About a year later, I happened to see a homeless man sleeping on the street who was partially naked, and I suddenly realized that there was a difference between nude and naked, that nude was the cleaned-up, polite, art-world term for a person without clothes. It was the word that the person who was wearing clothes used. The person without clothes was naked. Naked was emotional, powerful, and ultimately, deeply human.
I begin looking through the photos again and realized that with some of the poses, especially those that were more extreme, I experienced a sympathetic sensation in my own body. It led me to a new understanding of how we all sympathetically experience, and sometimes even mirror the body language of each other, as well as the thoughts and emotions that come with them. The real insight though, was that this sympathetic, physical experience also carried with it symbolic content and meaning.
The first painting I did of this series, was the painting which I’ve come to call, Adam. I painted it without really knowing what it was about, but I couldn’t get the image out of my mind, and I felt a constant, unnamable emotional charge from it. Eventually, I began to understand that what I was feeling was a sense of unfolding or becoming. The image reminded me of photos I’d seen of butterflies emerging from the chrysalis. So, in the end, I named the painting after Western culture’s mythological first man.
Through this experience, I came to know what my artistic voice is, and that I’d been looking (or listening) for it in the wrong way. It wasn’t (isn’t) a voice at all. There are no words, no narrative, no concepts or ideas. Instead, there is an image I can’t get out of my mind, an image that makes me feel something, perhaps something that I can’t even describe but that is persistent. I experience it as surprise. The light will suddenly illuminate something is a way that is poetic. A person will have a passing expression that is poignant. Sometimes it comes from a dream or my imagination, but most often when I’m caught off guard and suddenly notice it. The key is living in a relaxed awareness of the world around me. It reminds me a little of what it’s like to find a wonderful seashell at the beach. If I look for it, I don’t find it, but if I’m open and aware, it presents itself to me.