An Interview by John Paradiso with Painter Tom Hill, on his new exhibit “Spark and Stubble” at Hillyer Art Space in DC
Tom Hill was born in Washington, DC and raised in Prince Georges County, Maryland. He attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of New Mexico, where he received a Bachelor’s degree with concentrations in art and architecture. Following school, he lived and worked in a variety of geographical locations before settling in New York City. He lived in New York for over 20 years, working as a fine artist and supporting himself through a variety of art-related jobs that included art handler, nightclub decorator, theatre set and prop designer, decorative and mural painter, graphic designer, and artist’s assistant. In 2001, he moved back to Washington, DC.
Tom has been in long-term recovery from addiction since 1992. A major outgrowth of his recovery and activism involved the pursuit of a Masters in Social Work in community organizing from Hunter College in NYC, awarded in 1997. Since then, He has worked with grassroots community groups across the country to develop peer programs and advocacy agendas that promote recovery and battle discrimination.
Hill’s current exhibition, “Spark and Stubble,” is on view at Hillyer Art Space in Washington, DC from June 6 through June 28, 2014, with an opening reception Friday June 6. John Paradiso, a mixed media artist, conducted this interview and is Tom Hill’s partner. They both have studios just out side of DC in the Gateway Arts District, Brentwood, Maryland.
John Paradiso: You returned to painting in 2008 after an almost 15-year hiatus, can you talk a bit about that?
Tom Hill: When I got sober in 1992, I got reconnected with a lot of things in my life. I was living in NYC then and there was a lot of queer and AIDS activism and I got involved in a lot of that stuff. I was a co-founder of an activist art collective called Queer Action Figures and we did a lot of graphic and video agit prop stuff. I was a part of this great community that was queer-identified and very talented and pissed off. Something in me was awakened and I also discovered talents that had previously been unrealized or undeveloped. I found that I was good at writing and educating on issues, that I had a knack for community organizing, that I had decent people skills.
Recovery is all about giving back and I was doing a lot of community volunteer work. All of this led to a decision to go back to school and formalize my newfound skills. I was accepted in a MSW program in community organizing at Hunter College. Retuning to school required a full-time effort, so I packed up my studio. This decision was less about not doing art anymore and more about moving towards something new and compelling, to try something new and see what might happen.
I had no idea that I would love the new life so much and that I would be pretty good at it. So I have been very successful at doing work that is directly connected with improving the quality of people’s lives and making their communities stronger and better. I feel like I have made valuable contributions in an area that matters deeply to me and you really can’t beat that kind of fortune.
As the years progressed, I would pause from time to time and wonder if I would ever make art again. Ideas would come to me and I would jot them down for later. Also I was doing a lot of graphic work and overseeing visuals in my jobs, so that satisfied the art itch. But the itch was getting stronger and more frequent over time. In the fall of 2008, I hit a snag at my place of work and went through a temporary rough patch. One evening, I went down to the basement, set up some sawhorses, opened up a box of packed up art supplies and started painting. Once I lifted the floodgates, there was a tremendous outpouring of ideas and work that kept increasing with time. I could not have stopped it if I wanted to. I still feel this tremendous sense of urgency in making every next painting and am often many ideas ahead of myself.
JP: How do you feel about the work you have been making the last several years?
TH: When I started painting the second time around, I made a promise to myself that I would be true to my nature and desires and not censor myself. I vowed to make art that was an honest reflection of my life and let my ideas take as pure a form as possible. There were a lot of things about growing up gay and being gay that I wanted to express. I attribute this, as well as a devoted focus and concentration, to my recovery. I have intentionally created work that is reflective of my personal, social, and political concerns. I knew that there might be some fallout in doing work of this nature, but I just kept at it, thinking that the quality of the work would transcend all else.
But I have also strived to create work that has beauty and mystery, and that poses series of questions or possibilities, rather than issuing a one-line statement. I work in a highly intuitive manner and do not plan out paintings in advance. I approach each one with a vague combination of ideas (image, text, color, composition) that start to comingle and coalesce as the painting evolves. This method of working leaves much open for surprise and accident and provides an arena for concrete ideas to mix with symbols, abstraction, and the pure joy of paint and color.
JP: Your work is provocative with image, text and palette. Can you talk about these elements individually and as a whole?
TH: I am in love with both pictures and words. I am a big reader and I read virtually anything I can get my hands on. When I am reading, words and combinations of words stick with me. Words just come to me in various ways, because I am always paying attention to them, you know, their look and sound as well as their various meanings. A word or phrase might strike me from a book, a cereal box, or a moving truck.
On a recent morning walk with the dog, I spied a bit of trash on the sidewalk that turned out to be an official warning issued to a high school student that said, “Uniform Violation.” Because of its blatant declaration of aggressive authority and its many possible meanings, I will likely use this phrase in an upcoming piece. I like words that evoke some kind of poetic mystery and possibility. Rather than words that explain the picture, I want them to be one with the picture or, ever better, become the picture.
Using text in visual art is hardly new. I remember seeing illuminated manuscripts at the Enoch Pratt Library when I was an art student, and these made an impression on me. When I used words in my prints and paintings at school, I refined my vision by looking at works by artists like Sister Corita Kent and Ed Ruscha and Nancy Spero. I still get inspired when I look at the work of these artists. Barbara Kruger is another favorite, as is Ree Morton.
Lately I have been thinking about compositions that approximate pulp fiction paperback covers or skin magazines, motel signs, and punk rock posters. Where the pictures and words fall into a blocked-out compositional pattern. I grew up on psychedelic album covers and posters by artists like Wes Wilson and Peter Max. Those works still incorporate my favorite palette: hot day-glo colors and lurid pastels, color combos that vibrate and burn their way into your psyche.
I have had a lot of influences in my work, and many have been with me as a teenager, in high school and early art school. Many of the references I just spoke of are from that period. I keep returning to the cultural contributions of David Bowie, over and over again. The books of Jean Genet also helped me get through high school and have had a lasting impression. And, finally, Warhol, who changed the world and certainly my life, I am indebted to.
JP: You somehow manage to put in studio time on top of a full-time career. How do you find the time and the energy?
TH: There is a very old spiritual axiom that states: “To whom much is given, much is required.” I have been blessed with many skills and talents and have been called forth to use them in ways that will help others. Over time, I have come to believe that this is applies to both my work as an educator/activist and as an artist. So, in an odd way, I feel a responsibility and an obligation to do both and to do both well. At the same time, answering the call feels more like a privilege than a sacrifice.
As you know, as a couple who are both artists, we have built a life that supports one another and is centered on our work. This is very important because you have to create a daily schedule that makes room for everything. We have a very full and complete life that honors our work without feeling onerous, at least most of the time. With a busy professional schedule that also involves travel, I treasure every minute that I have to spend in the studio and I try to use that time with economy and prudence. Studio time is always grounding to me and offers a great sense of solace and healing, so I am there every opportunity that I get.
JP: Even with the hiatus of 15 years, you have been making art for a long time. What advice do you have for other working artists?
TH: Life is not all that easy. There are many demands and distractions to take you away from what you want or need to do. You need to find a way to minimize them and to make some peace with that. I also believe that artists need to develop a wide range of interests and skills and explore a variety of subject matter. It is possible to do more than one thing well.
I am a big believer in people knowing their history and artists are no exception. You need to know where your work fits into a historical context. To do work that is original, you need to know if someone has done it already and to have historical influences without duplicating or imitating. Finally, don’t be too concerned about getting a newspaper write-up, becoming famous, or making a lot of money. Just do your work. If it’s good (and that may take some time), people will begin to take notice. Just be patient, put in the time in the studio, take risks, and do your work.
* Interviewer John Paradiso is a Washington, DC-based artist.
“Spark and Stubble” opens at Hillyer Art Space June 6 and will be up through June 28, 2014.