Here, there and everywhere with Thomas Powell

Thomas Powell.

English artist Thomas Powell’s From Here to There art exhibition at the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre is a collection of intricate and layered paintings, a visual representation of the influence of the past and current exchanges between peoples and cultures. How did the graduate of fine arts end up half a world away from home, and what makes him so “Charles Dickens-y”? Penang Monthly catches up with the talented artist.

How did you end up from there to here?

Thomas Powell: Six years ago, after graduating from university, a friend and I decided to travel around South-East Asia. We eventually ended up in Penang, where (festival director of George Town Festival) Joe Sidek stopped us on the streets and told us of a project that we may be able to help him with. Sidek then introduced me to Fuan Wong, a glass artist, and Howard Tan, a photographer, and I subsequently got connected to the artist residency programme at Malihom Private Estate in Balik Pulau.

What attracts you to Penang and keeps you coming back?

I’m here for most of the year. The overlap of culture makes Penang truly an incredible place, and the diversity adds to its attractiveness. Different people with different cultures living and working harmoniously together offer a range of benefits for all to share, such as food, fashion, celebrations and festivals throughout the year. Penang has influenced me as an artist and as an individual.

There is also a general friendliness and generosity among the people here. For example, only yesterday my parents were walking down the hill carrying a large bag of washing when a stranger in a car stopped and offered them a lift. We don’t get that kind of generosity back home.

Being based in both the UK and Malaysia, how do you juggle projects? Is it jarring to work from both places?

Cultural Impressions 2.

I travel around from place to place whenever there’s a project to do. As an artist, I’m not actually employed by anyone so that’s not an issue, but I feel it would be nice if there were some sort of specific visa for an artist, like maybe a three-year visa similar to what they have in the US. I think it could benefit Malaysia and help artists from different backgrounds to fully immerse themselves in a new environment, along with helping people to share and learn from each other.

You can paint wherever you are. You just need to know where to get your materials from – a bit like freelance writers who just need a laptop. I would consider myself set up to paint in both England and here; I’ve got big rolls of canvases in both places, and my paints.

Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

(Laughs) No, I thought I would be a biologist! I started off doing psychology, biology, art and product design for A-Levels, but I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist until my last year of university. I didn’t believe it was possible.

Why not?

I just wasn’t sure. Also, it can be a very difficult field to get into.

In England?

Anywhere, I think. I don’t believe the whole “starving artist” perception is real – that’s a stereotype. But to be able to put all your focus into art is very difficult; most people have to get a second job. I feel I’m very fortunate to be able to put all my energy into this.

So what is a typical day for you as an artist?

It depends on whether or not I have a project. If there is one, then I’m pretty busy. Otherwise I get up, check my emails and look at my moleskine. I’ve got this big black moleskine that I write all my jobs and my schedule in.


You’re so old school!

(Laughs) I’m so bad with technology. My friend said, “You’re so ‘Charles Dickens-y.’” I like to get it down on paper, and I get to sketch in my moleskine as well. You can’t break a notebook as easily as a phone, so you can look back and read what you got up to.

I’d check my moleskine, see what I need to do, exercise, check my emails and then start painting. Or I’d do the other things that need to be done, such as making canvases and priming them, research, sketches and sourcing for materials. When I’m in Penang, I’d probably stop by Gusto’s at Tanjung Bungah or a hawker centre for lunch, and meet with folks to talk about projects. Then I’d head back and continue where I left off, and write down what I have to do the next day.

That’s a lot of discipline. How long does it take you to finish a painting?

You can look at it in terms of how long it takes to get from a blank canvas to a finished painting, but in reality, it’s more than that. There’s a lot of work to be done before I actually begin to paint; I have to come up with an idea and develop it. That alone involves researching, looking at hundreds of images that I might want to use, sketching out different compositions, figuring out how it can be painted and continuing to experiment and find the best way. Eventually, I reach the point where I am ready to start painting on the canvas.

Your previous exhibition, Chinese Zodiac, was very complex. What was your creative process behind that?

I got the idea during a project for Macalister Mansion. At that time, I was painting a pair of deer-headed pieces when it hit me: because all the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac are meant to represent people, why not draw an animal head on a human body, symbolising what the creature represented?

It’s definitely a body of work that I am exploring further. I think I could do at least another 120 paintings in that style because there is the female version, male version and five elements to each animal in the zodiac.

And then we see a style difference in From Here to There. What sparked the change?

When I was in university, I used to get into trouble for doing different things all the time, but that keeps things interesting for me – the fact that I can structure a body of work around different styles and themes. I feel that it’s important to change and explore, as long as it makes sense and feels natural. We all have varying influences all the time – we have different moods at different times.

Was From Here to There more difficult to do when compared to Chinese Zodiac?

The King and Queen.

I think the Chinese Zodiac paintings were more difficult; I took longer to finish them as there were more details, but I think the message behind From Here to There is a more important one: it focuses on and highlights the positive nature of Penang. The paintings show in a literal way the overlapping nature of the different cultures and the influence of the old on the new, generation on generation, style on style, and tradition on tradition.

In the painting The King and the Queen, Queen Victoria is holding a durian instead of the traditional orb. Had it not been a durian, what else would she have been holding?

I was planning for a mangosteen, but, of course, the durian was a better idea. Malaysians love their durians, as do I!

How has the reception for your exhibition been so far?

It’s been great! I felt that the opening night of the exhibition was a success; three local bands, The Color Noise, Kien Lim and SOAP, along with Singaporean act Pastelpower entertained the crowd. Getting support from these bands reinforced the benefits of sharing, as it created an event that was more successful compared to if we were to stand alone.

What’s next for you?

I look forward to heading back home, then travelling around South-East Asia and New Zealand. After that, I'll get cracking on work, especially the new body of work for the zodiac paintings.

Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer. She blogs at www.sundayyellowcardigan.

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