If you are following my blog posts, you know that I like to find some way that the artists have a connection - to their world, to the people who enjoy their art, to family, friends. This month brings an interesting connection of Tony to a world that he felt a disconnect with as a child, and again through a brain injury related to a series of strokes as an adult. I believe it also brings that same connection of Tony’s viewers to a similar world, one in which they may otherwise feel disconnected. So, not only does Tony’s art connect him to a world that he struggled to survive in, but it connects others to him and to this same world through their response to the images and emotions of his art!
Tony began his pursuits in art as a young child, very much like other artists I have interviewed; but it was not initially just for the love of art. It was a means of survival. He describes his beginnings in art as time in the classroom, learning the fundamentals of his education that he struggled with, as his learning style was not traditional. He found himself failing in a world where other children were succeeding, and this made him feel anxious and like an outcast.
You started at a young age, developing your artistic talent as a way to cope with the anxieties you experienced in the classroom. What age was this?
It started in first grade. One of the moments I remember was during some math lessons. The lights were out, the overhead projector was on, our math books were open and we were learning to add. Our math books had what I saw as: two little cartoon frogs combined with different foreign symbols (ie; a sideways X, what appeared to be a crucifixion cross, a lower case t or what we would soon learn is the addition symbol). On the other side of these symbols, two more identical green frogs. They were cartoon illustrations with big eyes and red tongues, hunched sitting still. Two frogs plus two frogs equals four frogs. The repetition of failing to understand simple arithmetic with this format led to extreme anxiety. Luckily, despite my anxiety, I was inspired by these little cartoon characters and began to draw them, and they eventually helped me learn. After a while of drawing from necessity and learning a few techniques here and there to help me with my math skills, I found myself drawing for fun, and I also found other imagery that I was interested in.
Why did you draw super heroes and monsters?
I drew superheroes because I was extremely into superheroes by default. Most of my toys were of superheroes and GI Joe’s. I loved these toys because they were designed and engineered so beautifully with amazing detail. It's funny, when I look back at it now I didn't realize that I was drawn to their artistic design and the brilliant engineering which allowed me to pose them in an infinite amount of ways. I remember thinking these toys were far superior because I could play with them in a more realistic way as they could move so much more human-like with their human-like joints. Geez they were so cool! These toys opened my mind to drawing them because I was constantly imagining them. They would eventually lead me to comic books. I find it interesting that I was originally introduced to these characters through their three dimensional rendering as toys and I eventually would be inspired by them in the two-dimensional format! Since my accident, my short-term memory has suffered but I have these very vivid memories of my childhood which I stumble upon every once in a while when I reminisce, and it allows me to analyze some of my actions and wonder upon these interesting conclusions (or I'm just totally insane...ha ha)
You eventually moved into other mediums, including sculpture, painting on established objects and screen printing. What type of medium do you prefer to work within?
I was drawing before I was introduced to sculpture and this was something I would continue to do. I picked up some techniques here and there that allowed me some freedom to create and experiment but I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not sure I was creating for art's sake. But sculpture blew my mind and that was the first true feeling of being obsessed at an art form and actually feeling like I was attempting at art. Clay sculpting took over my world for a couple years and I thought I ‘found it’. I believe I was 16. It was around this time that I also became fascinated in graffiti. Being a kid growing up near and around Syracuse, New York, there was (and still is) a really cool graffiti scene. Early on I didn't take it very serious, just drawing randomly on things like my school supplies and school walls (which were not very good choices, I admit!).
I eventually enrolled in a community college where I took very few things serious once again, but one of the few things I took seriously at this time in my life was graffiti and street art. The Community College I was at did not have much opportunity for ceramic sculpting. It was not fulfilling in the way that I expected and I got really burnt out. But the rebellion and excitement of graffiti and street art really saved me. I once again tuned out education and I guess resorted back to learning by mimicking and living. Though I lived it for a while, the bar is so high that I never have and still don't feel like I truly was a graffiti artist. I wouldn't want to insult the mini local graffiti artists I admired and still admire to this day. I attempted, I participated, and I got up but it was more of a stepping stone and a learning experience to help me form a style and experiment with a medium that I would continue to use. It led me to my first art show.
I used to keep all my cardboard from the food I would eat like cereal boxes, Pop-Tarts Hamburger Helper, Rice-A-Roni (you know the cheap stuff that you live on when you are young). I would sketch what I planned to paint that night on a train or Bridge or whatever, on the collected cardboard. I had stacks of cardboard paintings and sketches that I would later continue to add to, and to my surprise they eventually turned into pieces in their own right!
My friend who was actively showing at the time brought me to an art show in Troy, New York where there was an opening. She had me bring some of my cardboard paintings to display. I had never shown them to the public prior to this, let alone attend mini art shows. I hung several (well I should say I taped them to the wall hahaha) and sold two of them that night. That blew my mind so hard I will never forget that feeling! It was a state of confusion. I showed them the back and said “Are you sure? This is on a Lucky Charms box.” That feeling of confusion or shock that someone likes your work enough to own it no matter what it's on still gets me! Every piece that someone likes enough to commit to being the owner of means so much to me to this day. I guess the reason I started painting on cardboard was because it is free. I always put so much pressure on myself and experienced anxiety over drawing on anything of value such as artists’ drawing paper or sketchbook or canvas. It's silly I know but it first introduced me to painting on trash where there was literally no pressure. The more you work with these pieces of trash, the more you learn their unique characteristics.
Also, it's probably important to note that I am very fortunate that I do not like to paint on material such as paper and canvas and your other traditional objects because I am a hoarder. I tend to have an issue with throwing things away and over-collecting things that I think is interesting. Luckily, if I do paint on one of those items they eventually find a new home. I'm not sure if the collecting of random things is due to wanting to paint on it or if the random things kicking around inspires the painting. In fact, it's definitely both.! Haha haha
You describe your art as "urban imagery", using monsters, teeth, buildings or city streets. It almost speaks to me ( as a totally non-artistic person) as components of society crying out. I also got that feeling in your "Distorted Life" Series. Do you feel that you are a pathway to a message that society as a whole is trying to relay? Or is it more your use of images of society to relay your own message?
I think many years ago when I first started showing my work I had considered it more urban due to its closer connection to, and inspiration from graffiti and street art. I am definitely still inspired by graffiti and street art. I know it's no fun to say this but I am way more interested in what my work says to the viewer rather than being too strict on getting my point across. There are a few series that I paid extra attention to the viewer in a specific direction. However, I would say overall that it's not very important for me to spell out what or where a piece came from specifically or what my message is, but more important, what the piece says to the viewer.
Tony, I loved so many things about this video! I loved the bright colors, I loved that there were so many people surrounding you connecting you to other artists and the joy of collaboration with them, I loved the music because it just added to the sensation of the art, and I loved that when you came close up to the finished painting the letters looked three dimensional. I think what I loved most about it is the collaboration of many "voices" of art. It was a community of creating art, not just a singular event. What was the most rewarding part of that creation?
Yeah that piece was a lot of fun. There is nothing better than collaborating and painting on a large scale. I absolutely love murals and I love working with other artists. You learn so much when you are working with another artist on a collaboration. The artist I collaborated with on that piece is named Caeden Lauber. I like dabbling in low-tech video making. Filming that piece, editing it and putting it together with music is fun all in itself as well. Another collaborator to that piece was the music by my friend Ian Bellassai and his father. I gave them some footage of what I was thinking of as far as how I would cut most of it together and they created something specifically for this project. It was a really, really cool experience and I hope to get the opportunity to work with visual art and audio art collaboration again.
Tell me about Black Haired Girl…
I'm going to remain somewhat mysterious about my explanation! To be completely honest I wanted the character, the black haired girl, to look mysterious in her black dress with her black hair. I wanted to have her look like she was waiting for something, and also I wanted it to be simplistic .
What year did you have your brain stem hemorrhage? What would you like to share with us about that time in your life?
I've had three brain hemorrhages and one brain surgery. I am so terrible with dates it's hard to believe that such important dates in my life wouldn't be ingrained in my mind but of course that's my reality LOL. The first brain hemorrhage was I believe early September 2010 or 2011. My next brain hemorrhage would be about a year-and-a-half later and then the third one would be about 6 months from the second one and the surgery a couple months after that. I guess one of the things I'd like to share is how amazing the whole situation was and is. I mean now I am most often annoyed by it. However, after the surgery I did not recover as much as I wanted to. Besides almost dying, the hemorrhage (or stroke) took away so many important bodily functions and caused problems like partial vision issues, hearing issues, standing, walking, using my arms and hands, swallowing, pretty much everything besides my mind. It didn't touch my cognitive function, thankfully. It was terrifying at the time but it was also a challenge to get better. And eventually over a period of time and lots of hard work I was able to get about 98% better. So that experience of being laid out so to speak and then getting everything back was one of the most, well actually the most important and amazing situation I had ever experienced in my life. I don't think anything else will ever match that. It put life into perspective and taught me very many lessons.
This devastating change in your function affected your vision, hearing and motor functions. Did you literally have to retrain your body to create art? Yes, you could say that. I was unable to do the style of art I was creating before the strokes, so as I worked to get better I kept on creating art but I had to learn to embrace a different style due to the limitations I had at the time. It was kind of like learning a new medium I guess, or new techniques that I would later use. Once I got healthy to about 98% again, I could bounce back and forth between different styles I had learned. After the surgery, I was left with many of the same deficits I had experienced each time I had the strokes and I am still dealing with some but not all and they do affect my art. My style is directly affected by the health issues I continue to experience and had experienced in the past, but also immersed in there are the memories of the style I was working towards for so long before these health issues. I don't like to be held back so I usually try to find a way to accomplish what I'm trying to do one way or another.
You mentioned that you lost your ability to draw and paint straight and controlled lines. At first you tried to ignore this, thinking the ability would come back to you. How did you go about retraining your body to create art again?
Yeah after the first bleed it eventually did come back but now it is extremely difficult once again. So whenever I do attempt to do clean straight lines these days it's at a great strain on my vision and dexterity. I still get it done when I need to but I tend to lean towards using a different style to influence what I'm trying to create.
Very true. One of my big things was I do not like to lose and I definitely view this as a challenge and I think maybe being competitive helped. It felt like me versus this illness at times. And I knew what I wanted. I've always wanted to create art. Granted, there were sometimes specific ways I wanted to create my art, but engineering a different way to create it in challenging situations was almost like trying to figure out the right formula.
I recently read a book based on an Alaskan Indian folk tale about two old women who were left to die by their tribe because they would be too much of a burden to them in the harsh winter. What the women discovered was that you don't really know how much strength you have until you have no choice but to survive. How do you feel about this story?
Very interesting. I like this on multiple levels. I've always been very interested in Native American history. My grandmother on my father's side is 100% Mexican and she had native blood in that family. I recently did a DNA test and found out I received 19% of that Native American DNA from her. But as far as the story goes, it's very true. Throughout my experience I've had many people tell me how strong I am or that they would be unable to do it if they were in this situation. And I get that. I'm sure I have said that to people as well before my strokes. I think we truly don't know how strong we are until we are knee-deep in the well. I do however find it very important to make your move, or take your next step even when you continually get knocked down. You're not guaranteed you'll find a way, but more power to you if you can, and you won't get the opportunity unless you take that next step. I think it's all about allowing yourself, maybe empowering yourself, to possibly get to where you're trying to go. The one thing is for certain: you won't get there if you don't put yourself in a potential position to jump at that shiny opportunity when you get a glimpse of it.
Were there other lessons you learned? What has your art since your hemorrhages taught you about your strength, your inspiration, your connection to this world?
Yeah definitely, I learned a lot about mortality, and how important it is to get inspired and take advantage of inspiration any chance you get. I'm also a big believer in trying to stay as positive as possible in life especially when you're trying to heal yourself whether physically or mentally, and I find it releasing or therapeutic to get some negativity out through my artwork sometimes. I don't know if that's super cliche; I had never naturally gone this route before all of this. But I'd be lying if I said it hasn't helped at times. And once again to comment on the viewer's interpretation being more important. Even with the pieces that I've used to get out some negativity, making it obvious for the viewer wasn't necessarily important. Sometimes it just trickles out and if it is obvious to the viewer, that's fine. As long as they are giving their honest try at interpreting it for themselves!If your art could speak, today as well as in the past- pre-hemorrhage- what would the message be?
That's a hard one. I think I want it to speak to existing. Overall, these works are proof that I existed in the least narcissistic way possible. It's still most important to me that the viewer has their own connection to each individual work or a series as a whole as long as it's a genuine interpretation for themselves. But the one consistent thing through all the works I've done and continue to do would be to establish a statement of proof that I existed, and in that existence each of my works has their own timeline on this Earth. They won't last forever as I won't either, but they are here now and for however long, just like myself. I hope my art documents a moment or moments for myself and also for whoever has viewed it. Once you have seen a piece of art (and this is probably true to any piece of art that you view), I think it marks a moment on this imaginary timeline somewhere in our memories. I think you retain that moment somewhere in your mind. Even if you temporarily forget about it, I think it's in there lingering and bumping around as you navigate through the world. Whether it has made a huge impression on you or just a subconscious impression, you viewed it and you can't take that back and it has changed you and that change, whether big or small or visible or in your subconscious, that change is proof that I existed.The world is your oyster! Where will you travel to next in your art world?
Like, if I had a free plane ticket and an opportunity waiting for me type deal? If so I would love to spend time being a traveling mural artist. Some of my favorite artists seem like they take some time and travel across the world doing murals. And I would love to work primarily in that medium for a period of time.
So many times art exists to elicit a response in the viewer, but it also is a window to the soul of the creator. Existence of art can also be a reflection of the existence of the artist himself. Tony’s art seemed to have saved him. It was a thread that kept him connected in the web of a world that he might have otherwise abandoned, or felt abandoned by. It gave him a purpose in his earlier years. It was his therapy in dealing with the anxieties in his life. It gave him the means to reclaim his life after suffering devastating strokes. To become the warrior in a situation that threatened to tear his life apart.
So many of our readers suffer from anxieties, searching for coping mechanisms, have searched for a place in their world, and have had their world shattered by unforeseen circumstances. My Christmas wish is that you are inspired by the connection of Tony Thompson to his life, his challenges, his world, the viewers of his art, and by his strength as he created points of connection in a world that repeatedly overwhelmed him with disconnects. My thanks to Tony for your candor and openness and inspiration!!.