Polish folktales meet sci-fi comics in Thom Trojanowski Hobson’s art. With a degree in painting from the Wimbledon College of Arts, London, Thom’s art is a riotous mix of colours, styles and mediums. Working in impasto oils, spray paint, plaster, and pencils, his part-sculptural paintings leap off the wall at the viewer. Figures inspired by characters from comic books feature in many of Thom’s paintings. These somewhat goofy or stylised forms are less representations of actual people than personifications of Thom’s ideas, experiences and emotions. For this reason Thom describes his art as “biographical”, but his art is by no means focused on identity politics. Rather, his expressive visual language incorporates figurative elements to convey symbolic narratives.
Stories are important to Thom. Some of his earliest memories involve listening to tales told by his Polish grandparents, and drawing ghoulish monsters from his imagination. These formative experiences have seeped into his art and colour it with tinges of cultural and childhood nostalgia. Many of Thom’s ideas for works are inspired by stories from his own experiences.
Thom borrows stylistic references from far and wide. His characteristically exuberant and playful visual language features popular culture motifs alongside fragmented cubist planes and cartoonish exaggerations. Not afraid to get his hands dirty and experiment, Thom recently has been exploring painted plaster sculptures. Recently, he made a series of fleshy-coloured painted sculptures resembling the trunks of trees. With dripping paint, protruding spikes and objects embedded into the body of the trunk, the works are at once comical and troubling; a kitsch caricature of nature, and a dire comment on the commodification of the natural world.
Thom lives in Suffolk and shares a studio with his wife, who is also an artist, in a disused airplane hangar that has been converted into artist studios. We caught up with Thom to find out more about his background, living in the countryside and making sculptural paintings.
AMM: Hi Thom! Could you tell us about your first creative experience and share some of the most vivid memories that have shaped your artistic vision to date?
TT: Drawing around the dinner table played a big part of mine and my sisters’ upbringing. My whole family can draw. We’d take regular trips to the Natural History Museum—both my parents are zoologists – and my dad would challenge me to help him draw the most horrific ‘monster’ I could. When I was about ten, we went to the Tate Modern and I remember seeing ‘Portrait of a Doctor’ by Francis Picabia. Walking around with my eyes on stalks, I kept having to go back to look at it some more. It blew my mind that this could also be what a painting looked like.
AMM: We understand you were playing in a band before becoming a visual artist. Could you tell us about this transition?
TT: I had been playing in a band with my closest friends from the age of fifteen, finally getting a record deal with Universal just as my art foundation was finishing. My intention had been to go to art school but the time was now with music. The band then took up the next six years with touring, making records and playing festivals. I’m very grateful for that experience as it took me to places in the world I wouldn’t have been able to see, coming from a humble background. An increase in downloading music and not buying records anymore led to the label dropping us and all other acts that weren’t making them money. We took it as a chance for a little breather from each other, as touring had been pretty intense. I spent some time standing silently, blinking, wondering what to do with myself. I got a job in a call centre and whilst working there I was making pictures on the work computer in MS Paint. My colleague encouraged me to apply for art school, so I printed all of these images off, bound them in an office folder that I took from work and used this as my portfolio to grant me access to the painting course at UAL Wimbledon. Looking back I’m pretty surprised they let me in with that. It took five minutes of being in a structured environment, art school, with a proper studio, to realise I’d made the right decision. I was 25 by this point, so a bit older than the other students. Having already had an experience of living away from home and in nightlife I wasn’t interested in going out or making friends as much. So I gave my full attention and determination to make best use of my time and space there, that I was paying through the nose for.
AMM: What was the name of the band?
TT: The Cheek.
AMM: We admire your ability to combine 2- and 3-dimensional collage-like techniques where sculptural elements physically coexist outside and within your paintings. How did this aesthetic style develop?
TT: I have such an admiration and love for sculpture but no real knowledge or understanding of it. I think it was maybe a way of me dipping my toe in the water and using painting as a safety blanket, haha. I now fully embrace structural, 3D wall based works and am happy to call them paintings. It’s also hard for me to know when to stop and rein it in a little bit, my studio can be a bit of ‘chucking everything at the wall and seeing what sticks’, literally. My wife, Stevie, is quite good at getting me to take a breather and have a second look at the work. I sometimes worry I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Art is just so exciting, I want it all!
AMM: You seem to play and experiment a lot with your work, when do you know a certain piece is complete?
TT: The second I put it down. I work quite quickly, with little patience. And whilst I’m working on one thing I’m thinking of two different works I want to make. This isn’t a good trait and I’m learning to slow things down to help reflect, and perfect. I’ve started making work in a series, helping me to refine the image I’m trying to put out there.
AMM: What is your colour philosophy?
TT: I guess it’s primarily intuitive, and at the moment I’m very pulled towards pinks, reds, oranges and the in-betweens. If you dig deeper, these colours are often found in traditional Polish folk paintings. My parents’ house looks and feels very Polish. It’s filled with wooden furniture that my Mum has hand-painted in floral folk design, where these colours are prevalent. The red in the Polish flag is to represent ‘rivers of blood’, recalling the struggle for the country’s freedom. My Grandfather fought for freedom by helping set up Radio Free Europe against the Nazis. I’m proud of and nostalgic for my heritage, and the role my grandparents played in their history. And it bleeds into my work. The ideology of Nazis still exists today, within and outside of Europe, and we should actively be fighting against that ideology.
AMM: Let’s talk about the intriguing comic-like characters and narratives depicted in your works. Who are they and what do they represent?
TT: Very often autobiographical, sometimes to represent a state of our current world. A character can be an embodiment of a mood, such as love or fear.
I feel often what the characters look like is slightly unimportant, they’re just vessels for the narratives in the paintings or sculptures. For instance an image that looks like a cross, initially people only read in relation to religion, but actually they are just an amalgamation of my very individual experience. I was forever drawing monsters, ghouls and cartoons as a kid. Reading Dan Dare, listening to Polish folk stories being told to me by my imaginative parents. All of these characters and hybrids of alien animals awoke my imagination and have made their way into my work. I guess I never stopped drawing; and for me the stories were the epitome of a distant place. Maybe that’s why when I work, I always make the work within a story.
AMM: Quite a lot of your characters appear to have a prominent feature in some of your past works – a round-shaped head. Could you elaborate on this idea within your visual language?
TT: As a kid I read a lot of Dan Dare; those stories were the epitome of a future world to me. These characters and hybrids of alien animals have appeared in my work, for sure. What the characters look like has changed with where my inspiration or point of interest is coming from at the time. I guess right now they look a bit lunar, as I fell for George Melies’ film ‘A Trip to the Moon’ last year. In 1902, his depiction of what it might be like out there had to be completely imagined. This naiveness is easy to build on as anything is possible in the world of Melies—there are no rights or wrongs in an unexplored world.
My father teaches in ecology and conservation and he delivers lectures on sustainability; how to keep the planet from tipping over the edge into crisis. After attending some of his lectures I remembered back when I was a teen the phrase “it’s okay because we can live on the moon when it all goes tits up” being thrown around. The ‘anything is possible’ mentality of Melies was echoed again in the early 2000s. Maybe there is something recognisable on the dark side of the moon? Maybe George was onto something? The set is different, the atmosphere is made up of different gasses, but relationships still experience the same joys and follies as they do here on earth.
AMM: Given the very cartoonish nature of your narratives, does humour play a big part in your work?
TT: A sense of humour is essential, life is too serious to be taken seriously.
AMM: Your 2018 solo exhibition ‘From Sarmatia to Star’ at the Chopping Block gallery was especially striking. This show had a profound connection to your interest in Hermetic foundations of Polish culture—where your family’s heritage lies. Can you speak about the link of sculptural elements and paintings within this installation? What thoughts and ideas were you trying to get across to the viewer?
TT: Whilst doing some reading I came across an ancient alphabet of Polish occult symbols. Back when Poland was first founded, the original tribes had these sets of symbols. They used these to define each tribe and called their specific symbol a ‘Cry Out’. The ‘Cry Out’ would be something each tribe would scream on their way into battle. It made its way through history, making it onto coats of arms and to be used as a form of identity and guidance. Over time the original meanings of many of the symbols have been lost and forgotten—so I planned to give meaning back to a set of these symbols, picking four things that I feel are crucial to the human race for survival. For example, one of the symbols looks like the Ministry of Sound logo, so I modernised this symbol to mean ‘Unity’. There’s not much more unifying and levelling than a room of humans dancing to the same beat. I also found one of the original symbols within my old family crest that had actually managed to retain its original meaning. The character had the word ‘Ostoja’ underneath it, meaning ‘Refuge’. A word that today I find necessary, relevant and warming.
AMM: Apart from Polish culture and tradition reminiscences occurring frequently in your work, are there any other dominating concepts and ideas that shape your art?
TT: My parents being scientists, ecology, biodiversity and the current state of the environment were always and are still some of the main topics of conversation when I go home. Living in the middle of the countryside, most days I’m in the forest with my wife and Lydia, our dog. I spent the first six years of my life living in the middle of Wyre Forest in Worcestershire with my nose to the ground, receiving my primary education from nature. This is something I’ve very much carried with me and feel very passionate about. It seems to be only in the last year that a vast group of people are starting to finally wake up that this world is burning and drastic changes need to be made. These worries and concerns played an integral part in my upbringing and also in my artistic practice.
AMM: Your studio is situated at an old American air base in Suffolk. It sounds enthralling; must be an incredible location for developing a creative practice! Describe your day in the studio. How does the setting of this studio space affect what you are doing?
TT: We feel very lucky to be able to work there. The studios there are big and cheap and we’re fortunate to share the building with some like-minded artists. There is a great gallery space in the centre of Asylum Studios in which we all share the running of the curatorial and residency program. As Asylum Studios is set up as a co-operative, each member has a say in what we do, and how we do it. The airbase itself is very atmospheric, long runways with old disused jet fighter planes strewn across the landscape helps set the tone for the day. I wouldn’t say that the setting has a direct influence on our practices other than the fact that it’s fairly close to the house and quite secluded, giving us more time and space. I work well in the mornings and I’m up really early with the dog so we walk around the forest surrounding the airbase. Filling the body with clean oxygen is a great start to a productive day.
AMM: You and your wife, Stevie Dix, are both artists living and working together every day side by side. In what ways do you affect each other’s work and progress?
TT: Stevie and I paint in the same room, which is plenty big enough to accommodate both of us. We’re not just partners but also best friends who respect each other’s practice, although they are quite different from one another. It’s helpful to have another critical brain there that you trust to help you through the normal insecurities and moments of doubt that come with making work. To tell you when something is bad or to high five you when you’ve nailed it. We are each other’s biggest supporters. It’s also good to share painting tips with each other and to have someone to share lunch with. There may be a few cases where one of us lands on a technique and the other one borrows, but other than that our practices are very much off on different tangents.
AMM: Before relocating to London you used to live in Antwerp, Belgium. Does travel influence your practice?
TT: Definitely. People, architecture, food, politics, natural environment…. even the small differences, it’s all intriguing. I think it’s essential for any artist to have opportunity to visit new places, no matter what your practice may be, just to keep your eyes open to societal and environmental shifts.
One of the things I noticed whilst walking around the streets of Antwerp was the abundance of large, Catholic icons depicting Madonna mounted to the sides of the buildings, even in small back streets. After asking some questions I found out that when street lights first came to the city in the 1800s, the city would make sure that every street with an icon would be provided with light to illuminate the shrine. The people of Antwerp fast started making their own “fake” icons and attaching them to the sides of their homes so the city would fit street lights and run the power to that street. Families would then tap the power and run their homes with it. I found this exploitation of a religion amusing. After living there for quite a while and integrating into Antwerp life I didn’t feel that Catholicism played any part in anyone’s lives anymore, yet it’s impossible to find a shop open on a Sunday. Sunday is taken off as a day of rest, originally in the name of religion, but now it’s the day where the techno clubs stay open longer from the night before. It’s also amusing how Belgians hunger for the street light has grown to such a beast that they are now Europe’s most light-polluted country; even the motorways in the middle of nowhere are illuminated at three in the morning.
I adapted the cross in some of my paintings from that time as a sign of double meaning, or to show something for not what it may seem. It’s not a symbol I have used often, as it is loaded with thick amour. To be honest, it’s an easy comment for me to make so flippantly as I’m not religious. After that, I did a collaborative project with my friends, Drones Club, who are a dance outfit. The symbol that Drones work under is their own format of a cross with a point next to it. It’s a cross, or structure, seen from an isometric point of view – it represents seeing the world under the left hand light (represented by the point on the symbol). It’s more twisted but carrying a more complete truth, represented by the evocation of a 3rd dimension. The collaboration manifested itself in me making a series of works in response to their EP, White Crocodile. It’s this cross that I have painted far more than the cross of Christianity.
AMM: Your work looks vivid, expressive, innovative and versatile. Are there any other hidden in-depth sides to your art, which aren’t as noticeable to the viewer’s eye at first glance?
TT: As my friends and family will all tell you, I’m not a particularly subtle guy and very much wear my heart on my sleeve. So probably not.
AMM: Were there any major milestones in your artistic career, any big life lessons that you might share with us?
TT: Making the decision to move out of London in the chase of cheaper and bigger studios. We had visited Antwerp previously whilst living in London, and had become sick of London rental prices so thought sod it, packed up our stuff and moved to Belgium. We didn’t know a lot of people in Antwerp so there was a sense of me and her against the world. We found a large open plan apartment for very little money turned it into a live/work studio space, both of us making lots of work like it was the most important thing in the world. After that, we couldn’t ever imagine living somewhere like London again where our time in the studio was compromised by financial strain.
We now live in Suffolk, where I’m originally from, as the flat in Antwerp got sold. Living in the countryside is quite daunting at times and there is a certain level of fear of missing out, like current exhibitions and gigs. But all of that is outweighed by the studio and house rent and the freedom to walk our dog in the forest. Having cheaper costs of living ultimately means more studio time. It’s been a highly productive period for both of us.
We are longing to be part of Belgian culture again and looking to move to Brussels in the future to reap the benefits of a diverse social culture. There are areas on the outskirts of the city which are good for artists and also have good open space for dogs. We both benefit from mixing it up once in a while. I love Brussels a lot and find it very inspiring and lively. Other than these different places I can’t think of any significant milestones. Making art is just part of daily life, and every day you try harder and maybe learn something new. It’s a gradual uphill rather than big moments.
AMM: If you could go back in time to live and work as an artist in any particular year and art movement, which one would it be?
TTH: I’m finding this question hard to answer. I very much live in the present and have never found myself yearning to live in a different period of time. I’m enjoying how increasingly diverse and accepting this current art climate is, and that’s not to say there isn’t still a huge amount of work to be done by all of us on that front. But I hope it’s becoming a little less straight, white-male led than it was in the past.
Find out more about the artist: www.thomtrojanowski.com
Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.