Thom Kofoed’s varied practice incorporates working across mediums, charming, evocative portraiture and the recognition and emphasis of cultural relevance. His unique style uses illustrative and painterly marks, as well literary and poetical devices to create varied, substantial pieces whose power goes far beyond the marks on the surface. We caught up with him about his recent show You are an ocean and I am a living thing at The Poetry Society, his weekly newsletter Celebrate the Mountains and how and what inspires him to create the work he does.
Tegen: Your recent exhibition ‘You are an ocean and I am a living thing’, which was held at The Poetry Society, London, consisted of a wonderful collection of female icons that make up your anthology of women poets. These included a broad and vast range, could you explain to us why these poets, comedians, artists and stars appealed to you?
Thom: I was asked by the Poetry Society to create an exhibition for them after a member of their team saw an exhibition I had last year. Their only request was that it had a link to poetry. I love poetry but when I really tried to think about the work of female poets I was shown when I was at school I could only really think of three or four. It made me realise that I had spent my life building an anthology of female poets outside the traditional ideas of poetry because I was searching for that voice. The women I chose to be in this exhibition are all women that have had a profound affect on my practice as a writer and an artist.
Tegen: The variety of media you use is fascinating and while in past writing or interviews you’ve said that your idea dictates the medium you use, could you explain or elaborate on how you choose a medium; why a particular subject needs a drawing, or a watercolour or a monoprint or something else entirely? Your palette also massively shifts from piece to piece so could you give us an insight into those choices as well?
Thom: I’m going to try and not sound horribly pretentious answering this and I’m sure some people will roll their eyes (I’m rolling them saying it) but I really don’t choose the medium. The idea appears to me fully formed. When I decided to make a piece of work about Dolly Parton, for instance, I knew it needed to be big and in acrylic; I didn’t decide to make a piece of work about Dolly and then think about the medium. I also get bored very quickly so probably wouldn’t finish one acrylic painting and start another. The artist Anne Truitt says in her book ‘Daybook’ (which you have to read if you haven’t) that in order to make work your hand needs to be ‘in’. Or rather, if you’re having an off day, don’t force the process. Sticking to one medium is sort of like forcing the process for me. The work becomes sloppy and insincere and un-makeable.
And my palette! That’s a really interesting observation. I work a lot from photographs and if I’m working in colour I try to stay as truthful as possible to what I’m seeing, so it’s not something I really consider. I love making mistakes though so there are occasions when my brush isn’t clean and I’ll accidentally paint something red and then leave it.
Tegen: A lot of your work focuses on women (in particular strong, emotive women) and their experience, how do you position yourself in relationship to this/ them and (a ridiculously large question) could you give us an idea of your understanding of what being a women means, and maybe what being a feminist can mean?
Thom: I have no idea of what being a woman means and I don’t think it’s my place to speak to that. What I can say is that a huge number of the really influential people in my life (family, friends and the people I admire in the world) are women, and that has always felt incredibly important to me.
That being said, I don’t think the work I make is necessarily about the female experience, but rather of my relationship to the female experience, if that makes sense.
I consider myself a feminist because I believe that we are each born with the right to be treated equally to everybody else. A person should not have to earn that right. I also think it’s hugely important that women have male allies. In fact I think it’s important that any marginalised person has allies outside of whatever it is that makes them marginalised. Equal rights for women isn’t a female issue, it’s a human one.
Tegen: How do you build up your ideas, where do they start and how do they develop? Do you make sketches or what is your process? Similarly, since you’re a writer as well as a visual artist, do you think this affects your working method and do the words feed your visuals pieces or the other way around? Do you tend to work on the same theme in both art forms?
Thom: I don’t really have a process in honesty. I hate preliminary sketches and never do them, instead going straight to the final piece. And how I decide what I’m going to make is pretty ordinary. If I find that I’m thinking a lot about a person or an event it usually means that I need to make something to get them out of my system. I don’t work on multiple things at once because my working style can vary so much from piece to piece and I find that it muddies my head, so I have to work through the idea before moving onto the next one.
I’m an over-sharer (is there really such a thing??!) so my writing is hugely personal and draws a lot on my own experiences and feelings. Whilst my visual work strays from that it still feels hugely personal because I make portraits of people I really admire, that have had a massive affect on my life in some way or another, so I think in that sense they almost certainly overlap.
Tegen: Celebrate the Mountains is your and John Murray’s stunning weekly newsletter (subscribe to it now here) which contains visual art, poetry, essays quotations and submissions, with each newsletter being thematically linked for that week. Why and how did you start this project and could you tell us more about how you choose the themes and where you hope the project will go?
Thom: Strangely it was something we had both been thinking about doing and it came up in conversation and we were like “I’ve been wanting to do that!” so it just seemed logical that we’d do it together. It really started as a way of giving ourselves a deadline to create something. It comes out every week, so every week we need to have at least one thing each to include, so it keeps us present in our practices. We choose the themes differently each time. So it could be that one of us has been working on a certain idea and then the other will work in response to that. Or it could be a time of year thing or something that’s been in the news. We open up for submissions too so occasionally it’s inspired by a piece of work by somebody else. Going forward it would be great if we could create a collection to publish but we’re really taking it week by week.
Tegen: While doing your degree in Fine Art at Brighton you worked mainly in textiles and film, how do you feel this has affected your portraiture and have you carried any techniques across? Also, your work combines illustrative and painterly styles and marks, was this a natural development or something you cultivated? What do you hope to achieve with it?
Thom: I painted one time during my whole degree and my focus wasn’t really on portraiture until after I graduated. I worked large scale at university and so I started drawing and illustrating small portraits really out of necessity once I left because I no longer had these big spaces in which to work. I found out quickly that it was something that I really loved but because I hadn’t studied that in any particular depth during my degree I spent a lot of my time making up a style and feeling like a bit of a fraud. The portfolio that I created during that time was me discovering what sort of an artist I was and so illustration and fine art blurred into one thing and I stopped making a distinction between them.
I think art can be very overwhelming for a lot of people who believe that you need to be an expert to enjoy it. I’ve always loved art and I take it very seriously and I believe it has a very important role to play in the world….but I also think it’s a bit silly. I want my work to seem approachable and I want it have a sense of humour and I think my style helps with that.
Tegen: This is a slightly mean question to ask a mixed media artist but if you could only choose three art materials what would they be and why?
Thom: That’s horribly cruel! But I always return to a mechanical pencil because drawing is really where my love of art began. I always carry a pencil and sketchbook in my bag too in case I see something I want to scribble down. Erm….watercolours I think because I love how it feels to paint with them and I also really enjoy how uncool people find them. And…..a needle and thread because I enjoy the monotony of sewing and I reckon that also means I have most bases covered!
Tegen: Where do you find it easiest to create? Is there a special environment or a way you like to set up? And is there anything in particular that makes you more prolific at any given moment?
Thom: I’m very lucky to have a studio that’s very quiet and has really brilliant light so I do most of the work in there. I’m also really strict about times so I work from 9.30am – 5pm. I read about a writer once (whose name I can’t remember) who said that if they were having a bad day writing they made sure they stayed at their desk until 5pm, even if they were just sitting staring at their computer, and if they were having a good day writing they still made sure they left at 5pm. So I try to do that.
And if I’m being really honest what makes me most prolific is streaming Netflix whilst I work. Right now I’m very much into re-watching ‘Party of Five’.
Tegen: The title of your latest show (that I mentioned earlier) includes a reference to the sea, as do several of your poems and pieces of writing. You grew up and have spent a lot of your life in Hastings (and have written with great poignancy on growing up in a seaside town), do you feel that that landscape and homeland has affected you and your work? If so how?
Thom: That’s a really interesting question and it’s something that I’ve thought about often. The town has changed a lot in the last few years but just after I finished my degree I had a lot of push back from people who couldn’t understand why I wasn’t making seascapes and paintings of fishing boats. The work I was making just didn’t make sense to them. My reference points were too obscure. What I found interesting seemed to rub people up the wrong way. And so I went at it quite hard and really stood my ground. I continued making paintings of the cast of Dynasty to sort of spite them all and they eventually came around. And I love the sea ( I have a view of it from my studio) and it holds a real magic for me that comes directly from growing up so close to it so I know it informs my work in ways I don’t yet recognise.
The title of my exhibition came from a poem I wrote and really speaks to the idea that everything begins in the ocean and we are all products of that, and in the same way I feel I am a product of the women in the exhibition.
Tegen: Your practice says a huge amount about what and who inspires you but we’d love to hear straight from the horse’s mouth, what are your key inspirations and how do you find that inspiration?
Thom: I’m inspired by people who live honestly, and who are spending their time searching for the things that light them up from the inside. I’m really drawn to people who speak passionately about the things they love. I’m inspired by books, by history, by old television programmes from the 1980s. Queer culture. Movies. Ballsy women on stage. Music. Really all the obvious, clichéd things that people say when asked about their inspirations. I’m inspired by loud people living kindly.
Tegen: In your artist statement you mention that you’re always scared you won’t leave your mark on the world in time, is this still something you worry about? What are you working on currently and what’s next for your creative journey?
Thom: I’m less worried about it now I’m older strangely. I was paralysed by the idea of being forgotten when I died but it feels horribly solipsistic to think that now. I would love for my work to make some kind of an impact on the world but it’s really not my business. My focus is in the making of the work. What happens to me or it after that is out of my control.
Right now I’m coming off the back of my exhibition and working on some commissions and design stuff. I’m trying to learn some new skills (screenprinting is a focus at the moment) because I’m keen to expand my output.
Tegen: Where online and in the flesh can we see your visual work and your writing?
Thom: I’m on Instagram and Twitter (@thomkofoed on both) and I have a brand new website and mailing list (thomkofoed.com) I also sell a lot of original works, prints, badges on etsy (https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/ThomKofoed?ref=search_shop_redirect) and my work is available on various objects over at artwow.co.uk
You can sign up to my co-curated weekly newsletter Celebrate the Mountains at celebratethemountains.co.uk
I have a few things in the pipeline at the moment (including a pop-up shop) but they’re all in the planning stages so it’s best to sign up to my mailing list to be kept updated.
The image at the top is: You are an ocean and I am a living thing , 2018, Thom Kofoed, Pencil, 16x23in