A somewhat entrepreneurial dalliance with Melbourne’s graffiti scene and a streetwear start-up during his teenage years led artist Tom Adair into the world of fashion after high school. Designing and curating homeware collections for Australian furniture mecca Jardan presented itself as the next obvious path for the intrinsically creative spirit.
But it was the quiet desire to make art and its increasing gravitational pull during these formative years that delivered him to the well-worn fork in the proverbial road: to take the leap and pursue making art full-time or follow the momentum of established commercial success? “Art won,” says Tom who is fresh from having presented his collection ‘CHROMATONES’ in a solo show at Sydney’s Nanda\Hobbs gallery.
Daily Architecture News caught up with Tom to talk about the ups and downs of showing his recent collection of work during a particularly tumultuous time in the world, how the lockdown forced a pivot in the way he presented his work to collectors and art-lovers, and what’s getting him out of bed at 5.45am each morning. Read on.
DAN: Can you tell us about yourself and your approach to making art?
Tom Adair: I come from an unconventional path into the art world – a commercial world without formal art education. I’ve always naturally gravitated to being creative with my hands. From an early age, I could always be found drawing, painting or building things in the garage at home.
Toward the end of my high school years, I discovered graffiti while taking trips to the city [from the Mornington Peninsula] and was motivated to start a clothing brand with street art-inspired screen prints. That led me to later enrol and study fashion at RMIT with a side-gig of painting on the streets at night. Eventually, I realised that if I wanted a professional career where I could freely travel the world, that it would be best to trade the streets for studio practice.
Seven years after fashion had swallowed me up, I decided a career in homewares and furniture would be a nice transfer of skills and more sustainable long-term, so I approached [furniture brand] Jardan and expressed how much I wanted to work for them. I became the homewares manager and began designing and buying their homewares ranges. Working for such an esteemed Australian company that holds high regard for authentic design really influenced how I approached my art. My time at Jardan was very formative for me by exposing me to the workings, professional practices and relationships of the interior design and architecture world.
Eventually, I had to make a decision between a career in art or a career in the commercial world. Art won. Since then, I have had to learn really quickly, as not having a formal education has presented a steep learning curve in regards to art history and theory. But I have been very proactive in learning as much as I can by talking to as many other artists, gallery owners, or critics in the industry. They have helped to guide me and give me advice. Since doing this, I keep opening new doors to the art world that I never knew existed and it’s been a very enjoyable journey of discovery.
It’s still early days as a professional full-time artist but I have a clearer vision of where I’d like to go, how to get there, what my interests are and what art and my voice is really all about.
DAN: What is a current or an ongoing source of creative inspiration for you?
TA: I have always found inspiration in falsehoods of appearance, illusions of reality, human interaction within the environment as well as technology and digital media. I have most commonly explored this through the built form as a motif. I find it interesting that when material possessions and facades are removed we are able to see the truth and vulnerability up close, similar to how my paintings are viewed – they are perfect images when viewed from afar but they disintegrate the closer you get and you can see all the faults and imperfections. The same way people have their own personal issues that are unmasked when you dig a little deeper behind their fancy things.
Since having discussions and working with some key people within the art world, I have shifted how I find inspiration and how I approach my work. The latest series is definitely the first time I’ve used investigation and research to inform my practice. While painting my latest series, I was informed by how humans live within the environment and the intersection of control – Mother Nature or humans? The desert landscape is rugged and a perfect place to analyse this ongoing arm-wrestle.
Previously, I sourced inspiration from imagery I was drawn to. But I’ve flipped that and now let themes I’ve researched influence and guide the images needed to communicate my thoughts and messages through my paintings.
DAN: Your latest collection ‘CHROMATONES’ recently showed at Nanda\Hobbs Contemporary in Sydney and depicts the modernist mid-century architecture of Palm Springs. What sparked this focus?
TA: For ‘CHROMATONES’, I took a three-week road trip through the West American deserts of California and Arizona – Mojave Desert, Palm Desert and down to Tucson, Arizona and the Saguaro National Park which was the basis for my investigation of houses in the desert.
When I first discussed the show with Ralph Hobbs [director at Nanda\Hobbs Contemporary], I immediately knew I wanted to go back to California. I was first drawn there two years ago for the architecture, but I wanted to revisit the area looking through a new lens. For this new series, I wanted to explore the meeting point, where the equilibrium lies, between the earth and humans living within it – built form in the landscape.
While the architecture I’ve included in the paintings is mid-century, I have tried to paint the new work with a focus on the meeting point between the human-built form and the natural environment. Luckily this part of the world – and the meeting point – has the beautiful architecture of the 60s!
For me, the deserts in California and Arizona are particularly interesting because of the unique landscape in which homes and the desert conditions co-exist. The deserts I visited are extremely rugged and I think a great example of how architecture is built around the landscape, the environmental conditions, and it’s hard to tell who’s encroaching – humans on the landscape or vice versa. It’s an even tug of war. This is what I set out to capture in my works.
DAN: The collection was released as a digital experience during the Covid-19 pandemic. What were the learnings from this adjustment, and do you think this more accessible method of showing art will impact future exhibitions?
TA: Covid-19 wasn’t much of an issue while I was painting my show but then quickly became very serious. My representing gallery, Nanda\Hobbs, and I had to adjust very quickly to showing the work in a new online format or risk cancelling or postponing the show. At the time, it was unknown how other artists and galleries would adapt but now, as the dust has settled, it seems like most galleries and art fairs have moved to a digital platform with various iterations of viewing ‘rooms’ or 3D virtual tours of physical spaces. This technology has been around for a while in other industries, such as real estate, to create virtual tours.
The visual art world has always been more inclined to have physical interaction, but the pandemic has changed the game. As an artist, it’s always a great achievement to have an opening to celebrate and show your work to people. But while this isn’t currently possible, the positive for having exhibitions online is the reach you can achieve to expose your work to a wider audience. It’s much easier for anyone to hop online for five minutes and see a show than to travel across town in an Uber, let alone travel interstate or internationally.
My experience from the virtual show was great sales-wise, but I definitely missed talking directly to collectors and admirers of my work and explaining the concept, meanings and process behind my work. The limitation of showing online is that you miss the textures and intricacies of the materials that have been hand-worked. That for me was the biggest disappointment.
With a large percentage of galleries and artists moving to online it has also created much more content to consume. My inbox and Instagram have been inundated with new shows and new works which is hard to take in. There is also a risk that artists aren’t getting paid for their time when creating new content at such a rapid pace – just so they can be ‘seen’.
Moving forward, I think the art world will naturally gravitate back to physical openings. However, I think the lower cost to put on digital exhibitions will see them becoming more regular events throughout the year between the normal yearly schedule of fairs and exhibitions.
DAN: Career highlight so far?
TA: Gee, this is a hard one. I have been very fortunate that a lot of things have fallen positively in my favour. That’s not to say there hasn’t been lots of hard work, but I am very grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way so far.
For me, my short professional career highlights include getting my first solo exhibition in September 2018, something I’d talked about for over five years. Also, being asked to be fully represented by Nanda\Hobbs – it really validated my practice. Having a solo show at Art Basel week in Miami with an LA gallery in December 2019, and having a sell-out exhibition during Covid-19 with an entirely new body of work in Sydney, in May of this year.
DAN: What are the most covetable pieces on your wish-list?
DAN: Is there a project that you are most looking forward to in the future?
TA: Moving into a new studio in 2021 and creating something special that hasn’t been done in an art studio yet. I’m not sure what that is yet, but I’ve been throwing around a few ideas. Something inner-city, maybe with an element that’s open to the public.
DAN: Sky’s the limit: what’s a dream project for you?
TA: Getting some work into a collection at one of Australia’s great national galleries such as the NGV [National Gallery of Victoria], NGA [National Gallery of Australia], AGNSW [Art Gallery of New South Wales], MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art Australia] or having a retrospective in 10 years from now.
DAN: Finally, art-related or not, can you tell us something we probably don’t know about you?
TA: I am one of the Run Bosses of the 440 Run Club in South Yarra, a free community running club that was founded in Bronte, Sydney, and has taken off around the world in different cities. We start in the dark at 5.45am and run 440 metres up Anderson St hill at The Tan for up to 10 laps. It’s super fun and I’ve met some amazing people that inspire me to do wonderful things outside of art.
Follow Tom Adair on Instagram.