Narrative plays an important role within creative’s life, whether it’s from writing to painting.

A couple of months ago I attended Danny Aldred’s New Art of Making Books (a dream day for me really). With discussions on the direction that the digital leads and the future that the physical book maintains there was a really amazing group of people attending.

One of those creative’s attending was Tom Mortimer, a Fine Art graduate of 2011 from Winchester School of Art. Having recently started ‘Visualisation’ I’m always on the look out for people who work image and text and Tom’s work proudly answered this.

Swapping business cards, as you do, we got talking and this is the result.

Nicola Manuel: Hello Tom. Thank you for agreeing to do an interview for Soapbox Press. As a graduate of Fine Art you work across various mediums, but how would you describe your working tendencies and what do you want your work to say about you?

Tom Mortimer: Hello. There’s a nice technique I find where if you’re working across several projects you can have a break and procrastinate with one by working on another, keeping an eye on deadlines of course. That way it’s all positive, although it’s also a good idea to have proper breaks as well or the brain can clog up or crash. I usually have a walk at least once a day (take some paper and pen when you’re out just in case because some great ideas can come during that time).

Like most artists I’m part of my work, but I’m also removed from view through it. I don’t really know what I want it to say about me as I’m not the topic. I would think it would project itself first with my inclusion as simply secondary traces.

A book might stay a book or become an electronic tablet…

NM: You were selling various works at the NAOMB day, how did you choose what you wanted to sell?

TM: I created a new comic/zine piece called LERGH especially for the day. If I’m honest, it was a project I was dying to try for a while I just needed a good enough reason to put it into action.

LERGH explores the comic medium; especially possibilities with depicting narrative and that seemed to fit the event’s concept of the possible future for books. A book might stay a book or become an electronic tablet or holographic projection or whatever, but it’s had many formats before all of this and to a certain extent it was all about narrative, not just stories but the way the symbols are read (be they text or images). While the content explores possibilities, the format of the zine itself sticks with digitally printed pages. But then I quite like pages because I spend enough time staring at a computer screen as it is, it’s an interesting mix of digital and analogue and there are whole other discussions we could have on ‘the object’ and ‘collectables’.

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NM: WSA students will have heard of the Chapel Arts Studio, which you are a part of. How did you come to being a member? Has this been an impact on your life and has it offered opportunities to yourself?

TM: Although it’s an art studio, which is usually artist working on their own practice, it’s also a major contributor to contemporary art activity both in Andover, where it’s based in a converted chapel (thus the name), and in a wider network sense. Other studios are doing this too, such as the artist run NewRED studios in Salisbury. That takes a lot to keep going and you can’t really put that weight on studio space owners so I established an Associate Artist position and began setting up and holding residencies, events and exhibitions.

I didn’t go to London after my BA degree, there are plenty of artists there, we need some support over here and it’s paid me back with experience I can call my own, my CV is probably triple what it was before I started.

David Dixon is the lead artist and co-ordinator and he’s brilliant. You’re always on the same page, at the same level and the goal is visible.

We’re not always working in a contemporary art environment but in a way that’s good because you’re still in touch with what’s outside that bubble, which was a good or challenging experience after being in the art-school context so three years. Interestingly perhaps, I set up a Visiting Artist position at a local junior school to test degree level thinking at a basic level and the results are beautifully promising. Kids can understand it to a respectable degree, and with the right support they can deliver it too, the difficulty is getting them to take ownership, to see that they can learn for themselves to express themselves and not because they’ve been told to or to impress an adult. But then I don’t push them too hard, not beyond recreational levels in that area, because for many of us it wasn’t initially a life calling, it was just a hobby if that and that’s important too. We’re probably jealous of that at times.

NM: Working within education definitely sounds rewarding, which kindly leads me on to my next question. The step from leaving university to entering the world of work is a large step, and a daunting one for future graduates. How did you find the transition between working within university and freelance? Was it anything like you expected?

TM: Money is not regular and you have to work to get work before you can work on it. Then sometimes it falls through. Artist fees seem a lot, but when you compare against the hours it takes, it probably works out often less then minimum wage. And that’s the nasty stuff out of the way…

The nice thing about working with collectives and making connections is that others look out for you. They pass things on, things that you may not have seen or haven’t had time to find and sometimes they’re fantastic opportunities.

David at the studios has offered me some assistant work on a few of his projects, including a large scale community engaging installation piece at Danebury Hill. I’d recommend that others pass stuff on too, have some group shows, it takes a lot off a burden and they can pay back in time. Although it goes without saying that you should pick your artists in relation to what needs to be delivered.

People debating as a sport… the topics and points they discuss becoming no more then rackets and tennis balls to further their game where they should be exploring perhaps articulations and applications.

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NM: “To what extent do we enter something if every step forward involves fragmenting, replication or new imaginings?” What has led you to create work that orbits representation and narrative? Where is it leading?

TM: It’s possibly worth mentioning, just to set up a context for an answer, how degrading it is for a subject, when you see two people debating as a sport… the topics and points they discuss becoming no more then rackets and tennis balls to further their game where they should be exploring perhaps articulations and applications. No doubt one of the reasons we hate politicians. In the art world discussions over representation can often seem to fall into a similar academic fancy or pretentious self-elevation and as artists we often explore things through play so it’s difficult to tell if we take what we write in our blurb seriously. Sometimes we do and don’t at the same time and how can we “keep it real” when we work so much in fiction? But I stand by that quote of mine you referenced; I meant every word, even if meaning is simply a placed or perhaps misplaced belief. In case it doesn’t make sense, I was discussing representation and how an image or word will stand in for something, crop our view of it or rework it or distort it into something else perhaps alternate values or associations, and that if we try to enter it then these processes simply re-perform infinitely, creating a sense of separation from the world around us.

I think representation and narrative are my main conceptual and perhaps philosophical considerations because they are integrated into how we perceive reality, think and act. But mentally pondering over it and putting it into work, perhaps with the addition consideration of “another viewer”, are two different things. What’s more, if you over think everything while you’re producing a piece then it either becomes incredibly difficult or just dies. Luckily with visual language we’re pre-programmed to a certain extent, we digest visual constantly, and so you can use “sub-conscious” thoughts, automated drawing or writing processes and re-constructing techniques such as collage for fluid material to work with.

I use lots of different mediums and styles but I’m currently working with a comic format because I like how it lays things out. For example you could have two narratives or more running at once, you can alter the perception of time passing, drawings use camera angles, you can highlight structures and narrative forms, play with order… etc in all in an accessible way with a creation process that can be as playful as it is technical. It also doesn’t take up a lot of room in your garage, which is a big plus.

Future wise, I hope to make a series of LERGH issues, I’ve already planned a few pieces for them. I’d also like to make a return to sculpture.

NM: You have recently begun to engage with the public, what have you been getting your hands stuck into and how have the results been turning out?

TM: There’s always some promising work coming out of the school residency.

Some projects I’ve done with them recently have included: An adult sized cardboard skeleton, anatomical Plasticine figures, reworking an image of the Mona Lisa to make moving sculptures, applying knowledge of the human body to imagine the internals of Mr Men, zine making, comic strip stories, performance art where they have to tell a tale without words just gestures…

Another school has asked for me recently over a sound project, and I’m giving serious consideration to showing the kids how to make their own concept album.

NM: As you work with narrative and I met you on the NAOMB event, there has to be a question about books. What is your favourite novel of all time and why?

TM: I’m afraid I don’t really have one. However, in relation to this interview, I recommend Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to anyone who’s interested in the potentials of the comic medium. He drew me in and onto it as a medium by outlining it’s abilities to successfully negotiate all the concepts I was interested with. A lot of stuff clicked and in a way I could discuss with others, which helps.


NM: How important is character within narrative to you?

TM: This is a hurdle I’ve fallen flat on my face over with the comic medium. Where my focus is so greatly directed at the narrative structures, they don’t so much deal with an actual “story” and so any characters within them have been slightly sidelined so are yet to establish an emotional connection. There’s also a nasty pitfall where you can try to force an emotional connection with a reality show style sob story and it just feels fake and a bit repulsive.

The solution I’ve attempted is to create stories that are less structured and allow the reader to fill in the gaps themselves, injecting their own connection and so they so avoiding anything too “spoon fed”. I have several collage pieces which you can think of like maps, the eye runs over them and is drawn to specific points that spark off certain connotation and all the while this information is being mentally placed into an order of events. So they mentally walk away with their own personalised reading.

From speaking to Tom it certainly has broadened my own mind, has is not for you? Working within Chapel Studios, the recent creation of LEIGH and the future prospects of working with the representation of language, he is one busy chap.

Keep a check of his updates through his twitter and blog, and of course make a space free for NewRed – Street Extraction Exhibition towards the latter part of this month.


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