A Fine Line
Make talks to London based artist Tom Berry to discover his inspirations and creative process.
Images by Tom Berry
Interview by Ursula Lake
Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself
A. I grew up in a rainy, melancholy Bristol where blackberries were abundant and now live in sunny south-east London. I love both of these places. I’ve been a professional artist for the past decade, and, apart from a couple of years spent studying the wrong subject was doing much the same before, albeit in an amateurish way!
Q. Can you describe your working process?
A. Because I use various media and make commissioned, illustrative and personal work, the process changes with each project and so a routine will usually establish itself along the way. Drawing is the starting point for most of what I make and I forget how to draw horribly quickly, so as an exercise to counteract this I try to take twenty minutes each day to draw completely at random. In terms of working well, the more solidly I can focus on one thing for an extended period of time, the better and more efficient l am – breaking things up into bite-sized pieces doesn’t really help me. However, silence and solitude whenever possible does! I feel a little bit like the inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu who said that he gets his best ideas when underwater!
Q. If it’s possible to articulate, where do you get your ideas?
A. Well, there are the verbal, storytelling ideas, like ‘I would like to depict an angel hanging a star up in the sky’, and I think these come from dreams, daydreams, and from reinterpreting older stories and ideas. Then the visual ideas, which might be combinations of colours or a certain composition. These come from many years of acting on feeling and sensation and developing a sort of creative compass that directs the work. It isn’t easy to describe in words so it sounds rather mystical, but I think this part of the process of conceiving and making images is just instinct and it develops over time.
Q. We love the simplicity, assured clean lines and definite nature of your work. Has this style evolved or has it always been this way?
A. My style has changed a lot. I originally worked in a very intricate monochrome and I still use that approach when appropriate, but I’ve moved away from it. I find that super-detailed pictures can be a bit of an ‘easy win’; the amount of time spent is very tangible and people are often impressed by them, but actually that impressive detail can make up for (and push out) other more interesting components of a picture like colour and composition, on which I focus much more on now. In the future, I hope the focus and the work will continue to change and evolve.
Q. Who or what would you say influences your work?
A. Everything, if I’m in the right frame of mind. I’ll read something or listen to some music, or see a particular type of tree or even a plastic bag floating in a certain way. Then I feel stimulated and opened up, lots of ideas seem to connect, and I’m excited about making a new picture. I know that this experience is not unique, but it feels very special and unique to me in the moment.
Q. Can you name a piece of art you would like to own and why?
A. Anything by Abe Odedina, a painter also based in south London. His work is magical.
Q. Do you think social media is important to your work?
A. It’s important for the sharing and selling of work. I wish it was more static, and experimenting with it was less of a gamble! I feel like it’s a rigged system honestly, but it exists and so we’re obliged to make use of it. My own Instagram feed is increasingly filled with bicycles, so it’s quite nice.
Q. The theme of this issue of Make is ‘Bold. What is the boldest thing you have done work–wise and does that resonate with you and your work at all?
A. I went to my first post-lockdown gig the other day (rapper/singer/folk musician Dizraeli) and it was deeply brave and experimental. I think artists have even less to lose now, and the music reminded me to be bolder in all sorts of ways – in terms of theme, the perceived appropriateness of work, the techniques I use. I think although it is tempting to work safely, an audience will ultimately recognise these types of boldness and support them.
Perhaps the boldest work I’ve made to date might be ‘A Sense of Direction’: a large, layered plywood piece which I collaborated with Elisa van der Plas. She’s a researcher at the Wellcome Centre for Neuroimaging and the piece represents all sorts of interesting mental processes that she investigates. It was a lot of fun to make.
Q. Has the experience of lockdown affected or influenced your work at all?
A. Not that much. I noticed that although I’ve produced about the same amount of work I’ve rushed much less, so I’m going to try and continue in that way.
What is next for Tom Berry?
A. I am working on a series of public artworks forming a visual link across Deptford, about Deptford. Possibly a house-sized mural, there will definitely be lots more depictions of human figures installing the heavens.
You can see (and purchase) Tom’s work at www.tomberryart.co.uk