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> > > Gary Thomas: on being an artist

Gary Thomas is a Writer, Director and Artist with 11 short films and 4 screenplays to his name. He’s been blogging on Dao on and off since 2010. His film installation ‘The Dog & The Palace’ won an Inspire Mark from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. He talked to Dao about his aspirations and successes.

still from gary thomas film the dog and the palace of an actress dressed as the queen addressing an actor dressed as her servant

Still from ‘The Dog & The Palace’ with Anthony Styles as the butler and Amanda Bellamy as The Queen. Image © Gary Thomas

Who were the artists who initially inspired you to become an artist?

Well, there’s a few I guess, but a lot of them are directors who’ve made feature films – Steven Spielberg, Nigel Cole, P J Hogan, Paul Feig, Robert Luketic and I could go on… In terms of artists definitely Eija Liisa Ahtila, whose amazing exhibition ‘Real Characters, Invented Worlds’, I saw at Tate Modern way back in 2002. 

It was really the first time that I’d seen art like that in a gallery, particularly the split screen film ‘Consolation Service’, which I now have on DVD and will watch every now and again to remind myself of why – why I do this, what can be achieved, how many different forms there are to storytelling. 

The subjects she deals with – sexuality & mental health – are subjects that I’m interested in, and I remember strolling back down the escalators having seen the exhibition thinking ‘If that’s art, I want to do THAT’. Especially with 'Consolation Service', I remember walking in to the space, sitting down, and once everyone was in, the gallery person shut the door and we’d watch a film. It made me want to explore what art actually was, in all its forms. I made my first film a year later.

This year I attended an Essex Cultural Diversity retreat and had a mentoring session. Originally they found it hard to place me, and when I mentioned being interested in the Turner Prize and gallery shows my mentor said “You’re a Fine Artist, I can place you now”, and it was the first time that I’d thought about it that way really. It was a validation. Yes, I’m a Fine Artist who works in different media, but mostly film and video.

I also make narrative film as well, but almost everything I do stems from writing, and that has to be the biggest motivation. I’ve had dreams in twitter messages, in Facebook messages, occasionally I’ll have a dream that’s a complete story and sometimes it’ll stay with me. ‘The Dog & The Palace’ was like that – I dreamt the whole story entirely in split screen. Woke up that morning thinking – I want to do that!  

This past year I’ve written my memoir, so now I want to look at book writing more, but my passions are writing stories and working with actors, it always has been. I have a character for my next book, which just came to me the other week as I was thinking about it. I’m really excited to explore her in more detail, and I think it’ll most likely be a series of books as we witness her journey growing up.

What achievements are you most proud of?

still from gary thomas film the dog and the palace of a young boy cuddling a teddy bear

Still from ‘The Dog & The Palace’ with Reece Donn as 'Darren'. Image © Gary Thomas

I think 'The Dog & The Palace' was a really big achievement. I actually found a single screen edit on one of my hard drives the other day, so I might release it in a different format seeing as Rio is coming up next year. It was the first project where I worked with a team of people throughout, so not just having a crew but having a producer, Karen Gilchrist and working with another artist, Christine Wilkinson. 

It was amazing to do something around the Paralympics as well, and to get awarded an Inspire Mark for it. My first Arts Council application was successful which was really amazing to get, and I worked with Abbie Norris on ‘Madness as a form of relaxation’, which was really great to learn about making more abstract pieces. ‘Madness’ was shown at Ardent Hare’s ‘Upstream’ a couple of years ago, which was part of the Brighton Festival.

There’s actually a real breadth to the work I’ve done, which means (for example) although Madness as a form of relaxation and the one man play are based on the same personal experiences, they’re both very different pieces.  

I didn’t particularly take much notice until last year when a friend who came to the Daisy festival saw my one man play and my romantic comedy 'The Dog & The Palace', which was screened in the same evening.

I tend to write what ever interests me, and there’s quite a few different stories in my head. As my work focuses more on writing, my other achievement must be my first one man play, which I’ve had some success with, and to get a good draft of my autobiography done.

It’s 70,000 words at the moment and I’ve asked a few people to read it for feedback, so I can see where to go next. The play and my book was the first time with my writing that I got good feedback on it. I sent it to BBC Writers Room recently and it made the 2nd reading, which only 19% did out of over 1000, so that's pretty good.

My books response was the sort of response that I’ve wanted to a screenplay but have never had yet – though it did make me feel that its much easier to write a book than a screenplay, which is a weird feeling to me.

Being in it in for the long haul has to be a major achievement in itself. That I made my first film in 2003 and have 11 films to my credit, 11 years later, made mostly with funding.

How do you see your work developing in coming years?

dramatically-lit photo of artist gary thomas

Photo © Gary Thomas

Actually, I’m re-examining the value of funding your own work, as it can’t be viable for long. But the other side of that argument is, while I can do it, as long as the intention is to make it the best it can be, then its better to have a show reel, to be able to have a film and push it out there than to have a script that just sits there, desperate to be read. I think that’s where I’m at with that conversation at the moment.

I have been lucky in that the majority of my work has been funded by Arts Council and others. So I’m going to keep on with that, but also explore more opportunities.

For 2015 I’m really excited to be working on my next film installation with John O’ Donoghue, and I can see that being a great opportunity. I’m working with Jamie Wyld, and I have a week at Fabrica in June as part of their ‘Making Space’ programme which has been confirmed, which is very exciting. Aside from that, it’ll be writing, rewriting and rewriting. Working on my book is just one thing.

I’m looking at rewriting two feature scripts and writing an original script which I’m doing an outline on at the moment. I’m trying to specifically write that to shoot where we know and on a low budget. Despite all my issues, I think I’ve done really well in getting to where I want to be. I just need to put in the work writing the feature scripts as I have with the short films. Not to mention the day jobs!

Please click on this link to visit Gary Thomas' website