Tom Brown is a Pagan artist and illustrator famed for his striking fantasy work. Pagan Dawn columnist Nimue Brown – his wife and co-creator with him of the Hopeless, Maine graphic novels – delved into his psyche for us.
Tom, you go to Pagan events and get people to make creatures out of found objects. Why?
I’m a bit of an animist really. I probably have been since I was quite young and experienced a sense of presence or mystery when out walking alone in the woods. I get different feelings from different places and am greatly attracted to the idea of little mysteries.
I started gathering bits of this and that and making them into a sort of embodiment
of spirits of place (or, if you prefer, odd little creatures made of stuff). When I did this and left them out, children mostly made off with them: a perfect outcome as far as I was concerned.
For my first Druid camp, I had to come up with an idea for a workshop and this was the first thing that came to mind. I’ve learned since that someone from my first class is now using it with mentally-ill clients with a very positive effect. I was thrilled and deeply touched to hear this.
Do you think there’s a connection between creativity and mental health?
It’s difficult to say. Or, more accurately, it’s difficult for me to answer that for creatives other than myself. I’ve certainly had what would be considered some pretty serious mental health problems (which, in the past, probably would have been considered visions or similar).
I had visual and aural hallucinations when I was very young. I also had a closet door with what was (to me) an image of a wizard holding aloft two birds – swans, I believe. I stared at this for hours in a creative/meditative sort of state. My creativity springs at least in part from what would be classed as mental illness.
Does this mean that a mentally healthy person – should one such exist – would be creatively challenged? I have no idea.
Is meditation still a part of what you do?
In an informal, unstructured sort of way, yes. Time spent outside, walking, staring into the middle distance, is essential. I do more structured contemplative work with a local group but that tends to affect my non-working life more than my creative/imaginative life. I get some fantastic faces by looking out the window at the foliage with my short-range glasses on. I hope I don’t lose them when I get my varifocals.
Most of your art isn’t overtly Pagan – that is, aside from a few pieces, you don’t have obviously Pagan subject matter. Is your Paganism present in other ways?
I think so. It is part of the way in which I understand the world, so it has to come through in the work, I expect. Certainly, Paganism as I understand it is present in Hopeless, Maine, where so much of the landscape is perfectly capable of looking back at the reader. Also, Maine is (to me) a haunted landscape. The way it is portrayed in Hopeless certainly reflects that. Much of my experience and interest is that of the numinous and liminal. I think that is what I’m most interested in depicting with my art. When I am doing commission work, the influence of my Paganism is probably more subtle and under the surface but I do like to sneak in the odd badger where I can.
What do you want people to take from the experience of encountering your art?
A sense of mystery, enchantment, otherness, possibility. I also hope it will inspire others to make up stories in their heads, or put pencil to paper and explore their own inner landscape. I have heard from a few where this has been the case and it’s a fantastic thing to hear.
Should we all be drawing?
No, that would put me out of a job. (Nimue warns me that my sense of humour, such as it is, frequently causes confusion. This answer is probably an excellent case in point). In all seriousness (a challenge for me), I think most people would benefit from drawing, doodling, mucking about with clay, writing, making up songs, dancing, making strange shadow plays on the walls, or anything else that has any appeal at all.
Because creativity, creative play and inspiration – what we Druids call Awen – are often the difference between living and merely surviving. What comes from time spent in this way can enrich all aspects of our lives. Drawing from life in particular can really affect the way you look at the world and see details and patterns you would not find otherwise.
Where does magic fit in to all of this, if at all?
Magic, or my idea of it, ties into those experiences of presence or mystery that I first experienced in my youth. I have had very little experience with ritual magic, though I was fascinated with the idea of it in my teens. For me, magic is about the great and small things which are felt and cannot be understood in entirely rational ways. Times when the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts.
Magic is a thing to take in or participate in, not a way of imposing will on the world. (I don’t see myself as being wise enough to think that’s any sort of a good idea!) So, magic understood in this way is pretty much the foundation of what I do when I sit down to work.
Is this what inspires you?
In part, absolutely! One of the good things about being an artist (or creative of any sort) is that no experience need be for nothing. Everything can be of use. The short answer to the question would have to be: everything.
I’m also grateful to be living in a time when I have access to the work of thousands of artists all over the world and I take much inspiration from them (as well as on what I am pleased to call stupid hand days, much humility also).
And the longer answer? What do you do when you need to consciously seek out inspiration?
The most reliable thing is walking. I am fortunate to live in a part of the UK that provides stunning amounts of inspiration, visually. Also, when I walk, it is always in good company (which is to say, with Nimue). We have developed the knack of sharing silence, except when something is worth noting, or an important idea bubbles up – they pretty much always do.
For instance, the light is coming through the trees in a particular way and our observations lead to ideas that would not have occurred to either of us alone. There are hills here to catch the cloud shadows and sunset lighting.
Also, bats have become an important part of our daily lives. We now go out every evening, if it is not tipping it down, and watch “our bats”. (We sometimes watch other bats too, in different spots, but feel unfaithful if we do not finish with the bats at the crossing of the path. These are the ones we discovered first.) Sketching with no particular aim can work also but it’s less reliable than walking for me.
It is slightly surreal trying to interview you as though I know very little about you and am not part of the story you are telling! But then, having to talk about ourselves in weird ways is part of what we do. What’s your weirdest act of self-depiction to date, would you say?
I can tell no story of which you are not a part. As to weirdest self depiction, well: year one at art school was an exercise in how many ways one can do a self-portrait. I suspect this had much to do with the cost and availability of other models. I grew very tired of the look of my own face by the end of the year. One assignment was a depiction of head and shoulders but it was to be six feet high! This particular professor had managed not to say a thing at all about my work during the entire semester, so I was determined to go for broke and provoke a response: any response would do. I stayed up two nights in a row and painted and splashed, (I recall taking off my socks and applying paint with them at one point). When I finished a tube of paint, I just glued it onto the canvas. When I finished, it was… a bit wild but also a likeness.
It did provoke a response in the end. The teacher in question suggested that I might want to transfer to a painting major (from illustration) and also suggested that the class should treat me to lunch.
Would you consider going back to painting? Or are there any other art forms you want to explore alongside the illustration work?
I would and hopefully will one day. I live in a smallish flat, so painting on a large scale is not feasible at the moment but I have seen some oil paintings on watercolour paper and I’m intrigued! I used to do ceramics and wood carving and I’d like to get back to them, possibly in combination with two-dimensional art.
This might also be a good time to mention I am in the planning stages for a work which will be semi-autobiographical and mostly about encounters with the numinous, giving me an excuse to go a bit mad, creatively speaking.
What future lunacy do you have planned? (Especially mention anything I don’t know about, as it would be useful to know…)
I was thinking of turning the kitchen into an alchemical laboratory. I think an alligator hanging from the ceiling would be just the thing! On a slightly more conventional note, I’ll be finishing up the art for Tea Dragons over the next month.
That will be coming out from Snowbooks before too very long. Hopeless, Maine volume four will soon be requiring my attention, as Sloth Comics is now publishing the title – republishing books one and two as a single volume next year and then carrying on. I’m very much looking forward to that.
I have also just got the nod that will allow me to say that it looks very much like I will be working with the esteemed John Matthews in the coming year. Much excitement!
Tom did the art for graphic novel The Raven’s Child by Thomas Sniegoski and published by Penguin/Random House. His illustration work includes tea label art for Professor Elemental and cover and interior art for Letters Between Gentlemen by Nimue and Professor Elemental. Keep an eye out for Tea Dragons by Nimue and Tom and see more at copperage.deviantart.com