Interview: Kim Thomas Reflects On Art, Music, Poetry and Life
Kim Thomas has been painting, writing poetry and singing for most of her life. Perhaps that is why this warm, funny, energetic woman wears her roles as painter, author and musician so lightly. They come as natural to her as breathing. What may not have come so easily was finding a way to pursue multiple careers. While Kim has never stopped painting and writing, for many years, music was the major focus for her and her husband, Jim. As the musical group Say-So, they performed across the country for 18 years and recorded a number of albums, which they produced and distributed independently. More recently, they have turned their sights on other pursuits; for Kim, authoring a number of books and producing a body of visual work that has been exhibited annually and purchased by a number of avid collectors; for Jim, founding a church community over which he and Kim preside.
Kim's paintings are an unusual combination of the earthly and the sublime; on first glance, extremely delicate and almost childlike, but exhibiting something strong and enduring that becomes more apparent with each viewing. Her palette is beautifully balanced and deeply reassuring. One could easily get 'lost' looking at one of her works, which now grace the homes of numerous collectors. Her images have been featured on CD covers, as well as on the cover of her latest book, Potluck: Parables of Giving, Taking and Belonging.
Kim shared her insights on how a variety of life experiences have helped to shape her identity as a multi-media artist, how that identity was nurtured and the ways in which she has integrated her various 'selves' into a unified vision.
CDM: At this point, you've been an artist for most of your life. Did your parents encourage you, as a young person, to pursue your interests in poetry and art?
KT: There was definitely an atmosphere of encouragement and support in my home. But that extended to anything I pursued, from softball and bowling to math, reading, performing and painting rocks. They were quietly directive, vocally supportive. Dad sang, 'Every little girl can be President' to me, and Mom was the constant cheerleader for whatever I put my hands to. I painted my first painting with my grandfather in his studio when I was ten, and wrote my first published poem in sixth grade. I sang on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in seventh grade, accompanying myself and six other girls on a spinet piano to the tune 'Blue, blue, my world is blue …'
That was ironically followed by a strictly academic season in high school. I focused on math, French and the sciences, with little time put toward artistic pursuits. I even majored in math until my junior year of college when, at last, I switched to graphic design. This was only after a counselling session with my academic advisor, who said he had observed me in class, fighting my way through derivatives and differential equations, thinking that perhaps I belonged in the fine arts department. Asking such questions as, 'Who said two plus two always equals four' and, 'How do we really know it …?' may have been indicative of my more abstract and artistic sensibilities. It would seem that my genes were not to be denied. My grandfather on my father's side was an artist of many mediums. He painted, made jewellery, worked in copper and silver, and he was a performing magician and Vaudeville piano and song man. While in college, my father supported himself by drawing cartoons, and so I suppose it was inevitable that I would finally meet up with the artist living inside me.
CDM: Growing up, you lived in many different parts of the United States and overseas. Can you describe your perceptions of different cultures and lifestyles as a child and young adult, and how those perceptions shaped your vision as an artist?
KT: Throughout my childhood, I think, I learned to adapt and adopt. Each time our family moved, I adapted to my new surroundings with greater ease, less and less self-consciousness of my 'new girl' status, and adopted new characteristics and skills from places and people I left behind, taking them with me to graft into my ever-emerging little personality. I believe that being the daughter of a man in the Navy gave me the opportunity to see beyond my backyard, and with little intentional effort, appreciate a variety of peoples and cultures. From what I observed, it seemed 'normal' that people approached life and its multi-level complexities differently, and it was not threatening to me to see someone who was different than me. It made me more curious. On the other hand, I can see that in some ways, all of the travel and exposure may have caused me to become more insulated and anchored to my little nuclear family. They were the constant, and the safe place for me to build my infrastructure and set my own internal compass. It is possible that the safety of that infrastructure gave me courage to be more observant and curious, essential characteristics for artists of all types, yet it may also have caused me to be more inward and introspective, which I suppose also can serve an artist's personality.
I think the years I lived in Japan, during the seventh and eighth grades, had a particular impact on me. Too young to comprehend philosophies or religious and political thoughts, I think I did absorb a tenderness to 'otherness' by living in a culture where I looked, sounded and acted 'other' than the majority of those around me. Many years later, one of my art professors in college observed that my work had a Zen-like quality and an Asian sense of balance. And ironically, as a natural blonde, I dyed my hair black in my 20s and have never gone back. I feel that my time in Japan clearly influenced my art, as I was a sponge taking in from all directions, and it may have even influenced my longing for and comfort with a darker hair colour.
CDM: Your creative talents are spread in many different directions, from the visual arts to writing poetry, songs and nonfiction, to playing the guitar, four-string banjo and autoharp. Did your determination to pursue careers in painting, writing and performing develop simultaneously?
KT: I think all of my pursuits have quietly informed each other over the years. While one lay dormant, the other developed and built confidence. Consciously, I probably resisted them coexisting, fearing a lack of focus and sanity. But over time, I made peace with the concurrence and found a way to pursue and develop my interests in a symbiotically beneficial manner. Now, when I can't work something out on canvas, I try words, and vice versa. If I am stifled in one area, I allow myself to change streams and trust that things will untangle and resurface.
CDM: How do juggle these careers and the projects you take on?
KT: These days, I am divided into three selves mostly. I am a painter, author and church mother to our developing congregation. On synchronistic days, they all fit together like a child's puzzle. On most days, they fight a little for dominance, like siblings. But practically, I try to approach my year in seasons of painting and writing, with church mothering as a consistent underlying theme. Typically, I paint two shows a year, and sprinkle in some commission work. I also write one book a year, but also research and flesh out the next project. In between, I must find time for promotion, marketing and website maintenance. But of great importance is personal soul refreshment, not to mention being a wife, sister, daughter and friend. Without the influence and flavouring of these relationships, I am an empty husk with nothing to offer creatively.
CDM: You and your husband have performed music on college campuses across the country. As a writer and painter, you work mainly behind the scenes. Are there aspects of the 'performer' that you've been able to bring into your books and paintings, a way of communicating in person through these very different mediums?
KT: Being a performer, a musician, singer and songwriter for 18 years has probably made me more comfortable with any contact with the public, and helps me to think on my feet more easily. But while I thoroughly enjoyed my season on stage, these days I am incredibly content to spend more time working alone, in the solitude of a studio or behind a laptop. I think the 18 years of performing left me feeling slightly over-exposed, ready for the safety of time behind my doors. Being in front of so many audiences over the years has given me a collection of faces to picture as an imaginary reader or art patron, pushing me to communicate better, perhaps. Certainly, it has given me more stories to write about, and more faces, places and things to paint.
CDM: Which artists do you seek out for inspiration?
KT: Right now, for feeding the author in me, on my bedside table there are spiritually inspiring books by Cornelius Plantinga, Henri Nouwen, Robert Benson and GK Chesterton. For entertainment there is a Clive Cussler, and for good storytelling there is a Graham Greene. I almost always have a Rilke or Billy Collins or Donald Hall poetry book nearby for a quick fix of beautiful words.
Visually, I am inspired by eclectic and lesser-known contemporary artists, as well as some timeless painters from other centuries. I just got back from China, where I was astonished by a Chinese painter whose palette was so frail that the images were simply whispers on the canvas. Unfortunately, I could not make out his name on the canvas, so beautifully calligraphic in its Chinese form.
Books featuring current artists like Squeak Carnwath, Marco Del Re, Stanley Spencer, Mackenzie Thorpe, Anthony James, David Smith and anything in the Foundation Maeght museum in the south of France are just some of the ones that fill my shelves. Classically, Dubuffet, Rodin, Giotto, DaVinci, Miro, Rembrandt, Giacometti and Klee are a small sampling of my loves. I admire Cycladic works in their simplicity, and conceptual paintings with their hidden subtexts. I love a subjective figure or surreal realism or atmospheric abstracts, all only as an untrained observer. I am not deeply versed in the particulars or the academic basis for most styles, only soulfully responsive.
My list of inspiration grows with every painting I see, every book I read. And just today I came across a wonderful find that made the world seem smaller. I discovered a book by Rilke on Rodin, and read that Rilke was Rodin's secretary. Two of my inspirers, people I have separately admired and whose work I have consumed, I now find were involved in each other's worlds. All of these, as well as wandering through an antique store, watching a movie or taking a daily walk through my neighbourhood serve as muse some days. But simple discipline to do the craft, or as Anne Truitt says, 'making the ride alone,' is the bare bones inspiration on most days.
CDM: You've chosen to exhibit, mainly, in your hometown of Nashville and have achieved an admirable amount of success there through your own promotional efforts. How do the business side and creative side of your life function? Do you ever feel a conflict?
KT: Nashville has been a wonderful place to exhibit. I must say that I was sceptical in the beginning, anticipating a more traditional aesthetic. But they have graciously responded to my work, and the entire art community has grown and expanded quite a bit over the last ten years.
I would like to expand outside of Nashville. I'm in a new season right now, and trying to be strategic with my time and efforts. I'm focusing on four cities that I can access easily, trying to promote my books and my paintings there. It's a new experiment, so we'll see how it goes. I find the business and creative sides to simply be a necessity. I would love to be selling enough that all I have to think about is writing sentences, or painting paintings. But most artists and authors must take some responsibility for their own marketing and promotion. Recently, I've invested in putting together a website, and I'm starting to work with a publicist. I hope to find a way to be creative and fulfilled in those tasks, as well.
CDM: The art style that some will be familiar with from the paintings used on the City On a Hill CDs has drawn much praise and many collectors. Can you speak about the inspiration for the paintings in that style and the imagery, which recalls the intimacy of medieval miniature paintings, the luminosity of stained glass and Paul Klee's childlike delicacy?
KT: I've been overwhelmed at the response to these paintings. The style was inspired by a pair of antique frames I bought several years ago. They were architectural and looked as if they had come from an old church. As I stared at them, I kept seeing something that called to mind Giotto's frescoes, or something inspired by work from the 14th-century Italian Renaissance. Yet the figures still needed to have an understated light heartedness. In this case, the frames gave birth to the work. The Italian influence is strong, but there is a bit of Russian or Greek iconic influence, and a subtle narrative that informs them. They are my most decorative works, and they seem to be something people easily connect with. I find them to be fairly honest work. The simple naivete of the features, the ironic hands and egg-shaped heads contrast with the traditional settings and the sacred mood of the nimbus. There is a simplified Mona Lisa-type contentment to the faces, and the floating heads hyphenate any realism. These paintings have changed a little over the years, becoming more dimensional overall, yet more simplified in their decorative aspects. I am pleased that they represent one dimension of my body of work.
CDM: Some of the paintings are quite large. Can you describe how you have managed to convey such delicacy and intimacy in a large format?
KT: Two of my earliest pieces in this style were quite large. Sometimes a piece speaks better in a smaller more jewel-like format. Other times, a piece needs more space to breathe. Part of the challenge with this style is that when I use antique frames, they dictate the size. And most of the older frames were smaller. But I have found some new framing sources, and some framers who are willing to be creative with me, so that makes sizing less restrictive in general.
CDM: In other paintings, you seem to adhere to a pared down aesthetic, focusing on the essence of the subject and personal reflections on pieces of daily life that provide comfort, nurture the spirit and reveal the beauty of the common objects (food, furniture). Can you discuss this type of imagery, where it fits within the scope of your work and where you are headed as an artist in the coming year?
KT: I think I have always had five or six painters living concurrently inside my head. There has been some chronology, or chronos, to my development of styles, but mostly there has been a sense of kairos, a sort of on top of and overlapping of visions. I am stimulated by a variety of styles, and I think expressing the variety helps keep me fresh and interested in my own work. I enjoy the Italian Renaissance style pieces, which are tighter and more decorative. Then I might work on one of my large line drawings, which are sparse and whimsical, a shorthand communication of black on white. Next, I might move to something more conceptual, more contemplative. I enjoy taking quotidian subjects and finding something sacred or symbolic in them. But then I might find myself painting some Potluck ladies, or some other figures with narrative history.
I don't know exactly which direction I will go this year, but I hope it will be more work, and more well done work. The mere sight of my studio and easel and paints and papers and pencils and canvas and boards makes me anxious to be in there. If I sit in my chair, hold a pencil and wait, eventually, I find myself working on something. 'Everything' can be a possible inspiration or beginning place, if I sit still long enough to listen.
Cindi Di Marzo
Books by Kim Thomas
Potluck: Parables of Giving, Taking, and Belonging. Waterbrook Press, 2006.
Finding Your Way Through Grief. Harvest House, 2004.
Even God Rested. Harvest House, 2003.
Living in the Sacred Now. Harvest House, 2001.
Simplicity: Finding Peace by Uncluttering Your Life. B&H Publishing Group, 1999.
CDs featuring artwork by Kim Thomas
City On a Hill: The Gathering, various artists (Essential, 2003)
City On a Hill: Sing Alleluia, various artists (Essentail, 2002)
City On a Hill: Songs of Worship and Praise, various artists (Essential, 2000)
This Beautiful Mess, Sixpence None the Richer (Compendia, 1995)