Banned Brighton Artist Conquers Past – Interview – Judi Thomas
Tell us a little bit about yourself. I’m Judi, I’m a forty-five-year-old mum of three, born in South-Africa – Durban, which is actually a lot like Brighton. I’ve been living in the UK for about fifteen years.
How did you end up in Brighton around five years ago? I visited here a few times after arriving in the UK and it just felt exactly like my hometown – just a very high level of weird creative types. You know, quite a multicultural city, which is very much like the city I came from – it’s also a seaside town.
And then my marriage ended after sixteen years and I found myself with three kids and having to come up with a way of earning a living. And I decided to come to Brighton just because I got a lot of strength from the feeling in the town.
How old were you when you married? I was twenty-four.
What was your first drawing that you sold at fifteen? An African mask on A4 paper.
What were your drawings like at that age? I used to just do pen and ink, just basically coloured in with felt tip – the drawings were of African masks and weird bird designs and things.
Did your artistic tendencies stay with you from that early age? It went through phases, I very much continued during my past. When I met my husband I was working as a fashion designer at that stage, so doing textiles – and I stopped all of that to have the kids, rarely did just office jobs, and the whole sixteen years I was married I had very little time to draw, I still doodled and stuff for fun but I didn’t pursue anything. I was just really finding myself, having to support the kids but not finding any support.
Has your art been a type of healing process for your marriage, or is it perhaps more of a celebration of your new found independence? A bit of both, I don’t do angry art. I do political art, but I’ve got an enormous sense of humour, even about the whole marriage thing; I loved the guy; I still will always love the guy, he made my babies, I love my babies. So to me, the fact evolution happens and that things change organically from one state to another, I’m quite comfortable with that.
I can think a relationship can end because it doesn’t serve both of those people. I don’t think anyone’s a bad guy, necessarily, when that happens. Are they celebrations? Yeah, for sure, realising at forty that I’m just starting, I feel emancipated, I feel alive, I feel valid, I feel sexually realised, I feel all of these things – and all of those things I’m able to take full credit for, because I made those transitions. I did it on my own and I did it on my own terms.
Yes, I get banned from Amazon for my rude colouring books, and my facebook gets shut down because there are nipples, so it’s not without confrontation, but it’s been really joyful, it’s reminded me that life is a joyful experience in the midst of how unjoyful life can be. I’m not in denial. But we have this ability to be creative as humans and that is cause for celebration.
How would you describe your marriage? It was great, I think we were both very young, we both very much wanted to have babies and do all of those things, so that was all great, it was good for who I was at the time. I didn’t know I was a feminist. I just grew into the role of wife and mother, my career didn’t matter and all that.
And I suppose – people call it a mid-life crisis – I hit forty and we’d bought a house, and we were living in Kent, and we were miserable.
And my husband had always wanted to go back to sailing because he’d sailed around the world several times before I met him. He was a sailing instructor. And so we spent a couple of years just getting a boat together, and then we moved our kids onto this boat, and we lived on it for about six months, it was absolutely disastrous. We couldn’t afford a boat that was big enough for a teenager and a daughter, so it was just appalling.
And then he decided he was going to carry on sailing on his own, so I ended up in a caravan in my sister’s garden with the kids, and then I came down to Brighton.
When it transpired that we weren’t going to stay on the boat, and he’d given up work and everything, I said we could try this festival business doing this art idea that I’ve got, and he was just like well, no, get a job. And I was like, actually, no, fuck you. It’s my turn, I actually want to do something now.
Because we started several businesses, but it’s always been following his vocation. And then I was realising just because I was the girl, we weren’t going to follow my path. And then, I guess, at forty, decided I didn’t have time to wait around for somebody else to do things my way.
So when did you start taking art seriously as a career path, then, was it around that year you turned forty? I can still remember the day – we’d got this new shed for my garden and I finally had a dedicated space for myself, so I went up in this garden, sat down with a big sheet of paper and just had a black fine-liner. And I’d been talking to an artist friend of mine the night before about mythical beings. And I just drew this mermaid.
And it was the first time that I’d ever sat down for sixteen hours before I had left the shed again. Never in all of my life, never have I allowed myself that length of time to just indulge myself in drawing a million tiny little circles to cover the surface of something. It was like an acid trip.
My whole life I thought I didn’t draw very well, but that I drew slowly, it was just that I hadn’t ever really given myself any time. And now I do a fairly decent trade – I sell colouring books, and I do quite a lot of commission work for people.
So when was that moment in the shed? That must have been about the end of 2011.
It sounds like that was a real turning point for you when you were in there. It really was, as well the coincidence of having met a few people around town, and one of them had seen the drawing and she asked me if I wanted to hang a drawing, so I hung this mermaid – and that was at the Marlborough, and at the Marlborough I met Hannah Waddington who is the person that allows me to do body doodling at the Sidewinder.
So it was a kind of domino effect of a few people giving me an opportunity, and them leading on to another connection.
Would it be accurate to say your relationship ended over art? I would say it was definitely a contributing factor, it’s true that in order to take any entrepreneurial venture you’ve got to have a certain amount of faith if you’re going to create something that doesn’t exist in a place where it isn’t.
For a while that’s going to be a risk. And then you have to have some faith that in the end it’s going to be worth it, financially, as well as energetically – because it takes a lot of energy. And on a relationship level, to discover that your significant other doesn’t have that faith in your talent, or your ability to stick with it, and do the job, that was very undermining.
After sixteen years, after several times he had had ideas and I’d given him all of my creativity and I had completely stepped up and was involved in those businesses and the creative side of them and the marketing.
That fundamental mistrust that the arts weren’t going to be viable, we live in a country where the arts bring in an enormous percentage of our GDP, so it’s a myth that being an artist means that they have to be starving, that they have no money and that it’s all precarious – it doesn’t have to be that way. I prefer to think that my entrepreneurial spirit means that I will inevitably find a way to make money from it.
How has your artistic career affected your family life? I think it’s been really brilliant, I’ve got two sons that are blazing feminists, a daughter who understands all you’ve got to do is decide what you’re going to do and then get on and do it, the last five years of them watching me stand up and just decide I’m going to do something nobody’s ever done in a way that nobody’s ever done, that I’m going to define myself as something that doesn’t exist and then make it happen, I think those are powerful lessons.
Especially when it’s someone that you’ve known to be, kind of, doing the things the normal way for their whole life, that kind of idea that your mother could reinvent herself entirely as a different human being and still be your mother, it’s invaluable – I think everybody should know that. We get stuck in a rut when we think ‘that’s it’, I think it’s been really good knowing that at any point you can completely change direction.
What’s your medium of choice and why? I’ve chosen just a black fine-line uni-pin pen, and you can get them fairly cheap at the student union shop. Pen and paper for me because everything else I might want to try there’s an initial upfront cost that’s just exorbitant – I’d love to do oil paintings, I’d love to take photographs, there are tons of things I’d love to be able to do but you have to have the materials.
I probably draw fifty little illustrations for every one that gets sold.
One of my best moments was me deciding to draw my own money, and then put it on twitter.
It was just called a ‘Judi Thomas Art Wank Note’ and it was my own version of quantitative easing because I could just print as many as I needed. And I made sixty quid on twitter that night selling my own money.
So I find it very reassuring that my medium is something I can afford to have at any time.
Your medium is also ubiquitous, so you can almost say to anyone ‘what’s your excuse?’
With the body doodling you have so many people that say ‘I can’t draw’, we do it as group things, so if you can do a dot and have opposable thumbs – I’ve even got a woman who does it regularly who doesn’t have any working hands, she does it with her mouth – so there’s no excuse.
Mermaids, emesis and bodily functions, nudity and BDSM feature as motifs in your work, why?
I find human beings beautiful, I find the human body one of the most beautiful, organic machines in existence. So drawing the human body to me, is like drawing trees, or the ocean or something, except I’m better at drawing people than waves.
The Mermaid pieces usually feature something manmade in them, like a Starbucks cup, a piece of litter, something like that.
But I think I’ve chosen those motifs because I started in fashion design, thinking in phases, and I quite unwittingly became involved in the whole fetish scene in Brighton. And as a feminist, I find the whole fetish thing very interesting territory. So I’m kind of trying to challenge that in a sense.
Is your artwork semi-autobiographical at all? I think it probably often is, but maybe not intentionally.
I have two coloured angry artworks that were done about the end of marriage, one is called ‘She Stands Accused of Dreaming’ and one called ‘Her Words Are Witchcraft’ and those are quite autobiographical – they were responses to things that actually happened.
But the drawings have a lot of stream-of-consciousness type stuff in some of them, and I suppose that’s a little like dreaming, like an emptying out. Sometimes I look back at the work and they take on a completely different meaning.
Which one wins most of the time, career or family? It’s always family, that’s the other thing about being an artist, for me when my marriage ended – that was hugely devastating, we were a fairy-tale couple, we’d met and decided after our first date we were getting married, and sixteen years later we were still going strong.
For my children, the marriage ending must have been out of the blue – nobody must have seen it coming. We were like this ideal couple. But I realised we were this ideal couple because I was prepared to back off my own stuff. The kids were the primary thing; I didn’t have a good enough of an argument, even to myself. Then when I realised the kids didn’t need me to make that choice, I was in a position to do something.
I never feel like it’s a struggle between them and me.
Do you set out to be controversial, or does the work take on that role for some? It just happens. I don’t set out to be controversial. I can’t stand arguing with people. People get offended by such nonsense.
I absolutely respect the right of everyone to get offended but I don’t have to talk to you about it, you know? Haha.
I don’t set out to be controversial but I do set out to be authentic, and if that means being controversial then I’m all for it. This right for people not to be offended is absolute bullshit, it’s not true.
It strikes me that you’re politically aware, were you as politically aware in South Africa? Yes, absolutely, I got arrested for the first time when I was seventeen for tying ribbons around trees; I was part of the Mass Defiance Campaign which happened towards the end of the 80s and early 90s, it was during the state of emergency in South Africa, just before Mandela was released. And there was a kind of last push. So my teenage rebellion years happened in the political climate where we knew that the adults were wrong, we knew that we were right, and then we set about overthrowing the government, and we won.
I’m full of shit when it comes to sitting down and accepting what politicians say, I absolutely believe that the people have the strength to be revolting if they wanted to, and in South Africa it was a bloodless one. Largely, it was done with humour, and numbers, and disobedience. I’m all for civil disobedience.
How long were you in for? Well, we were a bunch of white kids and the repercussions for us would never have been the same if it had been a bunch of black kids, we might have just disappeared.
So I was in for twenty-four hours and then in the twenty-four hours that I was in the holding cells, there was another state of emergency imposed, and we were told we could be detained for up to twelve years without trial. And then we were released but we had to come back for a hearing and we were just basically told off, told not to be naughty and sent away.
Was that time in prison frightening for you? Well, no because we thought we were right. We were swollen with self-righteousness. So being arrested proved the point. But it was frightening at the point when I realised it could be twelve years, that I could be in prison when I’m thirty.
I remember them trying to take fingerprints and it must have taken them six hours because were putting fingerprints on each other’s forms, giving them false-names, them having to start again. The whole point was just to be naughty. They were very happy to be rid of us because we sang all night, sang annoying protest songs.
Did that event turn out to be quite pivotal to your artistic direction? I think it made me less afraid to be political, and it made me very aware that politics was something in everyone’s life, that’s something I’ve known since I was very young: that you can’t not be interested in politics because politics happens to you, and again, that’s something I’m very aware of in this country that there are so many people that just ‘don’t do politics’ – they’re being done by it, big time.
And how would you describe your time in Durban’s only mixed-race neighbourhood? Nuts. It was crazy, it was like a giant commune that stretched a couple of kilometres.
Where all the flats were left-wing people. The people that we got arrested with, that kind of crew. It was very much like Brighton. It had a small town feeling where people knew each other. But I got mugged literally once a month.
Once a month? Yeah, I’d get mugged once a month on payday. It happened twice in a row. But the police didn’t go there to cause trouble with us or with anybody else, so it was just the way we lived.
But it was definitely formative, definitely formative. Because we’d lived absolutely segregated, in my childhood the only black people that I spent time with were the nanny – who looked after me. And the gardener – and that was on a very ‘employee-child’ relationship whatever.
I moved out when I was seventeen, so it didn’t take me long to realise what real life was. So it was within a month of living in that neighbourhood and seeing what the reality was like on the ground that I started protesting.
What kind of responses have you been getting to your art so far? Really great responses, even when I’m drawing things I don’t like – people seem to like them. I sold eighteen hundred pounds to one collector, that was pretty damn nice, haha.
On the live-art front, uncountable: party your pants was brilliant, going to host something at Bestival was really nice. You know, for me having someone with cerebral palsy get on the table unashamed, and be doodled on, and I’ve had women who haven’t been on the beach in a bikini since they’ve had their first kid, now topless on the table loving it.
Do you get most of your job satisfaction from those events? Well, I think there’s the part of me that has taken all the years of being a stay-at-home mum, I think I’ve come to terms with my age from realising that there are so many unmothered people in this town. There are a lot of people that just want someone to talk to, that there are a lot of people that just can’t get away, that need a break. So most of the time I feel like I’m hosting a five-year-old’s birthday party. So it does, it gives me an enormous amount of joy.
Do you feel like you’re Brighton’s mother sometimes? I’m not that big yet. Give me time, that’s my mission, but I’ll probably be Brighton’s grandmother by then.
Has your art resolved the breakup of your marriage? Yeah, I think we’re friends, the fact is I think I proved my point, there was a business to be had in my work.
There was a moment of fundamental change when I had found myself a gallery – just a tiny little room upstairs in Kemp Town, and it was upstairs in this shop and it was going to be my own little gallery: ‘Brighton’s Only Erotic Gallery’ was going to be the tagline.
And I signed the lease on the gallery, and the day I went to pick up the keys I was given the notice on my house. So all of a sudden I had to move house and didn’t have the funds for the gallery.
But in that month, my ex-husband came to pick up the kids for me and he walked up the stairs up to the gallery where it was my space with all my work properly framed and it looked like a proper shop, and there I was, keeping shop, and he just couldn’t say that it was not a job.
He’d been telling the kids that your mum needs to get a job, she needs to get a job, and then they were going, ‘she’s got a job.’
How did that feel? It was really good. I thought I’d feel smugger than I did, but it didn’t take that form, it was a relief that I didn’t have to find words to explain to him anymore that I did have a job. It was self-explanatory. That was quite a fundamental turning point for me, that I’d been given some respect.
Thank you very much, Judi.
More of Judi’s work can be found on her website.
Interview by Marc Kis