Bridging the Divide with Artist Tom Day

Artist Tom Day in his studio. Photographed by Meagan Lawler.

Our team sat down with Tom Day in the weeks leading up to his first northeast exhibition,  Seen/Unseen, a two-person exhibition of his work along side Kathryn Mecca, opening at Clara Arts on November 18, to chat about his work and how he’s using portraiture to combat divisive political rhetoric.  Just shy of 22 years old, Day, currently studying at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis Indiana already has a lot to say about why art can do more for humanity. His artwork and his voice command that we listen up.

On the evolution of his artwork

“I’ve always been one to want to capture something. I’ve always wanted to represent something. I’ve never really been one to create abstract work. I do every once in a while, just for fun, but I think most of my work that personally I take more seriously and the work that I feel represents me as an artist has been more representational. Even in my middle school years, I was always about copying something exactly as it is. I’ve strayed away from that to where my work is now representational and has some photorealistic qualities to it. But I really want to get the point across about it being a painting, me experimenting with color and different shape finding and mark making, because I feel like if you wanted to copy something exactly you could take a photo of it and I feel this way it shows more expression and shows my style as an artist.”

On practicing  portraiture

“I’ve always been painting people. It’s so fascinating how each person is completely different. They’re all effected by the people around them in terms of meeting different people and learning different things from their parents. It’s  incredible to see how individual everybody is. I am also interested in culture and the largest holders of culture are people. Everybody has their own ideas, their own religions, ethnicities, interests. I’ve always just found that really fascinating. I’ve traveled to Mexico a couple of times and even different parts of the United States and you see the culture. And oftentimes, when you travel you don’t realize you have culture and you’re integrating into different cultures. So that’s been a great learning experience for me – finding out who I am and my culture as well.”

On how painting celebrities allows him to dig into exploring culture

“That’s been really beneficial for me and my exposure as an artist because they’re nice enough to either repost my work or hang it in their house. I wanted to cover all spectrums of humanity in this series, so there are a couple of people that I’ve done that are celebrities. But I’ve also tried to branch out and find all these different other types of people as well, because I want to be able to cover all spectrums. I don’t want to do just non-celebrities. I don’t want to do just celebrities. I want to branch out and do everything. About three or four years ago I did a portrait of Tyler Joseph from Twenty One Pilots and he reposted it and that was the start of my whole Instagram thing. That’s what started bringing my Instagram to light a lot of other people. I think I fell love with the fact that I can connect to somebody who’s so well-known through my work. There’s a couple of celebrities in there, but I’m just trying to cover all spectrums and build relationships with those who are popular. I think there’s something to say about how celebrities are kind of running the culture in a way and have a lot of influence over culture and I think that’s what I wanted to capture too.”

On fusing digital and traditional media

“It’s definitely a learning process for me. I have a good friend who’s an illustrator in Indianapolis and he purchased an iPad and the Apple Pencil. He said that I have to check this app out, Procreate. It mimics textures and lines that you can get from different media but it’s all digital. It was so funny because I needed something for school essentially, so I said, “I think I’m going to invest in this”. I tried it out and it’s been incredible in terms of my non-digital work. I’ve learned a lot about different color possibilities and combinations. This color against this color… Well what if I tried this color?  it’s just so instant that my I’m training my eye constantly about color, composition and form. It really been helpful for me. This series is my first time doing anything digital and mixed media. I’ve never done anything like that before. So it’s brand new to me and it’s been really fun for me to see how the digital media and the physical media meet up and interact and work together.”

On how community outreach drives his art

“I initially got inspiration for this series, maybe just like my interest in culture itself, which derives from my ministry at an inner city school in Indianapolis, Arsenal Tech High School. I’m not from the inner-city. I’m from a northern part of Indianapolis called Geist. [I’m] coming in to this different culture and learning about this culture of living in a poverty mindset. Eighty-five percent of the school is below the poverty line. It’s so interesting and so incredible like to learn about their lives, become friends with them and walk alongside them. I did a series a couple of years ago of just paintings of the kids that I do ministry with. It’s really cool to see their faces light up; Me being able to represent their culture, but also say “hey, you know you have for purpose, you’re loved and you are totally capable of anything you set your mind to.”  One of the ways that I was able to communicate that to them was to do portraits of them. That influenced my current work. I think with the nation being so divided, we need somebody that’s going to branch out, ask questions and try to understand because that’s the only way we’re going to bridge this divide as a human race.”

 On how politics affects his work

“Recent situations in terms of Donald Trump being elected have really impacted my work because I think that we all just need to be able to hold hands and be there for one another. He’s started this divisiveness in our nation and it’s becoming more and more prominent as time goes on. I think the series for me has been impactful as a white man reaching out to other people. I’m trying to be somebody to help bridge this gap created by the divisiveness that’s happening. So, I’d say that the election, the presidency, the white supremacist rallies even have really affected my mind set – seeing that this is really messed up.  I really want to be able to use my talent, use my gift to bridge that that gap, bridge that divide.

I think it [my work] is [political] and to an extent more so than anything that it actually strips away political divisiveness, strips away race, strips away religion, ideologies and I just really want to focus on the people because I think that that’s most important. We’re all in this; We’re all wanting to be loved. We’re all wanting to be accepted and cared about. I think this definitely does have [political] connotations and the reason why I’ve done this work is because of the political divide. But at the end of the day we’re all human; We’re all living on this earth. A speck of dust in this vast universe. And I think it’s important for somebody to speak up and basically say that everyone was born and has a purpose here on this earth for a reason.  We’re all living life together. Why not celebrate that?

Artist Tom Day in his studio. Photographed by Meagan Lawler.
Artist Tom Day in his studio. Photographed by Meagan Lawler.

On his biggest influences

There are a lot [of artists] that I’m really influenced by I would have to say Kehinde Wiley. He’s someone I’d want to talk to and learn about – His background, what inspires him. I’ve watched a bunch of different documentaries about his inspiration, so I have a picture of that, but I think it would be an incredible conversation. Him being a black guy, me being a white guy and us both being artists and us both trying to celebrate culture. I think it would be really cool to be able to meet him. Kehinde Wiley was just asked by Obama to do his official portrait which I think is really cool. As an artist, he’s made it that large. To be asked to do a portrait of one of our past presidents is quite an honor.

I’m also really excited about this artist Sam Spratt. He’s a digital illustrator who does work for the rapper Logic. He does every single album cover for Logic and he’s transforming the idea of digital illustration and digital painting and bringing it to the mainstream. What I’m trying to do is take the idea of the digital painting and bringing it into a gallery setting because I feel as if that’s not as prominent. And I want to see it as a way to represent fine art. So I’m really excited for the show to be able to introduce that.”

On being a portrait artist in the age of the selfie

“I believe that portraiture has evolved over time in terms of back in the day in the renaissance you would see these portraits of like more predominantly strong,  usually wealthy people and I think that’s been ultimately the essence of a portrait –  being represented in high-esteem. I think it’s kind of evolved from that to different movements that have come in and created a stigma of portraiture; an artist has represented a hardship for certain people. It’s been it’s been an up and down in terms of subject matter and connotation that the portrait artist wants to portray. I think as of right now, I want to be able to hold people at this high esteem. I want people to feel important and feel loved and feel influential through their portraits.  Selfie culture- it’s funny because some of the references that I’ve used for some of these portraits have been selfies which is pretty crazy.

I’ll take some of the photos myself and I’ll also take photos from Instagram and ask permission to use them in my work. I haven’t taken all the photos. I’ve taken probably half of the photos as references. The one used for the Seen/Unseen flyer is a selfie of my friend Anne. I just find that it’s like actually a really good reference when you’re in a hurry as an artist that is trying to get as much work done as possible. You can come across things and you say “I can alter into making it seem like it’s not a selfie, and portray it as something that is not as such. So, I’ve actually used selfies as references before. You know I only choose certain ones. I’m very picky when it comes to that. That’s that has definitely changed the game in terms of portraiture because you have a portrait or wall or you can just instantly take a picture of yourself.”


Tom Day, Human 9, 2017. All images courtesy the artist.
Tom Day, Human 9, 2017. All images courtesy the artist.

On the audible portrait

So it’s going to be the portraits on the wall and I’m also going to have audio of me asking them a question, which is basically, have you ever felt like a minority in a certain situation, but actually felt content being the minority? And I’ve gotten to a couple great responses so far.  It’s been kind of a learning experience. One friend for example who is playing beach volleyball in Hawaii is from Canada. In Hawaii there’s a very large Asian presence and a very large Filipino presence. Its really cool to see that this Canadian girl is immersed in this culture and feels totally content, totally fine. So that’s what I’m going to try to bring into the show because I think that’ll change the way people view the work as having some of the subject matters that I have painted, basically talking about their lives and how being a minority or being in certain circumstances have affected them.”

On what he wants viewers to take away from his work

I think more than anything I really want people to be able to value human life. I want people to value culture. I want people to value individuality because although we’re all individual that makes us all one as a human race. I feel like that’s what it is to be human. That’s what it is to be American even. We all come from these different cultures; We’re essentially a quilt of different stories being sewed together. And I think that it’s incredible. Our nation is really incredible with having all these different cultures.  I feel like with recent events where we’re not wanting that, but wanting to create this divisiveness—It’s is just wrong. It makes me upset.  I want to be able to use my work to hopefully influence people and have people take away the fact there’s literally no difference between me and somebody across the world. In fact, some people share more DNA with people that are a different culture than them than they do with their own family. So I find that it’s so crazy how we’ve created this divisiveness as a society. And honestly white culture has created this divisiveness. I really want to be able to combat that as a white guy, I really want to be able to stand up for the little guy or be able to stand up for people that struggle because of their ethnicity. So I think that’s really what I want to do is just kind of spread love and show we’re all equal. I want to be able to paint everybody, have them the same size, same background, visually, compositionally the same color background to show that we’re all on the same level. We’re all living life on this earth.”

Email for artwork inquiries. Visit Seen/Unseen on view November 18, 2017 to January 23, 2018.

  1. So happy for the quality of the art, the message and the artist. More power to you to speak about tough issues through your creativity, skill and your own human perspective. Proud of you Tom Day. Thanks for sharing your gift with others.

  2. I saw your work at the Tube by Garfield Park last night and I thought it was fantastic. The dignity and joy of every individual shines through. I particularly loved the way the monochrome portraits on color transformed from ugly at a distance to beautiful up close. You are a great talent both technically and in your vision. Thank you very much.

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