Under the banner ‘Stone the Crows’ (named after his English grandmother’s frequent use of the expression.) Colwyn Thomas’s illustrative art has set about ensnaring the collective awe -and perhaps more pertinently sales- of both the general public and the discerning art set. With his work being snapped up as far a field as Berlin, Colwyn has become the illustrator to own before one has to plunder their life savings in order to afford the privilege. Neil Coppen treads where imperfect angels fear to.
Art it seems flows thick as gauge in the Thomas blood line. Growing up witnessing the formal restraint of his father’s line work (a renowned Architect) against his mother’s (a painter) bold canvases of primary colour surely played a part in shaping the artist whose images currently adorn CD covers, T shirts, Gallery and CafÃ© walls’ across the country.
After receiving his fine art training from Michealas, Colwyn (as you do) promptly turned his education on its head, working out in the world as photographer, documentary film maker and journalist. Invaluable narrative exercises that now feature in his ingenious meshing of mixed media, scanned objects, coffee stain textures, photography, and meticulous pen work.
‘A lot of my work is a reaction against my fine art background whereby you couldn’t make an art work without having to first establish tedious labyrinths of meaning and theory behind it. I wanted to invite and entertain through an immediate aesthetic, beauty I hope is the initial hook to my work.’
With influences ranging from traditional Japanese woodcuts and printmaking through to contemporary artists and illustrators such as Klimt and Ghibli studios, Colwyn’s recurring use of cherry blossoms, Koi fish, Oriental architectural elements and Samurai sword wielding juveniles (occasionally even rabbits) reveal a life long fascination with the East -something he says began during childhood when his Grandparents relocated to South Africa from Shanghai, bringing with them their array of oriental furniture and artifacts.
Arabic patterning is also another frequent component to his work and mostly featured as a design on his female bodies. The delicate traces that pattern the skin gives off the impression that his subjects all stem from the same mythical illustrative tribe. An observation he’s quick to confirm ‘I see the tattooing as organic elements in the vein of the Maori tattoos and Indian Hena- designs that seem to be more part of the skin then surface to it.’
True to his mentors, Colwyns seeks to instill the essence and ambiguity behind his subjects. ‘A multitude of possibilities is the heart beat that brings an image to life. There’s always, an unpredictable moment, gesture, or emotion that I’m trying to capture in my work.’
Such moments of uncertainty are evident in his latest set of prints and light boxes, featu
ring children dwarfed by (and in obvious awe of) mostly confined beasts. In ‘Blue Flock’ a small child gazes quizzically toward the sky, while we are unable to see the object of her curiosity, we can infer from the impressive shadow engulfing her that it’s a raptor of some sort. In ‘Whale’ a small boy stands with hands pressed against the glass wall of an aquarium, his figure diminished against the prodigious shape of a whale.
Similarly in ‘Circus Runaways’ a fugitive trapeze artist stands alongside her decrepit tiger ,both tentatively about to lunch on a meal of Koi fish (of course the possibility that the beast could at any minute turn and snack on his companion can never be entirely discounted.) When Colwyn begins to explain his version of the story behind ‘The Circus Runaways’ he recalls a carefully considered tale, illustrating how every element, down to the most non descript pen line serves to fuel and embellish his narratives.
‘Mostly my narratives develop through the construction of the images. I like to think that these stories exist as pre- existing narratives and all I’m really doing is picking them out of the universe and exploring them.’
Tracking the furtive paw prints of African predators out in the wilds of Umfolozi Zululand is just one of the means the artist uses to revitalize his spiritual/artistic connection with the natural order/disorder of the world.
‘In both the lion and tiger, I experience something of myself’ he says ‘I think these animals possess aspects of all of our identities, they are essences of who we really are. To me animals also represent notions of death. They’re aware of their own deaths, while the human characters seem to be in denial or at least oblivious to this.’ Furthermore the omniscient crow (what he terms ‘imperfect angels’) in many of his illustrations enforces this- hovering over figures with a detached curiosity.
In the print ‘Chopsticks’ a girl sits cross legged on a skull, blithe to the crow perched on her shoulder, a pair of chopsticks poised clumsily in hand as she sets about sampling a bowl of blue eggs.
‘I like to use the crow to subvert and challenge the negative reputation it holds in mythology and folklore’. It’s a bird he tells me he is attracted to for its symbolic function as much as its graphic one.
‘It’s monochromatic, almost exists in reality as an ink drawing without shadows or texture.’
Perhaps it’s the captive cats’, awed children and winged mortals from his work, that best embody the artist and his current thematic concerns. The yearning to return to ones rightful habitat, Longing (as most of his characters seem to) to sprout a pair of raptor wings, flee the relentless urban circuses and exist within the unrestrained concord of the natural world.
Until such time, Colwyn’s many buyers and admirers will be grateful to keep his rampant talents cooking within the confines of Thekweni. Who else would enable us to so perfectly rediscover the sublime in our everyday and divine in the ordinary.