IN CONVERSATION WITH TOM O’CONNOR
Interview by Jana Letonja
Multifaceted Australian artist, actor, and creative director Tom O’Connor is currently in pre-production on his first independent film, where he plays a ballet dancer struggling with his bisexuality, which is anticipated to premiere at festivals. Tom held his solo art exhibition ‘I Dream in Color’ in Aspen this July. The success of the exhibition led to his upcoming second exhibition set to debut this Fall in Los Angeles, which promises to be another milestone in his evolving artistic narrative.
This July, you held your inaugural solo exhibition ‘I Dream in Color’ at the Holden/Marolt Museum in Aspen, where it found its unique backdrop on the side of a 130-year-old barn. Tell us more about the exhibition and what inspired its creation.
‘I Dream in Color’ was an exciting culmination for me as an artist as it was my first ever solo show. It was just me hanging on the wall and I wanted people to feel how I felt when I painted it. My work is abstracted, colorful and often based on memories and experiences, which I use my whole body to depict across the canvas. The show was made up of works on linen, mirror and canvas that I hoped flowed into each other, connected by color and rhythm. This show felt like a sentence and each piece a word that formed a story about who I am at this moment in my life.
I knew I never wanted my first show to be confined inside a cold, traditional gallery space. I wanted to take it out into the sun. I’ve always had a special connection to the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the Aspen Valley in particular. The summers there are like being dropped into a vivid Windows screensaver. The sky is so open and I always experienced an overwhelming sense of freedom when I visited. I first saw this beautiful historic barn on a bike ride, pulled over and sat and stared at it. It was so magical and romantic in the most magnificent and dreamlike setting, resting at the foot of Ajax Mountain. I immediately knew this was where I wanted to present my work.
The exhibition was a major success and it led to an upcoming, second exhibition, which you’ll debut in the Fall in LA. Will it be in any way a continuation of ‘I Dream in Color’? What can the audience expect from it?
My next exhibition will be titled ‘Float’ and picks up on certain ideas present in ‘I Dream in Color,’ particularly the work on mirror. I completed another piece recently on mirror, titled ‘The galaxy within and other ways to float in light,’ which was acquired by a collector in LA before it made it to the show in Aspen. In this piece, pigments were suspended in resin resting on the reflective surface. I was excited by this work as it feels caught in time, but also responsive to the moment as it reflects the changing environment around it.
I was struck when reading Marina Abramović’s memoir ‘Walking Through Walls’. Abramović recounts the moment she witnessed a plane leave behind contrails in the sky. She watched as the white vapor disappeared, inciting her first steps toward performance art. It was fleeting, physical one minute and gone the next. I am also interested in the ephemeral and exploring how I can integrate this idea into my work. For example through reflection, the viewer and the environment can become a part of the piece for a moment. This is a major theme ‘Float’ will explore. Emotions and feelings are also ephemeral and ever-changing, and you can’t hold onto them, so what does that look like visually captured in paint? Along with playing with light, distortion and composition, I am aiming to challenge the canvas itself, thinking of this form in a more sculptural way.
Your work encompasses a range of mediums, spanning from abstract painting to self-portrait photography. What drew you to art in the first place? How did you develop passion and skills for it?
My mother was an artist and successful childrenswear designer in Australia. When I was growing up, I remember being surrounded by color swatch books and fabric rolls. The workroom with her seamstresses for her label was in our house. I was encouraged to look, create and explore. I started painting classes when I was very young and participated in student art shows and art classes in school all the way through senior year. I would create artwork for family and friends, some of which are still on the walls to this day. I was drawn to the expression of art and the idea that you could create something. And I would feel something and the viewer could also feel something too. I use art as an instrument to meditate, channel, explode and be still.
How would you describe your artistic style?
My style is gestural, colorful, expressive and in the moment. My work is emotional and based on personal memories, nostalgia of past experiences and daydreams of the future. When I think of an amazing memory or strong emotion, I feel my whole body can tingle and it’s the tingle that I try to turn into something.
Since I can remember, I have always been drawn to abstraction. When I was younger and in school, I found a dullness in trying to make something look real. But for me, the act of creating comes from the inside out, not the outside in. Whether that’s a memory or a feeling that’s been sitting with me that finally bubbles to the surface, it’s coming from somewhere inside of me or through me. I’ve always found that far more interesting and dynamic.
What influences and inspires you throughout this artistic journey the most?
I have always been visually influenced by a handful of abstract expressionist painters, including Rita Ackermann, Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooing and Oscar Murillo. I am also influenced by the thinking of artists including Marina Abramović, James Turrell, Anselm Reyle and Peter Alexander. I am fascinated by the way these artists see and interact with the world around them. The human experience is inspiring for me, the good and the bad, the joy and the heartbreak. All these human things are so beautiful. I want to turn up the saturation of these things as I continue as an artist creating work.
How have you evolved as an artist in all these years?
In my early work, I painted, but also experimented with spatial installations in which I was focused on the visual statement as much as inciting a reaction from the viewer. I went to an all-boys private catholic school and the art I created during this time was about provoking and disrupting the uniformity I saw around me. The sameness really got to me, so I played with trying to break this up. When I left school and entered the real world, my work became much less about provocation, but about relating to people, humanity and illustrating emotions and feelings that we universally share.
Your artistry also extended into acting, where you actually began your acting career as a teenager. What excites and challenges you the most as an actor?
Acting for me feels the exact same as when I am painting. Both require the utilization of yourself as a vessel and as a channel. Hopefully when you feel something, the audience feels something too. This concept excites me and also exists in art. The challenge for me is to tell the truth in the purest way I can, which means I have to bring my walls down and let people see every part of me, even the parts I don’t like about myself.
You are currently in pre-production on your debut independent feature film, where you’ll portray a ballet dancer navigating bisexuality. What can you share with us about this feature?
I’m thrilled to embark on this journey as this project holds deep personal significance for me, offering a fresh perspective on ballet and human relationships. One of the most exciting aspects of the film is the opportunity for self-discovery and growth. Portraying a character with complex emotions will require delving into my own experiences, allowing me to explore aspects of myself I may not have before. While I can’t reveal many specifics at this pre-production stage, authenticity and nuance will be at its core. The exploration of bisexuality will hopefully shed some light on its challenges and joys. The team I am working with is aiming to create a film that resonates deeply, sparking conversations about identity, love and dreams.
How challenging is it to portray a ballet dancer? Being from Australia, one would assume you are more a surfer than a dancer.
Even though I did grow up spending most summers on the southern Gold Coast and Byron Bay, I am not much of a surfer. I definitely prefer to dance. To prepare for shooting, I’m working with the movement director and ballet coach, Brandon Beltran, as I learn the basics and form a foundation for myself. Ballerinas are athletes and I greatly respect what they put their bodies through. I did dance as a kid and definitely have some rhythm, so this has helped me thus far. Brandon and I also found out early on that I can spot turn with relative ease, which was a bonus.
Recently, you also attended Men’s fashion weeks. How do you feel about fashion? How important is it for you?
Fashion is so exciting and fast-paced. I love the self-expression and fun you can have with it. However, I am thoroughly more interested in style. I feel like style is innate and the sum of who you are, where you have been and what you have experienced in your life. Style transcends.
In my everyday life in LA, I mostly paint, so I usually rotate between splattered white shirts, overalls and denim. I like mixing high, low and vintage. One of my favorite menswear designers is Dries van Notten. He is always so romantic and layered, and the prints and colors are timeless. I also love what Benjamin Huseby and Serhat Isik are doing at their label GmbH. They are constantly creating new silhouettes in menswear. More favorites include Ludovic de Saint Sernin for sensuality, Daniel W. Fletcher for elegance, Patrick Johnson for Australian style and Pierpaolo Piccioli for pure glamour at Valentino mens. Attending the spring and summer shows for Men’s Fashion Week in Milan and Paris this year was an amazing experience and I hope to return next year.
Tom, what are your plans and goals for the future of your career?
I am excited and ambitious when I think about my future in the pursuit of art. I’m committed to my personal and artistic growth, constantly pushing the boundaries of my creative abilities. My primary focus is on creating as much art as possible, spanning both visual and performing arts. To me, art represents a journey of self-expression and I’m eager to explore new mediums, styles and techniques in my work.
One of my most immediate and personal projects is my upcoming art exhibition ‘Float,’ set to debut in Los Angeles. I’m pouring my heart and soul into this exhibition with the hope of forging a new connection with the audience and leaving a lasting impact.
I’m equally as excited about the independent film project that I believe holds immense potential. It’s a story that resonates with me personally and I’m excited to bring myself and my passion to the role, collaborating with talented individuals who share my enthusiasm for authentic storytelling. The journey ahead is an exciting one and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
Talent: Tom O’Connor @tomjamoconnor
Photographer: Ice Pong @icepong
Stylist: Ice Pong @icepong
Groomer: Keon Cruz @keeoncruz
Editor: Timi Letonja @timiletonja
Interview by Jana Letonja @janaletonja