TOM & JAMES HANCOCK are two brothers who have influenced and assisted each other in their drawing and painting practice since the very beginning of their lives. James was born in 1977 and Tom was born in 1981 with Downs Syndrome.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with James, now an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn and Sydney, about the unique creative exchange he enjoys with his brother Tom.
Their experience, as articulated by James in this interview, offers fascinating insights into the creative process and elegantly demonstrates how we can all productively channel our unique psychological characteristics into our art.
Visit their website at: tomandjamesdraw.tumblr.com
Interview by Melissa Unger
Do you feel that creating together has enabled you and Tom to communicate with each other on a deeper level than you would have had you not been ‘artistically inclined’?
Being brothers, Tom and I have always drawn together since we were little. I’ve always respected his way of seeing the world and feel privileged to be able to have grown up with his influence. Tom definitely has his own way of communicating and interacting with the world which he puts into his drawing. He is free from a lot of the social constraints regular members of society succumb to, and he is relatively free to move at his own pace. I think this freedom allows him to express himself visually with a great amount of autonomy from social norms. Throughout my university degree I was really interested in personal symbol and language making, especially visual ones, and I think my brother is skilled at this. He often draws a little combination of symbols which are quite abstract and tells a story about them (usually hilarious). This sort of map making to assist in storytelling is intriguing to me, and Tom has been my guide in doing it in my own work. References can be made to indigenous peoples map making. These gorgeous aesthetics coming out of wanting to communicate something specific in place and time. It’s more than just another language, almost like a very very abstract short hand, that is also flexible and may fluctuate in meaning depending on what you add to it each time you interact with it.
What is your collaborative process like?
Before we started exhibiting we would just sit down to a blank page and draw whatever came to us, usually starting with a few random symbols and organically growing over the page from there. Drawing over each other, reaching between each others arms and sometimes almost simultaneously drawing the same object. Now we have a few techniques for our recent works. I’ve introduced colour fields and some references I was interested in. Sometimes we would start with blocks of colour that the drawings would grow around. I am obsessed with screen printing so this layering of imagery seemed natural to me. The introduction of references was good for me also, to have something from the real world to rib off, but Tom never took much interest in them and continued to draw from his infinite and fun internal dialogue and library of symbols. I’m so jealous of his lack of self restraint in that respect, nothing is wrong or ‘bad’, and his marks rarely get crossed out, he is confident in his world and what he is putting on the paper. Drawing organically and at the same time is the key though, with both of us drawing next to each other, sometimes even knocking pens as we both obsessively finish a line.
This creative exchange is clearly very enriching for you both. Please tell us a bit more about what collaborating with Tom has brought to your own art practice.
I think growing up drawing with Tom has made me very aware of building up a personal library of codes and symbols. The map-making I’ve talked about before is of great interest to me. My commercial work is largely literal representations so Tom has maintained an interest and love in the personal and playful, not always being 100% representational. I’ll say here though that although it sounds inspired and liberated, Tom’s creativity can be difficult to extract sometimes. It requires a fair amount of persuasion now to get him into the process. However once he is into it, it is impossible to tear him away. I think when he was little it was easier for him to just jump in and concentrate, before the days of DVD’s, ipad games and 3d football on TV. Being someone who is quite obsessive and needs to spend long amounts of time working on drawings I find it frustrating that he can’t concentrate for long periods of time on pieces. But maybe that is another form of dialogue between us, he relaxes my workaholism and I make him concentrate on creativity. I can often be a bit serious about the process too, Tom is not afraid to draw a cute little worm and or something silly at the end of an amazing piece of abstraction. There is nothing to ‘wreck’ it’s all part of the same lovely pouring out of expression.
Internationally renowned artist Judith Scott had Downs Syndrome. Her work now figures in some of the world’s most respected collections, galleries and museums. Does Tom consider himself an ‘artist’?
I think Tom does consider himself an artist. It was interesting to see how he interacted with the public at his first gallery exhibition. I expected him to be quite proud and show off, but apart from making a great speech he was more into flamboyant interactions with the people there, and tired quickly. This part of the process had me a little concerned, and raised the question as to whether I was coercing him into this art world process. Through the week however he brought his friends through on a number of occassions and with less people I could really see his pride that he had achieved something as an artist. He is also very interested in performing and loves to make a speech, he is a very expressive person. I love Judith’s work for the obsessional nature and the therapeutic quality it seems to of had for her. I’d love to say Tom sits in his room drawing maps constantly, but he is very distracted sometimes. However Tom is interested in making more work and I’m in Australia now, working with him again, I think drawing is an important part of both of our worlds, allowing us to interact with the world on a different level that our regular lives. Because it is such a personal project stemming from such a young age, it is actually quite hard to sell the pieces at exhibition. Scraps we would draw on as children were often revered in our family and the process is so special.
You’ve expressed that you each belong to two separate art worlds: the “outsider” and “insider” – these are indeed standard art world appellations, but in recent years the lines between the two have become increasingly blurred. Tell us about how you personally experience this distinction.
Tom is definitely an outsider, he doesn’t really know, or care about, the ‘art world’ he’s not actively trying to exhibit or climb to the top of the gallery world. Not that you need to, but he hasn’t trained as an artist or image maker. It’s up for debate as to whether I’m an ‘insider’, but I certainly took more regular channels to get a place in the world: University, small gallery shows, collaborations, up to bigger galleries and projects etc. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a distinction, we don’t really think about this when we make or exhibit the work we do. Since being kids we have purely enjoyed the process of making work together. After they are made, whether they find an audience with our mum, or a collector in Switzerland isn’t that great of a concern. It is interesting to consider that I do have a drive to present the work in the best possible light and Tom for the most part walks away once they are completed. Sometimes I feel weird about the fact that I have these ‘insider’ tendencies which I bring Tom into, but in the end I think the structure makes us create more and better work, and as we have become more and more in the public eye it is lovely to hear of the inspiration we provide people.
At Seymour we’re fascinated by the subconscious mind. Where does Tom find inspiration for these collaborative drawings? Where do you find yours, do you just ‘give in’ to an instinctive flow when drawing with Tom?
I’ve talked a little bit about this in previous questions. I do love the drawings where we start with a blank page. Maybe because this is the situation where the most amount of unexpected communication happens. Tom’s speech is not amazing, and he does get frustrated trying to communicate verbally sometimes, so it’s exciting and relieving to interact in this peaceful personal way. I think this is what makes the works so strong. As an outside viewer you can really see this dialogue of mark making and the density of both conscious and unconscious storytelling. Tom most certainly has an internal dialogue, and perhaps it is quite abstract like his drawings. With a recent exhibition we explored this idea of the internal and external mind through a series of portraits. I’ve always been interested in the exchange between internal and external, and the membrane of our bodies that enables that transfer. I think Tom and I are fascinated by this subject and when we are really in the zone of making work I do feel we reach into an abstract field of playfulness that sees us putting higher impulses and inspirations onto the page.
Another series saw an interest in organic elements with cells and microscopic elements infecting the page. This kind of Petri dish style of drawing really suited us, with pattern and repetition growing over the page.
You are both interested in obsession, ‘both within mark making and the role obsession plays with perception and life in general’. Where did this common interest stem from?
I don’t know what it is about our family, but both Tom and I and my sister all have a little bit of OCD floating around. Not enough to cripple our lives which makes it a true disorder, but just enough to provide us with a different type of concentration and focus which allows for certain types of making. I have really played up to my obsessional tendencies, using it to make all sorts of list making and collection type work. Because of Tom’s relative liberation from societies norms, he can sometimes struggle with his obsessional tendencies in life, but again I think it lends him a focus when he is making marks that gives him a satisfaction to finishing a long dotted line, or covering a square in lots of little hairs, and sees the whole page covered in tiny marks. The way he paints is also quite interesting, because the brush allows for bigger marks he fills larger areas, but there is still this neat obsessional nature to it, colour fields are square and contained. And when we sometimes draw over these to create a 2nd layer we still see ourselves following the borders of these spaces. There are some drawings Tom has done on his own that are very sparse, where the repetition has gone, but they are almost like abstracted lists. He often draws the border of the page, and makes other borders within that, all lovely and wobbly of course, and then copied out lists from magazines sometimes fill the edges. There is always this engineering quality to the meeting points of lines too. As if they need some sort of propping up, or support to interact with each other. Even small objects retain a sort of organic machine like quality, where they buzz and lock together.
Tell us about your personal project All The Buildings In New York.
Allthebuildingsinnewyork.com is part of a city based obsessional project I’ve been doing for a while now. I travel a lot for my work and love to record where I am. I’m not much of a diary keeper, but my visual records of things I see along the way are important to me. It’s a way of logging summaries of all I’ve seen. It’s also comforting to collect drawings of certain types of objects. Collection seems to be a very soothing way to interact with the world. Blinkering out a lot of the chaos and seeking out one particular part of the world. A book of the project is out this year in April through Rizzoli/Universe.
Judith Scott lived nearly 50 years past her initial life expectancy. Many attribute this to the enjoyment and fulfillment she experienced by expressing herself creatively. What is the most valuable thing making art has brought to your lives?
Tom and I have a special interaction because of the work we make together. I don’t think we would sit down so quietly together for such long periods of time without this impetus, so it has definitely been good for our relationship. It gives Tom something interesting to focus on that generates something physical that people around him can appreciate. Tom gives a lot to the community through the way he interacts with people, his lack of embarrassment, and willingness to walk up to strangers and say hi. He is a very open person, so he doesn’t really need the work to interact with people (like I sometimes do). His contribution to the world can sometimes be hard to appreciate so I think for him the pieces act as more of a marker, a symbol of what he gives to society. When people that know him see the work I think they really realize what an important part of the world he is, and what an interesting and original creative relationship we have.
James Gulliver Hancock has worked for major international clients. His artistic practice exists in conjunction to his commercial work, having run a gallery in Sydney, and constantly exhibiting with different projects around the world. jamesgulliverhancock.com
To purchase James’ book- All The Buildings In New York: That I’ve Drawn So Far, please click: here.
Share on Facebook