The Rumpus Interview with Thomas Doyle

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When we were young, many of us built shoebox dioramas depicting scenes from a book, or an historical event. Artist Thomas Doyle did too, but whereas most of us abandoned those scene-setting projects when we were young, he still makes them. The scenes, however, are now sealed under glass jars rather than set in halved shoeboxes, and they go beyond Of Mice and Men, into a realm of dream-like complexity and ornate stage settings that confront issues of family, love, longing, and isolation.

Last month, the New York Times ran one of Doyle’s dioramas on the cover of the Book Review, accompanying a review of the latest Stephen King novel, Under the Dome. While the title of King’s book may be a literal correlative to Doyle’s work, the piece featured in the Book Review is another example of the artist’s ability to manufacture novelistic tension and beauty at hummingbird scale. Doyle’s works are pure imagination and inventiveness that defy categorization and feel like a story in mid-plot.

The Rumpus: How did you come to the diorama as an art form to explore? What about it resonates with you?

Thomas Doyle: A lot of artists find inspiration in going back to their childhood, and that’s certainly the case with me. My mother took me to a lot of museums as a child. She’s a public school teacher so we were always going on educational trips. I was really fascinated from a very young age by the dioramas and the models I’d see in these museums. My face would always be up against the glass peering into the cases. I was fascinated by these worlds. I started building shoebox dioramas and things like that at three or four years old. Then I went to school to study painting and printmaking and at a certain point the fire started to go out. I felt limited by those media and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. So I figured, “why don’t I start making what I really wanted to make as a kid?” About six or seven years ago I started making these pieces under the guise of, “I’m not making art. I’m just doing something I really want to do.” As it became more complex I realized that I am still making art, it’s just now in this medium.

Rumpus: Is the American Museum of Natural History your Mecca?

Doyle: Yeah, actually the first time I came to New York was in the summer of 2002. The day I got here, that’s the first place I went. It’s just an incredible place.

Rumpus: When you started creating dioramas six or seven years ago, did you find that the artistic skills you already had from art school helped you? What new skills did you have to learn to work with the new medium?

Doyle: The biggest shift was teaching myself how to work with three-dimensional material. I had basic sculptural training in school. I had worked with clay, but with the dioramas I was working with materials I had never worked with before. I use a lot of Styrofoam and a lot of plaster. On top of that, I use a lot of things that come from the modeling world and you’d be hard-pressed to find an art program that would teach you those things. A lot of the basic things, like small composition and using paint properly, those come with having an eye for how artworks should come together.

Rumpus: Were there other artists you were inspired by, or artists who provided a path for you?

Doyle: There are artists that I like that do similar things but in a different media. In terms of the path, I felt a little bit like I was stumbling around in the dark in pursuing this form. The people I had gone to school with were doing conceptual work, but in painting and printmaking, and when they asked me what I was doing, I explained it them. They were excited for me, but sort of “Oh, Okay.” There wasn’t a set way for me to describe it. I also read a lot of history. I’m interested in that and human stories.

Rumpus: When I saw your work, the two artists that came to mind were Joseph Cornell and Gregory Crewdson.

Doyle: There is an emotional quality to Crewdson’s work that I am drawn to. I love how fantastic [his photographs] are. The world as it is but just tweaked a bit. I started doing my dioramas and then I came across his work and I realized there were similarities. Basically, what he is doing is a live action version of what I am doing on a smaller scale. There’s an interesting link there.

Rumpus: When you sit down to start working on a diorama, what’s your process? Do you work straight through until it’s finished, or do you work on several at a time?

Doyle: Often I work on several at a time because things take time to dry. So I keep a lot of things going. For the most part the pieces leap into form on the page. I’ll sketch them out and over the course of a couple days I’ll know what I want to do. Then it takes hours upon hours of execution. The easy part is the idea and the difficult part is bringing them into the world.

Rumpus: How long does one work take would you say?

Doyle: The piece I did for the New York Times in June, which was fairly complex, took about 125 hours. But that was also only viewed from two sides, since it was a photograph. That differs from the pieces I do under the dome that you can view from all sides, those take typically 80 to 100 hours.

Rumpus: Your work is based on strongly suggested narrative threads.

Doyle: My work right now is divided right into three parts or three series. One of them is the Bearings series, which includes some of the earliest work I did. It has to do with man versus nature and isolation and absence. That series always has a man in red that is always alone or separated from something. There is another series called the Reclamation series, which focuses on the idea of romantic love. And lastly, the series I have worked on for the last year or two is the Distillation series. The Distillation series is about memory and how we distort memories over time. There are a lot of children in that series, a lot of families. I try to explore how personalities can be distilled down to a few key moments that make us who we are.

Rumpus: There are also a lot of homes in the Distillation series. And very often the home is in danger. It’s either hanging off a cliff or sinking into the earth. What are you trying to say with that juxtaposition?

Doyle: It’s about the relation of the home to the family. In thinking about families and childhood, the home is the stage where everything takes place. It’s the scene of all the terror and all the joy and basically everything that makes you who you are. The home becomes a member of the family in a way also. So, in some of the pieces, the family may not be readily in distress, but the home is in peril, whether it’s encased in a sheet of ice or matte black.

Rumpus: Most of the works I have seen use humans as their subjects. Have you ever experimented with using other animals, or another subject in your work?

Doyle: I haven’t. I think it’s because the work is about being human and the emotions that go with that. I have thought about bringing in other elements but the thing I find interesting about the work is to get people to come along with you. The more the viewer connects with the work the better the chance of its success. The subjects in my work are human beings because we are all human beings.

Rumpus: Does the story evolve as you are working on it?

Doyle: For the most part I know what I want to do when I sit down because I’ll have the sketchbook and I’ll start tackling it from all the sketches and ideas. As I work through the issues I’ll add elements to improve it. There is a section on my web site where I scanned in some pages from my sketchbook and a lot of those works are also on the site, so there is a direct link.

The difference between what I am doing and what I might have done as a painter is that paint is very malleable. With paint you can take the story and move it and evolve it very easily. But now I am working with plaster and plastic and metal and wood, which are things that compositionally can be moved around but can’t be pushed too radically in too many directions. So I try to come at the story or the piece pretty fully formed in my head. I have had pieces that were very close to being done before and I have had to go at them with a saw or a hammer to take something out that should not be there.

Rumpus: Is that hard for you to do, or is it exciting because you get to work on it from a new angle?

Doyle: It’s more like resignation. I am not sad to lose something because I know it will be improved. But sometimes things have to be done in order to make them better.


Nick Obourn is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. His work can be read on the Huffington Post and in Tin House, Art in America, Art & Antiques, San Francisco Magazine, and Willamette Week. He also writes The Culture Spoke, a blog about arts and culture on True/Slant. More from this author →