The Rumpus Interview with Thomas Voorhies

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Thomas Voorhies is a Los Angeles-based painter and screenwriter. The intimate discomfort of his portraits is counterbalanced by a lush, sensual style. His canvases compartmentalize his concerns, frame his worries, and liberate his imagination. For a single night on June 6, his work will be shown and sold at the Garage Gallery in LA.

The Rumpus: You studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, is that right? What lead you there? What drew you to painting?

Thomas Voorhies: I think it all started with copying drawings from comic books. My mom was an art history major, she would bring me to Parent Child classes at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, and definitely made art a part of our lives. But really it was comic books that had my attention. I would practice drawing from them with my friends, mostly heroes and demons. Being a bit of an introvert, I preferred the fantasy world of comic books, where there is danger around every corner, but luckily you and your friends just happen to be invincible. I loved to spend time in that world.

Drawing let me make that world feel more real, and let me control it. Not that I was any good. Ha, I was awful! But I think the little magic I felt back then is the same satisfaction I feel from painting or drawing now, one minute there’s a blank page, the next minute there’s a person looking back at you. You get to create this little reality, and you can make it whatever you want, at least to the extent that your skills allow. That’s still fun to me.

By the time I was finishing high school I had no interest in any classes other than art, except maybe English, so I only applied to art schools, and ended up getting into RISD. I loved it there. I miss it sometimes. While I was there I really fell in love with classical painting and 19th century painting in particular. The world in paintings from that era felt so beautiful, I wanted to curl up inside of them. RISD was a great experience, I soaked up a lot there, but I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing until years later.

chris-bigRumpus: Your paintings do reflect a classical realism, but seem—in a very refreshing way—to tear down that kind of ideal representation. In some of your paintings—like “Mary Elizabeth,” “Self-Portrait with Epstein-Barr” and “Chris,” for example—you capture your subjects in various states of distress or discomfort. What’s compelling to you about this uneasy state of your subjects, or about capturing it in a portrait?

Voorhies: It’s pretty hard to say why I’m attracted to things like that. Those are all individual choices I made for different purposes. The choices were based on something I felt about the subject, something I felt I perceived, or how I felt inside myself in the case of my self portrait. Its hard for me to say why I made the choices I made, the ideas just sort of popped into my head. But if I had to make a guess, I’d say it’s because I am a worrier. I worry a lot, and I can doubt anything. So it makes sense that my sort of general unease makes its way into the choices I make.
But at the same time I do enjoy the idealized representation in classical painting, I don’t consciously want to tear it down. I love a lot of those paintings. I love the manner in which many older painters painted, just not necessarily their subject matter. I don’t want to paint beautiful angels with pleasant smiles on their faces standing on a cloud next to a column. I want to paint my life. However I do resonate with the beauty, the grace, the design, and the balance of classical styles.
I have a lot of ideas that I sort-of believe as to why classical art feels good to me, that it mimics the unity and endless variety of the natural world and all that stuff, but the point is that it feels good. It feels solid. All the lines lead into one another, everything makes sense, everything is simple and beautiful. That’s what I want, to create a little world that makes sense, and is balanced and beautiful. Because that’s how the world feels to me in my better moments, where my head clears, I stop worrying, and I feel that everything is great and the world is in balance, and that I should just enjoy myself.

So if I’m painting something happy or something sad, I want it to be happy or sad in a world that is balanced, beautiful and complete. I prefer to assert that vision of life, regardless of the emotional tone. I certainly don’t always get there, but it feels right for me to shoot for those things in painting.

Rumpus: There’s so much in classical painting that represents scenes of discomfort—war, the crucifixion, or myths, just to name a few—but I guess it’s something about the personal discomfort of your subjects that intrigues me so much. These are not epic scenes or mythology. They are real people, and the result is something very intimate and honest. And I think your description of how the process—and the result—can create a very satisfying balance for you emotionally/psychologically is especially interesting given some of these subjects. There is some safety in how you represent their pain. The portrait itself—and your implied presence—suggests an environment of security.
Let’s talk about one of those subjects (my personal favorite): Mary Elizabeth. How did this become a portrait? What’s the story?


Voorhies: Well Mary Elizabeth is a friend of mine, we’re in the same big group of friends and we used to party together a lot. What made me want to paint her is her sense of humor. She’s an actress on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and that kind of a show is a perfect fit for her. Her sense of humor is very shocking. When I would see her at parties, she loved to find the worst thing to say in a given situation; whatever she thought would make you squirm the most. And she liked to present it in a very deadpan way, she’d say a reprehensible thing with sort of an “Alfred E. Newman” innocent look on her face, like “What? Did I just say something?” It’s fun. It forces you to either laugh or get uncomfortable.

When I’m painting a portrait I think all I can do is give a feel for that person. I often find it helpful to think about painting portraits as trying to paint the stance that the person takes against life, their style of interaction with the world. So I knew I wanted Mary Elizabeth’s portrait to be aggressive and jarring. The idea occurred to me one night to paint her in a pseudo-prom dress with a black eye, and an innocent look on her face. I wish the story was more interesting than that, but the truth is that’s how my ideas tend to happen. I think about it for a while, and then if I’m lucky, an image pops in my head after a few days.

I feel that it’s a very effective portrait. If you know her, you get it and it feels like her. If you don’t know her it becomes something else, and people have had a wide range of strong reactions. I had it hanging in the window of a friend’s store and he had a couple different people come in and ask for him to take it down. If you don’t know her, its like being confronted with one of her jokes without understanding any of the irony, without noticing the wink. Maybe I should have titled it “Just Kidding.”

I’m interested in what your thoughts on it were before you heard the backstory.

Rumpus:
Mostly I imagined you had a friend who got in a tussle, and you saw something in her face that was so unusual that you sat her down for a portrait. My husband once took a picture of his little brother (who was about 3 at the time) after a bee sting made his top lip swell up to like the size of a cucumber. He was fine, but what a fascinating portrait it made. I love cringe-humor, and maybe that’s what I responded to most in her portrait. Definitely a terrific irony to her beauty. But there’s also something more authentic about her because she’s not trying to hide flaws or cloak her pain. So you, as the painter, gave her the black eye straight out of your imagination? Fascinating. Which reminds me that you’re also a writer—mostly screenplays, is that right? Do your ideas for painting and writing ever converge?

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Voorhies: I notice some similarities. Striving for unity is important in both. A screenplay and a painting are both very complex things made up of a ton of little interlocking parts, and you have to keep hacking away at it, until all of your little choices add up to make one simple, unified expression.  In paintings or scripts, you don’t want any one part to interfere with the effect of the whole. It takes a lot of work to make the final thing look simple.

Design is also very important in both. I feel it works best to build the whole thing up from the most general, biggest blocks, getting all those parts, the large masses in a painting, or the big beats and acts in a script, in balance and working before you get to specifics and the little details.  If the thing isn’t working in mass, you’ll have an awful time trying to fix it by changing the details.

So much of the work for both is done in your head. You spend most of the time trying to envision what your creation will look like finished, making choices toward what you imagine the final product will be, but never really knowing what it will be until the end.  It’s the not until you lay in those last few highlights and dark accents in a painting that you can finally see what it is.  It’s your last few small moves that end up having the biggest effect. Like the power of the last few strokes in a painting, a lot of times it’s those last little tweaks in a script that can cast a tone over the whole movie, or make a character’ s motivation in all the rest of the scenes make sense.

The process of revision is definitely different. Oil painting is more linear. Revisions are harder to make, because to repaint a detail and make it hang together, I feel like I pretty much have to repaint the whole area it resides in. Screenwriting is more flexible, you can change any part at any time and save as many versions as you want, but a screenplay is also so much harder to see as a whole than a painting. You have to take a few hours to read the whole script start to finish again before you can tell what your changes have done.
The difference between them is most noticeable to me in the day-to-day craft. Painting is me sitting alone in my studio hunched over a canvas, and writing is me joking around with my writing partner in my living room. Its hard for me to imagine writing much else other than comedy, the process is just too painful and exhausting without a lot of jokes and laughter to lighten it up.  In the end though, a finished script is just a blueprint for something to be carried out in another medium, and a painting is its own finished product. So a painting gives me more control, and is a more beautiful final product than a script, but it’s definitely not as funny.

Rumpus: Where do you want to take your painting? Is there anything you’d like to achieve that you haven’t yet, any risks you’d like to take?

face-detailVoorhies: I want to do more portraits. I like that, in a portrait, I know exactly what the purpose of the painting is: to make something that looks and feels like this person. I like how clear-cut that is. The audience for portraits is usually small, pretty much just the subject and their friends, but it can be satisfying because they really care about the subject. They bring a lot of feeling to the table when they see the final work. I like that. The task of getting a feel for a person and then trying to get that feel across in a single painting is always a challenge; but if you nail it, it feels great. Plus, I love painting faces.

Outside of portraits, I’m painting these small, moody night landscapes now, from around my neighborhood. They grew naturally out of the walks that I like to take at night. I’d like for most of my paintings to come about organically. So these days, I’m trying not to think too much about my future direction. The more I try to predetermine what my paintings should or could be in my head, the more I end up getting stuck. I just want to enjoy the process more, and trust that the rest will take care of itself.

www.thomasvoorhies.com

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Julie Greicius was Art Editor for The Rumpus when it launched in January 2009. One year later, she became Senior Literary Editor, and later, Senior Features Editor. Julie also co-edited the first book published by The Rumpus, Rumpus Women, Vol. 1, featuring personal essays and illustration from twenty kick-ass contributors. Her writing been featured on The Rumpus, Midnight Breakfast, Stanford Medicine Magazine, and BuzzFeed, as well as in the anthology The 27th Mile. She lives in California and is a member of The Rumpus Advisory Board. More from this author →