I have had the amazing pleasure of photographing/documenting Toms work over the last few years. Tom was inspiring in many ways and I was very saddened to hear of his passing on the weekend. Anyone who has met Tom will remember him as an amazing person with a zest for life that was truly infectious. Not only have we lost a great artist, we have lost a friend and inspiration. May you paint blue wings on white angels!
Tom Spence: God, Grace, and Graphite
Written by Chris Desgrand
It’s not unusual to encounter people standing motionless before one of Thomas Spence’s works with tears in their eyes and a smile on their lips. Tom’s ability to explore the polarities and paradoxes of life has made him one of Australia’s premier artists and his recent retrospective exhibition “35 years of expressing the inexpressible” (‡) was well named.
The writings of the monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) have influenced the artist’s life and Tom believes that drawing is a meditation, an act of worship, and that the numinous can be found in moments of grace. ‘Christmas Day 1914 (God’s Truce)’ was inspired by the story of the truce in the trenches of the Western Front. Painted in 1997 it was awarded the Blake Prize for religious art the same year. Many of his drawings speak powerfully of hope flowering in fields of despair, courage amidst chaos, the triumph of love over fear; and prayer is undoubtedly an overarching theme. It is not the bold demand of the zealot, however, but the hesitant appeal of the doubter and resonates with the mystic in all of us.
Tom would never use these words; he uses very few words and prefers to let his works speak. Reserved, even shy, he sees himself as one on the outside looking in – a perspective shaped in part by the isolation of his early years on the land in central western Queensland. Although now living in Stanthorpe, Tom grew up on the sheep stations ‘Branga Downs’ and ‘Culloden’ in the Muttaburra area and sees himself as a typical bushie with a deep love of the land. Even here, though, he holds in tension his settler heritage and the dreaming of the Aboriginal tribes his forebears displaced. Tom’s father found skulls on ’Culloden’ – evidence, perhaps, of a massacre but sure proof of the bitterness of the conflict – and Tom sensed the presence of wandering spirits. His pastoral experiences became the inspiration for such works as ‘A prayer over the lamb’ (1995) and ‘A prayer for rain’ (2005). Butchering a sheep each week to supply the station’s meat was one of Tom’s jobs and anyone who has spent time in the Australian bush knows the unease and desperation of a drought.
Cities, too, have become the subject of some compelling works. ‘The roofs of Oxford Street, Taylor Square’ (1993) was awarded the Dobell Prize for drawing by James Fairfax in 1994. Drawn from the rooftop of a block of flats in Flinders Street, Sydney, it is an amazing perspective on the street below and, with others such as ‘Until the end of the world’ (1991), allows us to see the world and the lives of others from Tom’s idiosyncratic aerie and join him as ‘the outsider peering in’.
Stand before Tom’s artwork but be prepared; as Thomas Merton said, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. “