Did you always know
you wanted to study at the Royal College of Art?
When I finished my A-Levels, I asked my mum about doing a Foundation course. Her advice was: ‘If you’re going to do it, Tom, do it properly.’ Those words stuck. From Foundation at Camberwell, to a BA at Chelsea and then on to an MA at the Royal College of Art; at each stage, I’d ask for advice about the single best place to study sculpture, and I’d aim for that.
How did studying Sculpture at the RCA change the way you work?
The RCA has an amazing mix of facilities and technical expertise along with conceptual support. I was incredibly lucky with my peer group – clever, competitive, always challenging each other’s ideas – add to that the mixture of tutors, who are sensitive to different things and so can draw out different elements in your work. Denise de Cordova, a tutor in the Sculpture department, can probably hold herself responsible for me starting to show sculpture. When I started the course I was working with stop-motion animation, using Plasticine heads (which I still do), but I was doing these experiments, trying out different facial types, and had all these little clay heads around. I remember sitting down with Denise for a tutorial, and she just said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world ‘well, why don’t you show these?’.
At that moment, I dismissed the idea, but the question lingered at the back of my mind. When the opportunity came for a show in the Henry Moore Galleries at Kensington, I showed a small plaster head. To me, it seemed the antithesis of the huge works and installations that made up the majority of the show, and of the work I’d been producing up to that point. Although I was pretty slated in the crits, it really resonated with me, and I thought this, for me, is somewhere to go. And now I’m sitting here in my studio under a two-foot clay head! That definitely shaped my career.
What did you do straight after graduating?
The work I exhibited in the final show attracted the attention of a few galleries. I started to work on a follow-up show with one of those people, Flora Fairbairn, who’s done a few ‘best of’ exhibitions showcasing recent graduates. And I also did New Contemporaries, so I had two shows straight-away. And then from New Contemporaries, I started to work with Hales Gallery, who’d seen that show. I managed to get a studio at Studio Voltaire in Clapham – it was a shared, small, damp space, but I was surrounded by other artists and that helped keep me motivated.
What’s special about the RCA?
When I was studying at the RCA, I was aware of the international reputation of the College, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. I went there because I was told it was the best course for the subject I wanted to pursue, and I liked the tutors’ work. I felt very free at the RCA, and the pressure really came from myself. It was after leaving that I realised that people are impressed when you tell them you studied there. It produces a lot of good people, and that in itself produces the motivation to try to maybe join their ranks: if they can do it, why can’t we?
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"I was incredibly lucky with my peer group – clever, competitive, always challenging each other’s ideas."