Tom Mead draws the stuff of his nightmares; dark, soulless creatures with hollow eyes and mechanical hearts.
Crack is making its way up to the top floor of Jamaica Street Studios and having already traversed the hefty route to and from Crack HQ a couple of times that day, we’re already feeling a bit hard done by. To be frank, it’s starting to take the piss.
To top it off, we don’t quite know what to expect. Mr Mead has recently been thrust into the consciousness of any art-aware Bristolians with his remarkable Dark Suits series, a collection of characters blending human and animals. The images reveal a literal hell of an imagination, a creative mind that throws unexpected images and ideas together with a remarkable frequency, forming nightmarish yet endearing creatures that pose more questions than they answer. Will he be wearing a cape?
When we finally get there Tom Mead greets us; he’s welcoming and polite and really, bloody nice. He’s not wearing a cape, he’s not a lunatic. Throughout the interview he enthusiastically grabs battered books from his shelves to show us.
Tom/Mr Mead has got people excited. His recent exhibition at Antlers’ latest location in Quakers Friars was a cracker: intriguing and unique. Accompanying the exhibition was a pack of cards, the timeless images of Kings and Queens replaced by what he calls bio-mechanical anthropomorphism.
So after all of the apprehension about whether Mr Mead would be some sort of gothic recluse, he actually turned out to be quite a gem; telling us about Antlers, nightmares and the Jamaica Street Studio.
How did you end up working in Bristol? How do you find the experience of working at Jamaica Street Studios?
I’ve been here about a year and a bit now – I’d already heard of this place before so I applied, and luckily after a couple of weeks I was in. It’s a proper collective. It’s basically a legitimate company now; everyone feeds off other people’s ideas, everyone kind of goes through each other.
There’s a core few that have worked together for years, and they deal with the admin side of everything, the serious stuff, while the rest of us just help out where we can. It weird, cause no one kind of ‘rules’ this place, there’s no ‘leader’ of Jamaica Street artists; everyone just has their own input.
You’ve had an incredibly fast rise over the past couple of months!
Yeah, it really has. I’ve got a lot to thank Antlers gallery for in that respect. They’re just so on it the entire time. It’s amazing to be surrounded by like-minded and driven people who all share similar interests, and I feel proud and privileged to be part of a machine that is going to go far. This is just the start for Antlers, I’m sure of that.
How long have you and Antlers been affiliated?
I’ve been there since the start really, more or less. At the moment I think their plan is just to keep featuring as many new and upcoming artists from Bristol as possible, and keep it within their themes, and of course, to keep it nomadic. The main guy is Jack (Gibbon). He’ll hate me saying this, but if you see him in the pub you would never guess he’s running a successful gallery. But when he’s at work he’s incredibly motivated and professional. He’s a great businessman; he’s kind of acted as my manager for the last couple of months for this project. It really helps having someone that is driven calling you up and demanding stuff – it really pushed me.
How long ago did you start working on this the Dark Suits series?
It was last summer really. Up to that point I’d been working on my Flat Cities project and I want to try and develop them more, but I’ve really had a lot more interest in the characters, plus I enjoy them a hell of a lot more. I’m really hoping that I can merge it all together, and I think then I’ll have found my style. Sculpture is the next thing I’m looking to get into – that and etching. But I won’t actually be doing the sculpting; I’ve got a few people working on making my characters at the moment, one of them in pewter and also a bronze bust of one of the fox men. They won’t be done for ages though.
You’ve said that these characters are basically the stuff of your ‘worst nightmares’ – why did you decide to dedicate so much time to something that it essentially terrifying to you?
I felt like I needed to do it. I got pissed off with so many animation companies cause I used to study it and it felt like that’s the way I was going. I hated having to do other people’s ideas and not what I wanted to do. I thought ‘I really don’t care any more – I’m gonna start doing what I wanna do.’ So I realised that my biggest passion, the thing that I was most involved in, was my fear of animal suits. So I thought the only way to try and get over this thing is to try and confront it and draw it.
Why were you so pissed off with animation companies?
Whether I like it or not, I’ve always had my own style I guess, whereas with animation that was totally different. They wanted you to be a master of all styles. When a company employed you they’d make sure you had at least eight different styles to offer. But I hated being told what to do, I guess I’m really stubborn like that.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to animation, or is that something you’re finished with totally?
I think I’d only go back as an artistic director or something like that. I want to be the person making the decisions. With animation everything tends to be done by a whole team, every section having a specialist. I wanted to be a background designer. But right now I’d rather find a way of blending that background work I did with the work I’m doing at the moment. The neo-apocalyptic thing, I love that – kind of like steam punk, but less crap.
You obviously see a certain darkness in this combination of animal and human.
Really? A lot of people say that, but I don’t think I’m there yet in terms of darkness. I’ve always loved doing the hollow eyes because I think it de-humanises the characters immediately. It doesn’t matter what they look like. You get rid of the pupils and it seems to completely get rid of their souls. No I wouldn’t say they were dark, I would say are a little bit tongue-in-cheek, I find them quite funny.
So do you think about what you are going to create beforehand, or does it just happen? Do you say to yourself ‘I think I’ll put a bull in a diving suit’?
It varies quite dramatically. A lot of them I’ll just go ahead with it and draw and see what happens, whilst some are pre-planned. The bull came from me being really obsessed with an illustrator called Shaun Tan who had this amazing story about this lost war hero in a big old diving suit wander through this town trying to find his home again. I read it at the time and it inspired me to do something like that – and then for some reason it came out as a bull, the horns just emerged from the helmet.
Do you think your work might lend itself well to some other media – perhaps something story-based?
Well actually, that’s another thing I’m working on right now. I’ve got a writer who’s developing a story at the moment and hopefully within the next few weeks I’ll have a pretty solid story to work from, and then I’m going to go into conceptual design of the whole thing, create an entire world.
The reason this whole series started was because I was going to write a dark folk tale adaptation book, all old folk tales but kind of modernised. I started writing it, but quickly realised I didn’t have the writing qualifications to pull it off, so I found a writer. Then I decided that instead of a compilation of loads of stories, I should just focus on one. So I gave the story to him, and he’s developing it properly into a 100-page graphic novel. It’s going to be a big project – it’s quite daunting, I’m going to have to develop every single character; you want the reader to empathise with and care about each one.The story is based on a dark Korean folk tale called The Fox Sister, although it’s come a long way from the original, but that’s the rough concept.
The past project started out at an idea to create one character a day for a certain period. What happened there?
Yeah, that’s how the whole card project came around. I got as far as 50. I was doing one a day, but when I got to fifty I realised that I should push it to a project cause it was getting absolutely ridiculous. It actually physically hurt to think and do that every day. So I just thought, ‘what’s the nearest number to 50 with some significance?’ And that’s literally how the deck of cards thing came about. And those last two days were absolutely torturous!
Is music important to the way you work? Is there any music that inspires you?
I’m a proper night owl, I don’t really work in the day. I’ll do research and things in the day, then at night I’ll just shove some headphones on and get into it. I have very mixed music taste, I pretty much listen to everything. At the moment though I can’t get enough of Lower Dens, Phantogram and Little Loud, that mixed in with French 60s pop and 1920s jazz. I can’t work without music at all; it feels odd.
In terms of equipment and methods, what do you go for?
Equipment wise I work on the lightbox these days, for the more complex city drawings I use it properly for tracing my roughs, but with the current series I tend to just shove a big piece of MDF on it and throw ink around.When I’m feeling particularly inspired I kneel on the floor sitting on my feet, rocking back and forth. I never change my style for any medium, for some reason. I guess I don’t want to learn a new technique. The big ones are about six feet tall, I think the bigger the better with stuff like this. My plan is to do really massive ones next, make paper drawings as big as I possibly can.
Maybe you should move into graffiti, start doing buildings!
That’s actually something I’m doing at the moment. The original drawings can be scanned and blown up as big as you like without losing too much so look out for those! I think it’s a really good way of getting your work seen. I really want to do it anyway, just to see what it looks like. I personally would really like to see a gigantic fox man on the side of a building.
So you obviously do try and capture something dark and frightening in your work. Is that why you decided to go with Mr Mead? It’s quite a sinister monicker.
Yeah, I’m happy for people to think of it like that. That’s what I’m into. I want to get more and more into that world. It interests me, and I think people really like it.
Yes, the obvious person to cite in terms of the popularisation of that dark, spooky aesthetic is Tim Burton.
(pause) Yeah; I like Tim Burton, he’s great. I just think he stole a lot of stuff from Edward Gorey – more idea-wise than anything. There’s a book he did that was an alphabet, but it was kids being mutilated in a kind of tongue-in-cheek, cartoon way, but drawn with a dark style. It’s inspiring to me. I think Tim Burton clearly saw that book and went ‘yeah, I’m having that.’
What are you planning to do for the Jamaica Street open studio?
I want to black out my room, paint the walls black, and then the plan is to get as much work as I have left over, plus any new ones, and put everything up and fill the room with characters. If it doesn’t fit on the walls I’ll put them on the ceiling, everywhere. Then I’m hoping to get some meat hooks and hang up gas lamps. That’s the kind of thing I’m into; I really want to see that.
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Words: Lucinda Bounsall & Geraint Davies