#07: Patrick Thomas on teaching, traveling and self-initiated work.
In this episode we travelled back to Berlin to talk to the prolific and charming graphic artist Patrick Thomas in his bright studio in Kreuzberg.
We also managed to make another short film in which we follow Patrick around Kreuzberg, visit a Eduardo Paolozzi exhibition and visit his studio space. Check out the video first for a taste or dive right into the interview below.
Below is an edited transcript of the podcast.
Glenn: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me. Maybe for those who have never come across your work, you could give us a quick introduction to who you are and what you do.
Patrick: I am Patrick Thomas. I’m a graphic artist originally from the UK. I’m based in Berlin and I arrived here via many other different places but probably the most important was Barcelona. My background is in commercial art so, design, illustration… I studied graphic design at St Martins School of Art. I then went on to the Royal College of Art to do a Master’s degree in illustration where I got very interested in printmaking and since my student days, I’ve always published my own work. I’ve continued making my own work and these days I’m dedicating more and more time to that aspect of my practice.
Maybe you could briefly describe where we are today, where are we sitting.
Patrick: Well, we are actually in the nerve center of my studio in Neukölln in Berlin. We’re in the exposure room where I burn images onto the silk screens and it is very messy in here.
It’s not that bad. It’s a nice little room. It’s great that you actually have a separate space to be able to do this in your studio.
Patrick: It’s kind of important because I have other people drop in, drop out of the studio and I need a space where I can sort of retire to and do my own thing, do my own thinking and make my own mess without interfering too much and bothering other people.
So, what brought you to Berlin in the first place?
Patrick: I was in Barcelona actually for 20 years from ‘91 to 2011, and towards the end of that time the recession was obviously very bad over there. It really hit the art world. I was selling my work and making my money elsewhere so it kind of seemed like I wasn’t tied to Barcelona and having heard for my entire life so much about Berlin, I thought I’d better get over here and have a look and I didn’t know what to expect but I knew immediately when I arrived that I needed to spend quite a lot of time here.
How long have you lived in Berlin?
Patrick: I used to come back and forth from Barcelona in the early 2009-2010. By Christmas 2010 I decided that I’d better look for an apartment because I was spending more and more time here and I kind of lived here. I’ve been based here more or less unbroken since then. I’ve still got the studio in Barcelona. I travel a lot but I’d say I’m spending 60% of my time here.
And what made you fall in love with the city that kept you here?
Patrick: Not the weather. Actually in a funny sort of way, the weather was an important factor because in Barcelona — I’m not good in the sun actually. I’m not really a beach kind of guy so I have no idea how I ended up in Spain for 20 years. I think everybody was convinced I was just hanging out on the beach all day but it’s not true. I probably went three times in the 20 years I was there. So, yeah, the allure of the grey northern European skies was very appealing actually after 20 years of sunshine, avoiding the sun. It just seemed to make a lot of sense. But the main thing that attracted me or what most impressed me when I arrived here 8-9 ago was the fact that it’s obviously a very cheap city. It’s a great place to make art. You can get hold of a decent sized studio for comparatively not too much money. But I was very intrigued by the youthfulness of the city actually. It felt very, very young because it’s cheap, it’s drawn in a whole generation of very young creatives and I kind of wanted to tap into that energy somehow.
So, for someone who might not have come across your work yet, I know this is a painful exercise but can you try and describe your work to someone who’s never come across it?
Patrick: Okay, the short version. I work where the digital and the analog collide I suppose. I’m kind of best known for my printmaking. I’m very interested in reaching people, accessibility through my work so I put out a lot of editions, I make it as affordable as possible and I try and reach people that way and in recent years those of you who are following my work will have noticed that there is a shift towards motion, a lot more motion graphics creeping in. But at the same time I’m still retaining the energy or the aesthetic of printed analog, traditional print work.
I’ll summarize it as the Internet, not a social media but the Internet as a whole, do you feel that that has had an influence on your work as well as just how you present your work and how you connect with your audience?
Patrick: Yeah, I mean I consider myself very lucky because when I started out, it was a decade before the Internet. It was in the early 80s in Liverpool and digital was not on the menu. It was very definitely not on the menu. If you wanted something, you had to paint it, you had to take out a camera and spend a week in a darkroom. This instant sort of gratification was not an option and I consider myself very lucky because when I graduated soon after that, the Internet kicked in and I was just caught up in that again. This collision between two different worlds and I’ve spent the subsequent 20 years trying to figure out how best to kind of play the opportunities that both worlds present you.
Where do you find your motivation? What motivates you to keep creating new things and to keep doing what you’re doing?
Patrick: It’s play. I mean I know it’s become a cliché but it’s very true in my case. I can’t really stop. It’s just something that happens. I’m not very good at many other things but I’m lucky in that I think I’ve found a niche where I can operate and sort of satisfy myself. It’s through my work.
So, you feel like by just experimenting that the experimentation itself is actually what motivates you to experiment more?
Patrick: Yeah, yeah. You’ve nailed it. That was a good answer, wasn’t it?
Since you’ve traveled so much, do you feel like your surroundings have influenced you a lot? Have you noticed a shift in your work every time you change your location?
Patrick: It’s a very good question. I’m intrigued by the way that other people perceive my work. My work is better received somehow in the UK, for example, than in other parts of the world. I was in Spain for 20 years. I don’t know if they particularly got it. I sell a lot of work through art galleries and art museums in Spain and whenever the work was sold, I would ask for feedback on my system and it was invariably people from the UK who were sort of picking up on it.
What do you think the reason for that might be? Do you think it could have to do with the way you promote your work, that you obviously promote your work in English, your native tongue? That might just make it more accessible to a British audience or…?
Patrick: I mean ironically in the UK they don’t really know who I am either which is sort of interesting. I’m always a stranger wherever I am. I’m always the outsider and I quite like that role. Actually I quite like that position. But yeah, getting back to the UK thing or the context where I’m making the work, obviously it feeds into the work. I’m a great believer in working with what you find around you, things, materials, ideas that sort of cross your path as you walk around whichever city you’re in. So, it’s sort of feeding into it but I guess by the time it’s gone through the Patrick Thomas filter, I’m somehow outputting it in a kind of UK friendly way or something. It really mystifies me.
Can you remember what was the first contact you had with art or design?
Patrick: So, back in Liverpool, yeah, I mean again it’s sort of become a bit of a cliché now but as many creators from my generation will tell you, we got into it via music. It was in the early 80s, Liverpool was one of the big music capitals of northern England. I was in a band and I spent a lot of time going to live concerts, so record packaging is obviously very important, gig posters, tickets, etc., etc. and this was very important input for me because when I was taught on my foundation course in Liverpool, eventually at the end of my year when I had to decide between art and design, I ticked the design box because I felt like somehow there was just more of an allure of the unknown. It was very appealing to me.
You kind of bridge the gap because your work has a very graphic and also a designed quality but you’re mostly self-commissioned or like most of the work you do it’s of your own motivation. Where do you fit in?
Patrick: It’s great. I love this because obviously to designers, I’m the arty guy and to artists, I’m the design guy. So, I’m right in the middle of this sort of grey area where I love to be and it’s where I’ve always been actually. I don’t think that I’ve changed. I think that the industry has changed. It’s caught up with me but then again. I don’t think you do deliberately set out and decide that you’re going to occupy a certain area. I think they’re just things that are inherently sort of built into your work and you just sort of settle down wherever’s kind of right for you. It’s incorrect to call me a designer because I do very little commercial work, and artist, I feel uncomfortable with artist as well. So, I’ve sort of come up with graphic artist which sounds a little bit pretentious I guess but it seems to sort of…
It definitely seems to describe your work best. I think it fits.
Patrick: Until something better comes along.
Patrick: But quite honestly I really don’t obsess about these things. I think in the same way that I might perceive things to be odd that maybe you wouldn’t. In 2018, I really don’t think we should waste too much time worrying about this.
True. It shouldn’t be too much of a distinction. It can kind of all blend into each other. All right. Was there a point where you felt comfortable and confident to call yourself a graphic artist as you say? I think a lot of people especially when they’re young worry about am I good enough and where am I going with this. I think everyone kind of has to go through that stage.
Patrick: I’ve never really worried about whether or not I’m good enough.
You were always confident.
Patrick: Well, I don’t know. I worried about other things I guess but it was when I stopped doing commercial work and decided to concentrate a hundred percent on my own work that I felt that I’d earned that title as it were, graphic artist.
So, do you still take on some commissioned work occasionally or…?
Patrick: I get a lot of requests. My problem is time is always a bit of an issue because I teach these days as well. I travel a hell of a lot and I’m kind of busy with my own thing. Having said that, since moving to Berlin I’ve started to sort of — well, I’ve put together a collective of ex-students of mine and other collaborators, the idea being that if the right project comes along, we would consider working on it or we’d meet, we’d talk about it and then we’d decide whether or not we were going to get involved with it. And again I’m the outsider in that team. I’m sort of overviewing the whole thing but I’m not an integral part of it. But very happy for commercial work to happen alongside my own work in the studio. I don’t have any problem with that at all.
You briefly touched on teaching there. You’re a professor of visual communication at Stuttgart’s State Academy of Art and Design. What have you learned from your experience in education?
Patrick: Well, I’ve always taught over the years. In Barcelona I taught at most of the design schools, not as committed as I am now. I mean I’m a regular, teaching every week down in Stuttgart but I’m loving it. I’m finding that it’s very different. Actually, the work that’s happening in Germany, it’s very different to the work that I was used to in the UK and in Spain. I’m also very aware of the fact that we cannot teach the way that we were taught. I think everything has really changed a hell of a lot and we now have to work together actually. In many ways, a lot of the teaching it has become quite collaborative. I will put a project on the table and then I will sort of guide people in the right direction. But this sort of passing down of sacred information over the years, I think that’s no longer relevant in the same way that the term graphic design is obsolete. It’s about visual communication with audio actually. I’m having a big drive towards motion graphics, coding, processing but at the same time carrying the torch for the traditional processes. So, it’s a very exciting time as I say where everything collides. That is where I’m operating and that’s where I’m trying to point my students towards.
When you’re not in the studio or in this little space exposing screens, what do you do to get away from work and switch off?
Patrick: I’m not very good at switching off actually. I’m very lucky in that through my work I get invited to give talks all over the place. So, I’m constantly traveling and I’d like to try and fool myself that I’m having a bit of a break while I am traveling which isn’t necessarily true but as far as switching off, switching off, I don’t know, a film. I go to the cinema quite a bit. Exhibitions, I mean we’ve just been to the Eduardo Paolozzi exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie here in Berlin. I will try and see as much as I can wherever I am, in whichever city I’m currently in.
It was really nice going to that exhibition. It would be nice for you to maybe tell our listeners what role Eduardo Paolozzi played in your – was it junior university years that you first came into contact with him as a tutor?
Patrick: Yeah, basically I was unaware of Paolozzi until I moved down to London and then at St Martins School of Art, my second year there was this incredible exhibition at the Museum of Mankind which I don’t know if it still exists but it was a part of the British Museum called Lost Magic Kingdoms and basically Eduardo Paolozzi curated. He was given access to the British Museum archives and he raked through the archives and he pulled out low culture, high culture and he combined it and decontextualized stuff, put stuff together and he put up this groundbreaking and very, very influential exhibition that caught me as I say in my second year at St Martins.
It blew me away and I was then very, very interested to find out more about the guy and the more I found out about Paolozzi, the more I realised that we were actually surrounded by his work. For example, the Tottenham Court Road tube station in London opened the year before I started at St Martins and I was using his artwork as my local tube station. It’s an absolutely wonderful sort of functioning piece of art. And Paolozzi, he taught me liberation actually, the fact that you can really work cross-disciplined in many, many different areas.
At the time I was studying, I got the impression that we were all being pigeonholed. I was like the sort of illustrator kind of guy and I looked towards Paolozzi for freedom actually. He showed that it’s completely possible and as you may or may not know, he worked between sculpture, printmaking, animation, textiles, ceramics, he curated, he did absolutely everything. If anybody deserves the term multimedia artist, Eduardo is your man. Very early on, he sort of got into the collaborative approach to his work and this is something that’s obviously very, very relevant now. It is something that’s kind of big at the moment so again amongst a million other things, he really anticipated that.
It’s amazing to see his work today in the exhibition and how much of it feels very relevant today. I was very aware of his sculptural work but his prints, especially the vibrantly colourful ones, they seem very ‘now’. They’re very modern for the fact they were printed in the 70s.
Patrick: By the 70s, he always felt very uncomfortable with the term pop artist although he’s considered to be one of the pioneers of British pop art. But by the 70s he’d sort of stopped all of that bright sort of poppy stuff. I think most of those are actually from the late 50s or mid to late 50s into the 60s.
That makes it even more impressive. I think they’ve aged incredibly well.
Patrick: Apparently he was a complete nightmare for the poor printmaker whose turn it was to produce the work because he was very restless and when he was on press, he would quite spontaneously decide to sort of just play around with color combinations and things in a very spontaneous way. So, it must have been a bit of a nightmare and I mean that in a good way whereas you would normally set up your edition and like bang out a couple of hundred or whatever. Individually, he would change it and tweak the colors on each print.
Yeah, a lot of the prints had like ten colors so that would have been tricky if he was meddling in the process along the way.
Patrick: I mean it’s also really exciting. Some of the work that most surprised me at the Berlinische Galerie were the very, very early animations. I was completely unaware of this work and again I’m finding them very, very, very satisfying watching them. Although it’s very, very low-tech, it completely coincides with something that I’ve gravitated towards and of course this amazing story that a mural has been unearthed in West Berlin. A building was being pulled down and suddenly a lost Paolozzi mural that he put up in the early 80s appeared and it’s there. You can stand across the street in Kurfürstenstrasse, in Charlottenburg and watch this Paolozzi as it’s come back from the dead. It’s a wonderful, wonderful moment.
Coming back briefly to commissioned work, what’s your dream job to be commissioned for. It would be interesting to hear from you what would have to come along for you to say that sounds pretty interesting? What would be a dream job to you?
Patrick: Do you know, I get asked this a lot and I’ve never come up with a convincing answer. I always think of exhibits. I exhibit a lot all over the place. I tell you what would make me very happy, that would be to exhibit in my hometown actually of Liverpool in any sort of a space. It could be a commercial shopping space, it could be a museum, it could be on the streets, could be anywhere. That’s sort of high on my list of things to do.
That seems very achievable, having an exhibition in your hometown.
Patrick: It’s not very ambitious, is it?
But isn’t that good to find something that could actually happen rather than something that’s completely impossible?
Patrick: Yeah, I mean closely followed by Liverpool is obviously a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York.
There you go. All right. Well, I have a very loose question that I usually throw in at the end and that’s what makes you happy?
Patrick: God, I love working with people who are really good at what they do actually, especially people who I can thoroughly relate to so fellow printmakers and there’s this wonderful studio nearby actually in Kreuzberg called Handsiebdruckerei and these guys — it’s like a print studio — and these guys develop their own inks and papers and they’re just absolutely passionate and dedicated and incredibly smart with their work. I love going around to their space and watching them put stuff together. It makes me feel very inadequate and quite ignorant but it’s a complete and utter privilege to be able to watch them at work. That makes me happy. Family aside, what else makes me happy? I like just walking around actually. I mean you touched on the typed collage at the Berlin Street graphics thing a little bit earlier on. I used to bomb around cities on a bike when I was a student or just after I graduated, I ended up being a dispatch rider in London. So, speed, it was always about speed when I was younger. Now I’m really enjoying slowing down and walking and observing. That makes me happy. I like just to walk around the block actually.
Definitely. I can totally agree with that.
Patrick: Finding beauty in the ordinary, appreciating your immediate surroundings makes me very happy and that includes people as well.
So, earlier when we took a walk around Kunstquartier Bethanien and you had this amazing story that you told me about that the first time you came to Berlin, staying in a flat and seeing this building across the road and thinking: “That looks interesting. I wonder what’s in there?”
Patrick: Yeah, completely by chance. So, it was 2009 I guess. My first visit to Berlin, bitterly cold winter and by chance I rented an apartment in Marienplatz in the heart of Kreuzberg. I knew a little bit about Kreuzberg, about the history but I didn’t know too much more about it and on the first morning I ventured outside into the icy street and glanced across the park and saw his beautiful sort of neo-gothic building and wondered what on earth had happened inside it. So, I asked the locals. Nobody could really fill me in. So, I think on my penultimate day I plucked up the courage and I crossed the park and walked inside and I discovered this incredible project. Basically it works almost like a cooperative, like a sort of workshop cooperative thing and what really drew me towards it was the fact that there is a whole wing of this building that is dedicated to editioning so using traditional print processes, etching, woodcutting, relief printing, stone LIFO, alongside a digital suite, alongside a silkscreen studio. So, this idea that you could cross combine processes, I found very very exciting and there and then I kind of decided that I had to spend time in Berlin.
What an amazing coincidence to stumble over a place like that when you’re just sort of exploring the city for the first time.
Patrick: Yeah. Well, I was slightly pissed off that nobody told me about it. Most people know that I’m a very passionate printmaker but I love the way that it just sort of fell out of the heavens and the fact that I discovered it to myself maybe made me…
It makes it more special to you because you found it yourself.
Patrick: There’s another story and again it relates to Paolozzi. So, then I’d move back to Berlin, I got an apartment again in Kreuzberg nearby to Kunstquartier Bethanien. I block booked as many days as were available and I kind of set up shop there, started to produce quite a lot of work. Over lunch one day there, Eduardo Paolozzi came up in conversation and it turned out that he’d been in Berlin in the mid-70s on a scholarship paid by the German government and he’d been working down the road from Bethanien so again another coincidence and Paolozzi refers to it as his most prolific and one of his happiest years.
Is this something that you feel you’re most proud of?
Patrick: Proud, I’m not really a proud kind of guy I don’t think but I mean I’m pleased with the fact that the editions — it feels like I’ve reached quite a few people with my work. I’ve exhibited across five continents which is nice. I’ve put out somewhere in the region of 200 editions, usually quite large editions of a hundred, between 50 and 250, something like that. So, I can’t do the math but I guess there are 20,000 Patrick Thomas’s out there somewhere.
That’s not bad.
Patrick: That feels nice. Yeah, yeah. As I say proud probably isn’t the right word but I guess it gives me a certain amount of satisfaction.
What’s next on your calendar? What’s coming up?
Patrick: Lots and lots of traveling. I’m going on a mini tour of the UK actually next week which I’m very excited about. I’m just back from Manchester School of Art which was wonderful and I’m heading off to ???– last week I gave a talk in Munich and on Tuesday I head back to the north of England to Liverpool, to Chester, to Birmingham, to Bath, to Norwich, to Brighton and to London and then further ahead I’m giving talks in St Petersburg in Russia, I’m giving a talk and an exhibition in Serbia which I’m very, very happy about, very excited about having never been there before and also in Mexico. I’ve got something coming up in Mexico in the autumn. Apart from that I’m working on a new book for Lawrence King, my publisher in the UK. I’ve got two books in the pipeline. There’s talk of a residency in Rome but I don’t want to talk too much about that in case it doesn’t happen and then just the usual stuff. Everything else seems to be ticking over so I need something to kind of complicate things a little bit more. Something to keep me awake at night, to worry about.
What’s the best place where someone could go to see some more of your work?
Patrick: Instagram. I think it’s the most exciting platform for us guys, actually visual communicators especially since you can now post 60-second videos and things with audio. This is a very, very exciting opportunity. The three main accounts are my personal account, xPatrickThomas and there I definitely don’t show a portfolio of final work. I mean maybe one in 20, you’ll see an edition but I’m not trying to like flog stuff on Instagram. I’m not really about that but I’m more trying to show people under the bonnet, how things run at the studio and I think that might explain why there’s been a certain amount of interest in it. I’m sort of trying to demystify what I do a little bit. The second account which we touched on earlier is Berlin Street Graphics which I’m describing as typographic fragments that I sort of stumble across on the streets of Berlin, just kind of mapping a moment in time and the third one is Patrick Thomas Studio where I will be showing work, if you’ve enjoyed this, you can have a look at other stuff that we get up to in the studio.
Patrick Thomas, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
Patrick: Thank you very much, Glenn. It’s been a pleasure.