Life can be as flashy and grandiose as it wants, but sometimes it takes no more than a rustic cabin on the edge of a bay to form the basis of artistic pursuits. That is precisely what set the tone for Toronto-based artist Thrush Holmes’s creativity. In his new studio space in the east end of Toronto, with Bob Dylan crooning softly in the background, the 32-year-old recalls an eight-month period spent living in a small, rundown shack (with no running water or heat) in Parry Sound on the edge of Ontario’s Georgian Bay.
“The experience was pretty tumultuous,” he recalls. “I was young—I think I was 20 years old when I moved there, trying to escape the city. It was a strange place.” Holmes spent his time reading poetry by the Romantics (Lord Byron and John Keats, among others, with a dose of Leonard Cohen for good measure). “I wasn’t very productive as an artist there, but it was a very important time for me, when I started pulling my own identity, my ideals. I always refer back to that period when approaching any new body of work.” Solitary as it may have been, that isolation would colour Holmes’s future canvases. Today, his varied artwork is often infectiously bright, grabbing the viewer at once and holding on tight. Romantic sentiments have also prevailed—Holmes recently gave himself two new middle names, making him, legally, Thrush Byron Keats Holmes.
The artist as a young man accomplished much more than his modestly soft, staccato speech reveals. Holmes shot quickly to recognition in his early 20s after a few prominent art patrons in the southern United States snapped up his first artwork. Serious collectors and celebrity clients in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago soon followed. Then Canada took note. With his homeland anonymity quashed, the artist burst onto the Toronto art scene by developing a 3,100-square-foot studio space that doubled as a gallery. It was a statement space rather than a simple studio; he named it Thrush Holmes Empire.
“It was the loudest way of doing something,” he says of the artistic hive. “I have this obsession with being self-sufficient—I would make my own frames and stretchers and crates and everything in-house.” Those five years spent creating artwork were productive, but then, as he says, “I hit 30.” Holmes closed up shop on December 31, and is in the process of opening a smaller, quieter studio, in addition to two private workspaces.
The breadth of Holmes’s artworks includes phrases twisted out of neon tubing, Bruce Nauman–style, as well as large-scale canvases incorporating that neon, wild with colour—an early trademark of his. There are “rock” sculptures that mimic precious stones but are in fact made from waste cardboard, fibreglass, and resin—cuttings off the art-room floor—as well as collages, vintage-inspired landscape paintings, and abstract floral paintings. “It’s sort of the first thing you attempt in high school or grade school—you might try a landscape or a bouquet of flowers,” says Holmes. “Yes, they have been done many, many times. But I’m more comfortable when I can find permutations within the same—a little area where I can expand upon and where I can thrive. It nourishes me.”
There’s an attention-grabbing allure in his works, arresting the viewer. “Before, I was using old photographs,” he says, specifically in reference to some of his early collages. “I would cheat to maintain the viewer. Then I moved to sex. It’s very seductive. I felt very uncomfortable after a few years of success with this work because I knew that I was using nostalgia to trigger these emotions in people. Eventually, I wanted the audience back … I find an aspect of quality to my new collages. New colour. It’s very rock and roll.”
Recently, Holmes spent close to 100 hours creating an installation for Toronto’s exhibitIKEA, a four-day pop-up showcase in August 2011. His impressive life-sized shack, made from flattened IKEA boxes and vintage paraphernalia, gave “life and livability to the normally nondescript, staged showroom scenarios.” Projects at the fore include a feature-length film script (“I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s part documentary [and] sort of autobiographical. It’s like Rocky.”), an end-of-August exhibition slated for Toronto’s Angell Gallery, and a New York show to follow in September.
Photos provided by Thrush Holmes Empire.