Woodbridge artist David Thomas balances art with stage design

Woodbridge artist David Thomas admits he is suffering from a bout of butterflies in the stomach – a slight feeling of nervous anticipation. He is preparing for his first solo art exhibition for many years and he will admit he is never entirely sure what people will make of his work.

Any artist will tell you that everyone suffers from small crises of confidence in the run-up to a show but acknowledgement of this home-truth doesn’t stop his stomach doing back flips at regular intervals. Although David has painted all his life he is probably better known within theatrical circles as a set designer and scenery painter working at the Mercury Theatre, the original Wolsey Theatre and at Hornchurch. His own art shows have, by his own admission, been spasmodic.

Making a cup of coffee in his packed Woodbridge home, he admits that he enjoys the freedom that his life affords. “I love the fact that you can work flat out on scenery for a week or two at The Mercury then I’m free to do my own work for a fortnight before going back to do something else at the theatre.

“It means that life never gets samey. There’s always something new, something interesting to occupy you – new challenges to get your head around but at the same time allowing me time to develop my own art.

“The two halves of my life complement each other. I couldn’t just do one thing all the time. I need the stimulus of fresh ideas, new challenges, new projects which is why working in the theatre is so endlessly rewarding plus I also get down time for me to pursue my painting.”

He said that working in the theatre also allowed him contact with other art professionals, something which many artists lack. Art by its very nature is a solitary experience and it is rare for an artist to be able to work alongside other professionals. “I like having time with other people. That’s great for so long, then I need to be alone for a while to do my own thing, then I can go back and work with other people again.”

He said that working in the theatre has given him a sense of discipline. “In the theatre everything is created on a deadline to a budget. There’s tremendous creativity associated with that but also there’s a ‘that’ll have to do’ factor involved because you’ve run out of time or money or usually both. But, that’s good because it forces you to make something out of nothing or to improvise and that’s when something inspired happens. When you are working on your own paintings there’s the temptation to keep fiddling with things, keep changing things, so it’s never finished. Working in the theatre has taught me to let things go.”

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He said that much inspiration for his work comes from the area in which he lives. Although he enjoys visits to Cornwall and Devon on painting expeditions, the majority of his work is inspired by the farmland and the coastline of east Suffolk.

“The other thing I cherish is living here in Woodbridge. Sometimes I feel a little bit like a stick-in-the-mud but I genuinely love going out and exploring east Suffolk and painting what I discover. Also you find that a lot of artists migrate from London to Suffolk and get all excited by what they discover but some of us, have always known what we have here.

“When I’m coming back to Woodbridge on the train, when the carriage rounds the bend at Kyson and you see the view laid out before you, I always think: ‘You are so lucky to be living here.’

David was born in Ipswich but he grew up in Felixstowe when his family moved there shortly after he was born. He moved to Woodbridge in 1992 when he bought his cottage in Kingston Road as a restoration project.

He said when it comes to his work he doesn’t always have a finished vision in his head when he starts a scene. He knows a David Thomas scene when he sees one but the finished picture is the result of a lot of work during the creative process.

“It’s like music or writing, it’s one of those things that once you’ve started you can begin to see how you want to shape it. Quite often you’ll start with what you think is a finished end result in your head and yet when you do finish, you’ll often find that the real end result is quite different. It’s journey which can last a couple of days, sometimes months, even years.”

He said that he loves going to student art exhibitions and many times prefers the work of sixth form art students to those doing degree courses. “The sixth form students often seem much more committed and the work more thought through. I love looking at the work books and the sketch pads and you can see an idea develop.

“I think it’s a great practice to have a sketch book with you. I do now but when I was at art school we never bothered to keep sketch-books of ideas. We were terrible wasters really. However, once I started work at the theatre I returned to a lot of better habits which were instilled at school in Felixstowe – like keeping a sketch book by you.”

He said that his Felixstowe art teacher, Mrs Helling, was the person who first inspired him to take art seriously. “I, like a lot of people who are visually inclined, was quite hopeless academically but she saw something in us and nurtured what we had. She was very supportive. I was there when Deben High School changed from a grammar school to a comprehensive. It was a huge period of change which we weren’t really aware of at the time but we did have some very good teachers.”

He said that although he could never articulate it, he had always known he wanted to be an artist. “At the back of my mind, even as a young child, I suppose I was aware that it was really the only thing I could do. Also I had always enjoyed visiting galleries and looking at pictures and being thrilled by it all.”

He said that his family didn’t come from an artistic background, so he had to find his own way which led to Ipswich Art School. “It seemed the obvious thing to do. Looking back it was an odd time. We were taught by a lot of people who had had a very good 60s and we were the punk generation. Times had changed and there was a different mood abroad. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan had just got in and I remember that we all thought it was the end of the world. We, as all art students were, quite left wing and it seemed an odd time.”

After the foundation course, David went on to do graphics and enrolled in a new 3-D course which led to a short, unsuccessful stint at Fisons before he joined the Wolsey Theatre workshop. “I didn’t enjoy working at Fisons. The graphics were far too literal for me. Also my father had just been made redundant from Fisons, so it didn’t seem to be the right place for me.”

The Wolsey workshop, under the auspices of local design legend David Knapman, was another story entirely. David Thomas retains hugely fond memories of his time with the theatre during the Dick Tuckey years.

“I had always been taken to theatre, even as a young child and always enjoyed theatre, I got taken on as a work experience person and ended up working there all the time. I loved all the hands on bit and thought: ‘yeah, this is for me.’”

He said that he benefited from an old school mentality which allowed newcomers to gain experience and travel up through the ranks. “David (Knapman) was head of design, then there was an assistant designer, then a design assistant, then a painter and then you got to me a general dogsbody. But, you learnt your craft. If you showed promise you were given a small show, perhaps a TIE (Theatre in Education) and if that went well, then you moved onto a main house show. I remember when I was given my first production in the main house, there were still people around to keep an eye on you and offer advice if you needed it. It was a very nurturing atmosphere; but, at the sametime, you were given quite a lot of responsibility while you were still quite young.

“I am lucky at Colchester, working at the Mercury now, Dee (Evans, artistic director) again keeps that same company feel – both on stage and in the workshop. We try and bring on youngsters in the same way that David Knapman did with me because that’s where the technical expertise for the future comes from. It’s a very old fashioned concept but it goes back to the idea of an apprentice learning from a master.”

He said it was important for theatres to have a sense of community. They are a community within a wider community. This was increasingly important in a world where a lot of creative work was carried out on a freelance basis to a strict deadline. “You need to assemble around you people you can trust to deliver the job on time and to the standard that is required – and you need to work with people you get on with. So building up a network of contacts is vitally important.”

He said that when the original Wolsey Theatre closed he worked as a postman for a while before contacts provided him with work at a firm in Beccles who provided signs and ‘sets’ for theme parks. “Theatre in general was in a bad way at the time and this theme park work kept a lot of people busy. At times it seemed that every scenic artist this side of London was employed there for a time, plus carpenters and plasterers.

“It was through Andy Franks, who got me the job at APW at Beccles, who then suggested I go to the Mercury when he became production manager there. We were all very adaptable and had visualisation skills. We could go on site, see a half finished set and would instinctively know what to do to make it work – or how it could adapted to fill another space or be used in another setting.”

He said in the last couple of years he has returned to work with the New Wolsey Theatre and Eastern Angles. “It was great working at the Wolsey again. Just like old times. It’s lovely to see it doing so well. They are a lovely crowd to work for and it was lovely to catch up with Dominic Eddington again, we go back to 1987 and it was really good to be back in the building again.”

But, for now David is happy that his own painting work is taking centre stage again. He said that he wanted an exhibition because he felt that he had built up sufficient work to merit a show. “I suppose you could say that my work is a reflection of the traditional world which is still around us. When I was young I loved drawing motorbikes but somewhere along the way that changed into drawing horses and cows. Also I love Suffolk’s big brooding skies. I am at my happiest when I stumble across a scene which combines all these different elements.”

n David Thomas’ exhibition is at The Fraser Gallery, Woodbridge from April 18-23, open from 10am to 5pm.