An Interview with Artist Thomas Derksen

He grew up in a place that never seemed to change. A languid landscape of wood fences, stop signs and abandoned street-hockey sticks. Milton, Ontario has been steadily expanding for years, chewing into the forests and farmland that surround it, peppering everything with grocery stores and squirrels. When you live there, it can feel like a piece of suspended fabric with a heavy stone dropped in the middle, dragging everything inwards.

It was out of his need to escape and his desire to see something new that visual artist and Milton native, Thomas Derksen, started drawing. His imagination dragged him to the margins of every notebook, where inescapable mazes and creeping monsters lurked. They were more seductive to him than suburban life and schooling. Derksen calls himself “distracted” by his artwork. In school, it kept him spiraling inwards, to where teachers and students couldn’t reach him.

Derksen says that in school, his art made him feel like “less of a person,” perhaps because he was detached from his surroundings. Often, he wasn’t present in moment-to-moment experiences, preferring his own surreal space. In his early days as an artist, he immersed himself in the idea of non-humanity. Monstrosity still characterizes much of his work.

“I struggled a lot throughout and after high school with seeing the same things and talking to the same people every day. I was around fifteen when the urge to escape really began to grasp me.”

Nietzsche said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

Abyss-gazing is a hazardous occupation. Derksen’s work stares into the shadowy world of monsters, demons, dragons and fantasy. It is a deep-sea exploration into the subliminal, one that other surrealist artists have embarked on before him. Like them, he finds inspiration in his dreams and nightmares, breathing life into the monsters he finds there.

But his work is also a subtle form of social criticism. In literature, monsters can be used to determine who belongs to a particular social group, they have been used to dehumanize women (witches), Jews (vampires), Muslims (terrorists) etc. Monsters delineate the ‘us’ versus ‘them’, so that the borders of a community are defined by what doesn’t belong there. Derksen’s work places monsters on the periphery of a seemingly serene community. Miltonians are forced to ask themselves about the violence and absurdity of the world he creates, which somehow still resembles reality. He creates a them— the monsters we never noticed but have always been there. They’re not banshees, ghosts or witches; instead they’re alluded to by the words scrawled between his images.

“[My] poetry and visuals feed into each other. Sometimes the words inspire the images, or sometimes the images need the words to reveal another layer.”

Derksen uses words to screen the real monsters onto our imaginations. While his banshees and skulls could be considered frightening, it’s his words that reveal the horrors bordering small suburban communities in North America.

In a small segment at the top of this collage, the “map of heaven” rests inside an armchair, from which a blankly smiling figure stares out at the galaxy, still not really seeing it. The entire tableau balances precariously on a rocket launcher. The image suggests that heaven has been misplaced in the dull comfort of a La-Z-Boy, an object that represents a capitalist lifestyle predicated on violence against unknown others. It’s a lifestyle that causes us to watch the galaxy as blankly as we’d watch a TV screen. Capitalism leaks into Derksen’s imagined world, a monster that we don’t recognize unless we’re paying close attention– an act that’s hard to do from an armchair.

Not only has heaven been lost, but the gods have fallen too. In the left corner, the Greek god Hermes has transformed into a cat. Hermes is an interesting figure because he is the god of thieves, travel and language. He is the most mobile god, the god of communication and flight. He encourages rule-breaking. In a suburban community that is stagnant, Hermes is dishonoured and domesticated. His angered presence suggests that we need to return the old gods to their previous status; to listen to them. Hermes shouts to us that there is another monster, which is stagnancy, haunting small towns. He demands that we travel to resist it.

The United States also bears down on this world, revealing itself the longer you keep looking. It’s scrawled on the weapons, which are littered everywhere, and on the central figure of a woman. Not only does the USA perpetuate global violence, symbolized in its signature on the weapons, it also determines beauty standards, “signing off” on certain bodies and determining their values. The piece questions why American ideology has seeped into non-American communities. It becomes inescapable and menacing.

Derksen’s collaged landscape resonates because it’s recognizable as a version of our own communities, yet everything is simultaneously criticised and made strange. The work requires the viewer to pay attention, an act that in itself can be a rebellion. Small towns in North America encourage disregard and apathy. Their capitalism requires thoughtless consumption without reading the fineprint, their racial divides require a kind of blindness to our own prejudices (small towns often don’t “see” race). To pay attention is an act of empathy, and it’s an act that Derksen’s work demands.

“I do enjoy hiding little aspects of current issues in my work. I think it can be funny, disruptive, jarring or just odd to see something like a man with a sign that reads ‘robots deserve jobs as well’ in a collage of dragons and things. I’m not just making jokes though; the absurdity comes from the application of a serious issue to a not-so-serious atmosphere.”

Derksen’s work is inspired by his own struggle against systems, and by the people around him. He calls these his “personal blueprints” and “estranged inspirations”, mapped onto his work in the details. His work is also in conversation with dadaism and surrealism. The above piece questions the reverence for certain types of art, such as the Mona Lisa, which are worth millions, while many living artists still can’t make a living. Similarly, in 1919, Marcel Duchamp created a piece called L.H.O.O.Q. which was a cheap postcard copy of the Mona Lisa with a scrawled moustache. Like other DADA or absurdist artists, Derksen’s work causes us to question our own notions of what is ‘normal’, and what should be valued and how.

Derksen is not just a visual artist, but also an experimental poet and aspiring cartoonist. He attends Sheridan College in Oakville for Art Fundamentals.

“The main reason I decided to go to Sheridan was for the potential of the animation program. I’d never done work in that medium, but a friend and I have been planning a cartoon for the last couple of years. I’m planning to create at least the pilot myself.”

For him, the challenge of formal training is the rigidity of schedules and rules, and this challenge is nothing  new. “I repeatedly failed art assignments when I was younger because I would refuse to use colour in my work. I loved a good pencil.” He’s since overcome his dislike for colour, and in 2016 he painted a 12×7 foot mural without using any black paint. He plans to incorporate more colour into his work in the future.

“If there’s anything I’m trying to get across it’s that we aren’t supposed to stay in the same place for very long.”

While Derksen calls his work “a glorified doodle,” it’s more of a necessary outcry against the stagnant suburban lifestyle so many people feel stifled by.

You can check out more of his work on Instagram @tomfindshome

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