We caught up with Tommy May, Abstract Artist, for Part 3 of our Together, Alone series. He is photographed here wearing Onsloe by his partner and fellow artist, Gwen O’Neil, in their Los Angeles home and studio. We conversed over email about their days in L.A. and out East, what inspires them, and how showing work has fundamentally changed over the past several months. You can view his selected works here at tommymaystudio.com
Photography by Gwen O’Neil
O: First off, how are you? How has your week been?
T: My week has been pretty hectic but great. We just flew with our golden retriever for the first time across the country. We’re here in East Hampton to paint for the summer. I’ve already dived headfirst into continuing a series of abstract Jacaranda paintings.
O: As an artist, you typically work from your home and studio, has your process or workflow changed at all? What’s your routine looking like these days?
T: My routine is always pretty fluid, but I always start each day with a 6-mile hike through the hills behind our house and studio. Not much has changed, our studio is on the same property as our apartment so we've been able to continue working throughout all this. I’ve been incredibly driven the last couple of months, more so than usual.
O: Have you been cooking? Favorite meal? What has your go-to drink been?
T: We’ve cooked everything. Gwen is the architect in the kitchen. Pomodoro, Curries, and Tomato Poached Cod – always with a Martini. As we got into summer the Martinis sort of morphed into Beer and Tequila.
O: What do you miss most about life as usual? What do you think you’ll miss most when things “go back to normal?”
T: I don’t miss much “pre-COVID”. Studio visits can be sort of odd at this time though, it’s hard to talk about your work through a mask. I miss exhibitions. Major galleries from the city have recently opened up satellite spaces here in East Hampton, and that will be the first art I will see that I haven't made myself in months! As for when things start to look normal again, I’ll miss this time of pause and introspection.
O: After the unfortunate cancellation of your and Gwen’s first show out in L.A. due to coronavirus, you both decided to open the exhibition yourselves directly outside of your studio. How’d it go?
T: It was fantastic! The show was intimate and very much spoke to the times we’re in. The work was really able to sing being hung outside. The collection is a response to our immediate surroundings, so it made sense to show the paintings in the habitat of their inspiration. We had some wonderful people stop by and we sold some work… that’s always good!
O: In your work, you manage to get that alchemy of– abstracting your subject while being completely dialed into where you’re at in both place and time. What does your decision process look like when considering a new body of work? Is there a gestation period, or is it more of a blood on canvas kind of thing?
T: I bounce around a lot – mostly between two on-going bodies of work. I recently started to bridge the gap between the two. I usually work intensely on a group of paintings, then at some point snap into something completely different, and so on. One body of work is very structured and planned out while the other is immensely fluid and free. I go into the studio without a plan for the day, but normally just start drawing.
O: Your sketches, as much as your paintings, seem dissonant yet completely in harmony. Is that duality intentional or is it a result of iteration? Has that duality always been there or is it something you grew into?
T: The range in my work has always been incredibly expansive. I have been making drawings and small works for a very long time but hadn’t really taken them as seriously as I do now. As boxes and boxes continue to pile I'm starting to see them as a really strong body in and of themselves, so I would say the relationship between the drawings and the paintings has not been planned but rather have grown together over time. I’m just now really starting to connect the dots between the two.
O: What’s the A to B when you know whether a sketch might be worth taking to a larger format? How in the hell do you know when you’re done with a piece of work?
T: I actually work backward as opposed to A to B. I dive into the paintings with very little planned, and then make studies and drawings, or correction paintings – similar or almost identical pieces that build off the one prior.
O: You and Gwen have been back and forth between East Hampton and L.A. for a few years now. Seems like y’all are always up to something different. What’s next?
T: Yes, we are thankful to be able to have a place on the east coast where we can work in the summer months. It’s important for us to be in different environments throughout the year and experience different landscapes. We’ll be working here and in Martha’s Vineyard on a new body of work that we’ll show outside of our studio in LA. We love this idea of displaying our work directly at its source. We’re looking forward to exploring it further.
Go-to activity: Paint
Go-to playlist: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (soundtrack)
Go-to cocktail: Vodka Martini
Top film: I just saw Kelly’s Heroes and North by Northwest. Two great ones!
Top TV: Gotta love Peaky Blinders
Top book: I’m just starting The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans
Side-note: I just drove by a fantastic 50s MG, black with red interior – a beautiful car!