The K.C. Potter Center—home of Vanderbilt University’s Office of LGBTQI Life—got a vibrant new look this fall. The center’s new director, Chris Purcell, decided the walls of the center should reflect LGBT art of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. He first showcased paintings by Arthur Kirkby, a local artist made prominent when his work appeared on the popular TV show Nashville.
Time came to cycle the art in August, and Purcell put out a call for local artists to submit their work for consideration. Thomas Brodhead, an accomplished musicologist and aspiring painter, submitted his colorful, comical, and yet darkly ironic work. On his art’s merits and with Kirkby’s recommendation, Brodhead was selected, and now twenty of his paintings grace the Center’s walls.
O&AN: What motivates your work?
Thomas Brodhead: Color, motion, and narrative. I’m not a fan of Rembrandt’s partially lit faces surrounded by a veil of darkness, and I also puzzle at the rarefied explanations of abstract works that we’ve all seen at galleries. So my work is a reaction to those things: the more color I put into the image, the better, and the more abstruse and ridiculous I make the explanation, the better. And that’s true even when I’m making serious commentary.
O&AN: You call your work “epigrammatic.” Could you explain that?
TB: An epigram is a witty, concise summary of something. My writing is often expansive, so I’m stretching the definition a bit, but it’s still accurate in that it’s an explanation of the thing. I’m actually trying to marry visuals and words in a humorous way, where the painting and its epigram are interdependent…you can't experience the total work without viewing one and reading the other.
O&AN: Does that make you an illustrator of sorts?
TB: Yes and no. I typically mix serious social commentary with tongue-in-cheek humor. But the painting comes first, the commentary second. I sometimes begin a painting without a definite message in mind; it’s only after I’m finished that the writing begins. And I simply ask myself, “What do *I* see in this painting?” I don’t mean to prescribe an exact interpretation for anyone, as everyone will see different things, and that’s exactly the way art works. But if I can put a smile on your face either by the image or the writing, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
O&AN: Does that mean you’re a comedian?
TB: I think of myself as a satirist, most especially in my writing. But I’m dead-serious about visual appeal, comic or otherwise. The paintings are hyper-fauvist…they’re definitely not by Rembrandt. And I do enjoy the element of narrative, something that was all but lost in 20th century visual art. And if that’s not immediately suggested by the images in the painting, it will take shape in the epigram.
O&AN: Now, some of your work seems to be for, shall we say, a mature audience?
TB: Ha! I know a local curator who told me that many of my pieces would be barely acceptable for display or discussion in a college setting, let alone a high school art class.
O&AN: So, your more risqué pieces are not on display at Vanderbilt right now?
TB: Yes, understandably. If you peruse my website, in which my pieces are organized into carousel-operated galleries, you’ll see some paintings that may make your jaw drop. And each painting has its epigram directly to the right of the image, often with red hyperlinks that will open videos and other web pages in a separate tab. The hyperlinks amplify my writing and add to its humor, so I encourage everyone to click on them, but be prepared for the unexpected.
O&AN: Is there any over-arching theme you want to convey?
TB: Yes: life is ironic, absurd, bathetic, and wonderful. We’ve all suffered pain that no one else can fully appreciate, and in my case, my own ability to see and be amused by the ironic and the absurd within it is precisely what has helped me get through it. If I can remove someone from whatever personal hell they may be enduring on a given day, even for a moment…well, then, I’ve lightened their load and succeeded.
Brodhead’s paintings at the K.C. Potter Center are both on display and for sale. See more of his art and writings at www.thomasbrodhead.com