Tony came to Aberystwyth from Townsville, Australia, and, naturally, he did his research beforehand. If you have a go at browsing ‘Wales’ online it starts coming across as the land of dragons and wizards, King Arthur and the Holy Grail, people wearing strange conical black hats, and a bridge named after The Devil. And even if you try to find aspects of Welsh culture that don’t sound like they’ve come straight out of a folktale, you might be encouraged to watch Hinterland, where Borth is host to one crime scene after another. I can’t imagine what goes through the mind of an International Artist in Residence on arrival at the Arts Centre and being introduced to the new studio: a crinkly tin foil hut that looks like a potential prototype for the spacecraft in Alien 5.
When you arrive in any new place it doesn’t quite seem natural, and neither do you. You find yourself looking right up at the chimney pots, and at what’s written down on the manhole covers, totally engaged with the most mundane things. But perhaps there’s something about the mythology and imagination of Wales that adds another dimension to the theatricality of being in a new place for the first time. Tony turned that sensation in to a body of new work.
His feet had barely touched the ground before he was off out taking photographs of local community groups: the bell ringers, the engine drivers, opera singers, fishermen, miners, and various other ‘characters’ of the town. But he didn’t treat them as subject matter in the way that Stanley Spencer or Ford Madox Brown had done before him. The process wasn’t about commending the daily graft of the overlooked workers. Tony really got to know these people and their passion for what they do. Of course, what we choose as our occupation forms a huge part of our identity; the clothes we wear, the language we use, the faces we pull, the way our bodies move when we adopt our roles - we become a certain version of ourselves, submitting to this role, yet remaining an individual. Our work becomes our performance.
< 19th Century occupational portrait of a blacksmith
But for Tony, temporarily living in an entirely new place, there was no such thing as the everyday worker. Aberystwyth was like a film set and the people he met were the characters that informed his experience. After a day of meeting and photographing them, he would take his photographs to the studio and translate them in to charcoal sketches. The use of monochrome allowed him to emphasise the tonal contrasts and recreate the drama of his experience. Like a scenographer developing their stage design, the backdrops in Tony’s portraits become just as important as the character. He often works with unusual angles or silhouettes created from intense back lighting, doffing the cap to Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang or perhaps the makers of Hinterland.
Despite being relatively new to the exhibiting art scene, Tony’s approach has been inspiring. He took on the project with absolute sincerity, treating it as time for personal artistic development. He fully embraced that feeling of being in an unfamiliar place, and, showing no signs of anxiety or alienation, he gave us a celebration of various individuals and the roles they play in our community.
We spend so much time in identity crisis, constantly worrying about living up to who we really are and where we really belong. But Tony’s work playfully pronounces that it’s up to us as individuals to decide. And, as easy as putting on a new costume, we’re free to change our minds. It’s all a matter of performance.