Auguste Chocianaite interviewed Tom Mead, whose monochromatic illustrations will make you want to check under the bed before going to sleep tonight. Subtly terrifying and irresistibly charming works by Mr Mead will make your imagination tick.
Suggestive horror is one of the main elements in Tom’s artwork. Some of his darkest pieces are ‘The Banquet of the Child Beast’ – which depicts an utterly bizarre dinner table full of beheaded children, ‘Birthday Party for One’ – a piece in which the viewers are invited to witness a sad birthday party of a wind-up rabbitman sitting adjacent to a cage with a small terrified person in it, or ‘The Great Party of the Vale’ – a commissioned painting in which one can find dozens of netted, captive children above a seemingly innocent masked ball.
“There aren’t many things that could be darker than some surreal creatures stealing a child. It’s as messed up as it can get in my head. Stealing innocence is really dark, and I like teetering on the edge of really dark. I wouldn’t show anything grotesque, like the creatures actually eating those children for example. It leaves everything up to the viewers’ imagination. I prefer to suggest. It might be extremely dark, but again, it might not be.”
Shaun Tan, Brian Froud, and Tim Burton-inspired illustrations make you want to check under the bed, and look at the mirror when brushing your teeth just to make sure there’s no foxman standing behind you: “I enjoy the idea of drawing things that make you scared at night. It’s a lot more deep rooted and more interesting for me aesthetically. I like masking people’s identities, I like the idea that the mask is over what looks like a human face, but you don’t know whether that’s human or not. It raises more questions. I like the idea of being a little bit disturbing. I’m obsessed with different forms of identity, being able to change immediately. Things like that really dehumanise a character,” he points at a tiny fist size gasmask on his studio wall. “I mean you can put that on a baby and it would look creepy and weird, even though it’s just a baby.”
The symbolic journey towards becoming a full-time artist began years ago when Tom’s mother encouraged him to see a Beatrix Potter’s ballet. Frightened by the animal suits, he developed a phobia which is now rather important for his creativity: “It was terrifying. It blew my mind and scarred me for life. Apparently I was crying and screaming. The way they moved freaked me out. It’s my horror film which still ruins me. In a good way, however, as I use it for my work now.”
Tom’s dramatis personae are immensely subtle, encouraging the viewer to interpret the story on a personal level and individually discover what hides behind the monochromatic masks. The characters are dark and lonely, terrifying and terrified, menacing and fragile, all at the same time. Working out what the character is all about is probably the most exciting part of analysing Tom’s work.
At first glance his personages are menacing and dangerous, but the more you look at them and the ways they interact with other creatures and the atmosphere, the more fragile and insecure they appear. The protagonists radiate both oddness and eccentricity: “In real life those characters would not be an average Joe. They would be neurotic with weird little things they’d have to do. For some reason one character I’ve been drawing is obsessed with spoons. He just must find the spoon, or what purpose the spoon has. They would be like people with OCD and very strange fixations. I love that kind of idea of someone not caring about anything in the world but finding the spoon.”
By synthesising machinery with nature, the artist creates a surreal dystopian image with a hint of steampunk aesthetic: “In my head people are becoming really machine-orientated, obsessed with phones and other screens. They’re slowly becoming more mechanic and robots are becoming more human.” Mr. Mead’s artwork is era-less as, according to the artist, any particular time would restrict the creative process. By leaning towards 1800s, the dark period of cobbled stones and oiled lanterns, Tom tends to boycott certain modernist details: “I don’t like modern aesthetics fashion-wise. You’d never see a nice pair of shoes in my drawings. I would draw a tatty scarf and a waistcoat as it fits the characters better. They’re very regale and a bit eccentric, so if I added a normal hoodie it would kill it.”
Even though all of the characters are a part of the same world, the signature fox personage recurs than others. It was one of the first strange animal-man characters he drew, and which slowly became Mr Mead’s unofficial logo after numerous attempts to get a perfect foxman: “Its character changes in every painting. At the moment it doesn’t feel like the painting is mine until it’s in there. People ask me whether I draw a foxman version of myself. Maybe it has become me.”