Local good things with Artist Jen Thomas

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This is the second piece in our #localgoodthings series by photographer Ryan Murphy & Writer Tim Hawken. We share share & document stories of creative folk who love living in our beautiful backyard of South West Western Australia Please enjoy xx

Jen Thomas is a local artist whose work many people will recognise instantly. Her signature girls ooze strength and sexuality with a surreal pop art twist. As a longtime personality around Yallingup and Dunsborough, you might be forgiven for thinking Jen has made a living as an artist forever. The truth is, she didn’t do her first exhibition until she was almost 50! Before that, she’d raised a family and worked as a graphic designer for 30 odd years.

Jen’s journey in finding her true calling is a vibrant one, starting as a student during hippy-era West Oz.

“I’ve always had an imagination. I guess I’m a visual person” says Jen, describing how it all began. “I’d draw stories and entertain myself. It was a natural thing that in year 10, I left and went into 3 years of graphic design at James Street in Perth. It was unbelievable, this full bohemian place right at the time of LSD. That sort of thing. Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali were it back then. There were such out there, fruity people around, I think because they were always tripping. I wasn’t one of those kinds of people, but I was happy to hold their cardigans, absolutely happy to be amongst it all.”

Taking in both the artistic atmosphere and design techniques from lecturers, Jen graduated with a new world perspective. It wasn’t long before she slid into a graphic design role at a Perth Advertising Agency. This was before computers, where everything had to be done by hand.

“I would get the photos taken, get them developed, cut everything out, do the lettering, then get the copy set so it was stuck on a piece of board,” laughs Jen. “A little guy on a motorbike would pull up and put it on the back of his bike, take it to the newspaper and then they’d print it. It was very tactile. It was fun but deadlines were always on top of you, so it was a stressful kind of job. It was good training but killed my joy for art. That just went.”

In pursuit of something better, Jen and her husband Greg soon moved up north to Karratha where they lived for a few years – Greg doing contracting, Jen working freelance. There was then the lure of an Art Director’s job in Perth, which could have been the dream role. However, Jen found out she was pregnant, so they decided to bypass the city and head down south instead. Jen’s dad was a keen surfer and had always taken them to Yallingup as kids and teenagers, so they already knew most of the original locals. They also had a family block of land on Yallingup Hill that they paid $2300 for (yes, you read that right). So, they built a little asbestos shack with bush poles and set about raising a family. Son Luke came into the picture, then daughter Georgia. The family only had one car, so a lot of time was spent at and around home sparking the kids imaginations too.

“Luke was always in his superman costume and we’d walk along Yallingup beach and all those caves up there were like the ice caves. Georgia was the same. It was so good. They lived on the beach and in the bush.”

That investment in nurturing their children ended up coming back around in an unexpected way to push Jen in a new direction later in life. Luke became an artist in his own right and began organising exhibitions around the state. Before one, he encouraged Jen to display the pop art she’d been producing just for fun.

“I’d already done a show or two, but didn’t ask mum at first because I held her work in such high regard,” explains Luke about Jen’s debut exhibition. “We weren’t sure what we’d get from the younger crew that were exhibiting, or whether people would actually buy things that weren’t just landscapes like you normally saw around town. After that test, I knew it was successful. I think that gave mum the confidence to give it a go and me the confidence to ask her.”

Reluctantly agreeing, Jen said okay and gave it a shot. The results were pretty stunning.

“It was a wild night,” recalls Jen. “It was at Bax restaurant for the opening of Taj Burrow’s first Small Fries event. MTV were there. I was with two or three other artists and it was brilliant. There were hand-painted boards. Taj was doing raffles. I think I sold every single one of my pieces and I was like ‘oh wow, this is easy’. Of course, it’s not. It’s bloody shite. But that was an exciting way to kick off.”

From there, Jen went on a roll. She did half a dozen shows locally and then started to exhibit in Sydney as well. This included her first ever solo show of ‘Fruit Girls’ at Belgrave Cartel in Manly.

“The great thing about mum’s work is she could adapt to whatever show we were doing,” says Luke of that time. “Day of the Dead, watercolors, pencils, she came to the party and could just bring it. That was a big part of the success I think.”

However, Luke eventually moved away from organising exhibitions for a career in the surf industry, and that side of things faded off. As a parting gift, Luke helped Jen set up her Instagram account and sent her into the digital world.

“I started the Instagram around 2012 and handballed it to her. She took it on like a wild animal, just loved it.” Luke laughs. “The funny thing is she calls people by their Instagram names. Like a mate Simon Barratt, who she’s known since he was born, she now calls Bratchelor. She just lives it. She’s really engaging and follows through and comments and that’s why I think she gets a lot out of it.

The Instagram page (found here) now acts as a compendium of Jen’s work and a place to get in touch for private commissions – something she has continuously on the boil.

“There are always people around town who are like, ‘Jen, I want a chick on a horse, can you do that?’ So you just do it,” Jen smiles. “I’m painting a door for someone at the moment, which is a first. The customer is such a gorgeous woman. Her partner brought her something of mine for her birthday, which she loved but she always said she wants something like that on her front door. I need to figure out the best paint to use. Those new challenges always keep things interesting.”

After stopping work as a graphic designer, Jen reckons her cup of inspiration is always full. She collects old photography books for ideas and is constantly ripping images out from magazines that she can reimagine and turn into something uniquely hers. Despite the time as a graphic designer stifling her creative aspirations somewhat, Jen has zero regrets of that time.

“I don’t regret any of those years of design because it’s a real discipline,” explains Jen. “Some people are like ‘I have to be artistic, I have to have the right time and the muse’, you know? I think, no, you actually have to be very disciplined, otherwise you don’t get to do what you dream to do. When people say, oh you’re lucky, you’re good at art, that doesn’t ring true. It’s not whether you’re good. It’s whether you keep practicing. It’s time. Even though I know my age and I’m getting to the pointy end, every single day I wake up with a want to do something. New things I want to draw. It’s a real joy. Still, it’s hard some days when things just aren’t going right. That craps you right off.”

Another way Jen keeps finding inspiration is being welcoming of new and strange ideas. Something that perhaps comes from her heady days in art school.

“I don’t let things shock me,” says Jen. “I like to see out there art and out there writing, everything. That’s one thing that I’m happy that I’ve ended up with this age with an open mind. Hopefully I’ll stay like that.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has such an open mind. A lot of Jen’s art can be risque – not something social media platforms like Instagram always let through for publishing.

“When I started, my stuff was way out there,” Jen says. “You know, girls pinching their nipples. There was always a nipple. Because Instagram is so hardcore with that stuff there’s a chance that if you get a complaint your account can get shut down, which is sad really. It’s taken the fun out of stuff I put up publically a little. I would go more out there but Instagram is a funny beast. I suppose the real world is like that too. My kids never batted an eyelid at my work because they grew up with nipples hanging up everywhere, but every now and then you’d get a kid over that was like, whoa! what’s that?! We never even thought about it.”

So, even now, Jen continues to evolve what she does and what she puts out in the world. Physical art, digital, canvas, prints, front doors. She even does the odd tee shirt. It all acts as a touchstone to keep her moving and building a body of work to inspire others. That’s the most exciting thing about Jen’s journey. It hasn’t stopped. It keeps going and continues to be relevant and interesting. Make sure you keep an eye out for her stuff, both online and around the Down South area. Just be warned. It will always be done with an open mind, a little bit of out there insight, and probably a nipple or two thrown in.

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