Will Thoms: Simple elegance on cardboard

Will Thoms
"On That Note," one of Will Thoms's intuitive and abstract pieces in his Dance Palace show.

The next time you go to the Dance Palace, give yourself ample time to take a tour of “Will Thoms: Paintings and Collage on Cardboard,” on display in the lobby through March 28. Thoms, a Forest Knolls resident, turned a trove of discarded scraps from his years as a building contractor into works of art. His canvases are made from pieces of corrugated cardboard boxes and his collages are composed of everyday materials found in hardware stores; acrylic paint and medium are among the few materials he buys. His combination of materials and techniques results in tactile paintings that tempt viewers to gently touch them. (At his artist’s reception this month, a few visitors did just that.)

What is important to Thoms is how color and texture integrate in his art-making. He creates texture using different techniques: gently sanding cardboard to create fine surfaces, roughly sanding it so the layer below becomes barely visible, or ripping off sections of the top layer to reveal the corrugated layer beneath. Once he has a surface he likes, he seals it with shellac to make it waterproof and strong; a simple wooden armature glued to the back secures its sturdiness. The finished painting is sprayed with a mat medium for further protection and to unify the elements.

Thoms collages with materials that appeal to him: discarded, painted paper scraps from older projects, asphalt-saturated roofing paper, roofing tar, fiberglass tape, old pieces of fencing wire, a sturdy paper called ram board used to protect floors during house repairs. In “Sue Might Have Liked This One,” ram board is torn into small squares whose rough edges reveal the thickness of the paper. The squares, painted in pale yellows, greens and dark browns, add softness to a painting that is otherwise bold in color and texture: a small, corrugated, horizontal layer is revealed in one corner, and vertical, bright-red stripes, painted on top of slightly sanded and blackened cardboard, run down the middle of the piece. The result balances painterly and formal design.

The exhibit’s most colorful piece, “On That Note,” divides the canvas into two diagonal sections. The upper section is thinly covered in gray tones with hints of orange; some of the original numbers printed on the cardboard box are covered with red paint. Two pieces of fiberglass attached over yellow paint make a subtle tactile addition and lead the eye to the corrugated area in the lower diagonal. Here color and texture are much bolder, with bright yellows and reds, flat black and stark white. Thoms’s use of letters and numbers solely for their compositional elements is seen in this and several other paintings; he does not want viewers to read meaning into these elements beyond their visual contribution. This approach may also explain the titles of his paintings: when asked how he came up with them, he smiles and says they are phrases he’s heard on the street. (Tongue in cheek?)

One of the quietest paintings in the show, “Driving at Night,” is close to monochromatic. Much of the cardboard has been finely sanded and rubbed with thin layers of brown and grey shades of paint. Where a large section of the top layer has been torn off, thin shades of ocher lighten the grooves, toned down by darker shades of brown on the tops of the corrugated ridges. Four small vertical rectangles of bright yellow paint surrounded by deep shades of brown enliven the upper third of the painting; the four faint rectangles below create a sense of mystery. The bright yellow of the rectangles is repeated in the metal truss fastener attached to the bottom third of the canvass. It's a harmonious composition of simple elegance. 

In his artist’s statement, Thoms writes, “Each piece is an experiment. There is a lot of trial and error involved, that is to say, a lot of failure. Eventually, with patience and resolve, something emerges from this inert material that is lively, even surprising…even, with luck, something beautiful. This intuitive process, one thing leading to another, for me comprises the joy of art making.” Don’t miss this show by one of our most creative local artists.


Christa Burgoyne is an art historian and artist. She lives in Inverness and Berkeley.