Thrush Holmes Celebrates 10 Years of Neon

Thrush Holmes celebrates a decade worth of neon art with a party!

Gentrification follows the artists. So when Thrush Holmes opened the doors to Empire early 2007 it was no surprise when he sold the 3,100 ft space in 2011 at Queen and Dovercourt, to a condo development. But in his hey-day he kept an open door policy: by day buyers would stop in to view his thickly painted oil pieces, by night he dazzled the town with his larger than life parties. He had a red carpet to welcome celebs, and perhaps to intimidate the merely curious. To say the least, the locals of West Queen West were not impressed – perhaps they knew this was only the beginning of the changes to come. After all, who was Thrush Keats Byron Holmes and where did he hail from?

Thrush isn’t his brith name. It’s really his middle name, and his mother’s maiden name. And the Keats Byron – as in Rimbaud, Keats and Byron – was another little addition. There was a brief period where Thrush used the alias “Herman Weiss” to sell commercial paintings and “Truman Couture” to mass produce paintings that he sold on eBay in the early 2000’s out of a small studio in his hometown of Welland. They rapidly grew in demand, their prices sky rocketing from $35 all the way to $2000, which would fund his Empire. Today his paintings can sell upwards of $40,000 with a large TH haphazardly brushed in the corner of his paintings.

When the doors to the Empire closed, Thrush retreated to his High Park house (which he renovated himself) and now lives a more private life. “When I was younger I thought I needed to share everything publicly,” says Thrush. “I keep a few things I do private now.” He’s talking about his screen writing and music. The only thing he shares now is his paintings. Even covering his face with his hand in most of his photos (he says he’s shy).

However, Thrush re-enters the spotlight to celebrate 10 Years of Neon on May 26 in Toronto. On his Facebook event he clarifies, “The presentation of work on the 26th isn’t any form of retrospective. I won’t be showing old work as one would do in this sort of scenario, impulsively, but rather, I’ll be showing my most current work, that which expresses my most slapdash and exuberant use of the material… Still life, reclining nudes, poetry – elevating subject and material from traditional banality to culty and fetishistic status.” It’s apparently been six years since he threw his last party so he stresses, “It’s more a party than an exhibition – the work can be viewed similarly.” Everyone’s invited.

What’s an average day entail? Do you paint everyday?
An average day involves painting, however, there is a heavy amount of logistics to address.  It’s not as romantic as it appears.  I also have studio visits and correspondence with dealers and collectors most days.  There are employees too – there is a degree of management involved.  Balancing is a complicating endeavour.

Rather than start with an intimidating blank canvas, many of your canvases were first drop cloths. How much of your painting is happenstance versus planned? 
I’m not great at planning.  I tend to welcome improvisation at any point in the process.  It feels more honest.  Approaching a blank canvas can be a very intimidating exercise.  At times I’m ok with the confrontation, if my confidence is high. I typically break the canvas up first to remove some of its power.  Some planning is involved; especially in my use of neon lights as there is production time to consider.  I don’t, however, engage in preliminary sketching when I begin a relationship with a canvas.

Flowers and potted plants have been the subject matter in your work for over 6 years. What is it about this subject matter that continually inspires you? 
Yes, it’s been a long study. There have been many.  I like to find permutations within the same – I’ve always said this.  It really doesn’t matter the subject.  I suppose I’m drawn to the common motifs and their possible reinvention – still life, nudes, landscape.  I don’t find myself particularly inspired by the subject.

Herman Weiss and Truman Couture were both aliases so you didn’t taint your name. When you look back, how did the work you produced under those names shape the work you created as Thrush Holmes? 
I was so young then.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I don’t think they shaped anything other than my work ethic.  I made a lot of bad paintings.  Perhaps it taught me to embrace failure.

Under the alias Truman Couture, in the early 2000s, you sold hundreds of paintings on eBay. If you were an emerging artist today, do you think selling paintings online would be more or less successful than it was back then?  
I found a hole at the time with eBay.  Paintings weren’t selling online.  There was no social media, there was little confidence in buying work from digital imagery.  It is infinitely easier to sell art online now than it was then.  Most of my work now is sold through digital images as most of my collectors are in the United States or Europe.  There are dramatically more opportunities for young artists to access dealers and collectors now.  There is no comparison.

In the past you were very public with your Empire, but have taken a more private approach. Has this affected your work at all?
It has.  The privacy has strengthened my work.  The Empire was a fun project but I was so susceptible to distraction.  My setting is more controlled now.  It became very provincial.  It’s much easier to focus on an international trajectory in my current scenario.  It was a very necessary shift.

You have a son that appears to have taken up painting (as seen on Instagram). Do you think he will – or do you want him to – follow in your footsteps?
I think it’s inevitable.  There is a lot of drama in my work and he has a great deal of exposure to it.  It can be very alluring, so I’m sure he will be drawn to explore the possibility.  He also has natural ability.  It’s really not my preference, but he’ll be encouraged in anything he chooses to pursue.

I won’t ask you to reflect on your success but what are you striving to achieve now?   
I’m not sure.  I suppose Museum shows are my next desire.

Any exhibits planned in the meantime?
I’m having an art party at my studio on May 26.  “10 YEARS OF NEON” will celebrate just that – my use of the material over the last decade.  I will be showing 20-30 works that highlight my progress with neon over this course of time.  Following that, I will likely be exhibiting in New York in July but those details are still being finalized.

Images courtesy Thrush Holmes


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