Thomas Brasch (B.A., B.Ed., MBA) has devoted thirty years to education before embarking on his second career as an award-winning photographer and visual artist. Completely self-taught in the discipline, he is able to showcase his perceptions of beauty, turning the real into surreal. He has had several solo shows in Toronto and has been in several group shows internationally. His style of abstraction is multi-layered, providing an underlying statement to the aesthetics.
Thomas is the Artist in Residence 2022 at the Clark Centre for the Arts at the Guild Park and Gardens in Scarborough Canada.
Thomas, welcome to Moonflower Art!
How long have you been a photographer?
A very interesting question. If I had to be honest, I’d have to say almost life-long. I’ve had a few breaks in-between. I became a little more serious about my practice about 30 years ago but then career and child-rearing took over. It was within the last 10 years of retirement from my career as a secondary school teacher that I became a serious fine art photographer. I was able to transition smoothly into what has become a second career. I think you’re born a shutter bug and you always have an eye for aesthetics!
Have you worked in any other mediums?
I haven’t. I literally took a stab at painting, and it was abysmal. My first experience was so embarrassing. I have such an appreciation now for painters, as well as sculptors and potters. However, as my practice develops and due to the nature of my images, I am toying with the idea of creating 3D images and this would naturally imply some sort of sculpting.
I’m most intrigued with glass blowing but doubt I would do that. I’m most taken with the work of the late Iranian artist, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmain. She has created some amazing mandala like sculptures using mosaics and mirrors.
We can commemorate a horrible event, but we don’t always need to show graphic triggering photos. Half of us have become immune to horror scenes while the other half cannot bear to look at them. By creating these unique healing mandalas, I’m able to bring up a difficult topic in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
What is your favorite subject matter and why?
My favourite subject matter would be the idea I have behind my series Out of the Darkness – namely commemorative art. I stumbled upon this idea just by chance. We had just missed being victims of the Barcelona van attack by 4 days as we had left on August 13, days before. (On August 17, 2017, 13 people were killed and 130 were injured during a van attack on Las Ramblas in Barcelona). Then I thought of all the places I had traveled to and how at each location, there was some act of terrorism or some act of senseless violence. I wanted to commemorate those events but also provide a transition to healing. It was at this point that I started producing my images on a black background. The black was representational of the despair and grief that occurs after such a horrible event. The orb, the mandala, was to be the light piercing that darkness. I knew I could adapt my digital manipulation techniques to develop this new genre.
We can commemorate a horrible event, but we don’t always need to show graphic triggering photos. Half of us have become immune to horror scenes while the other half cannot bear to look at them. By creating these unique healing mandalas, I’m able to bring up a difficult topic in a sensitive and appropriate manner. I was inspired while in Oslo at the 22 juli memorial (for the 77 lives stolen). As I walked through the museum, reading the timeline of events, and looking at the artwork on exhibit, I discovered an additional purpose for my images. In Oslo, I discovered that we need these memorials and museums to educate and create acute awareness in our communities about the dangers of conspiracy theories.
The Oslo memorial museum was so appropriately done that even children could attend. The Iron Rose Garden outside of the Oslo Cathedral as well as the photo exhibit, called Scar, inside the museum was proof to me that art is not only an integral part of healing and therapy, but as well as education. We must stop thinking of “art therapy” as a simple activity that happens at an individual level in hospitals and psychiatric offices. Any art form is necessary for the soul, whether it is purely for enjoyment or for a restorative function. Art serves the individual as well as the community. We all benefit.
On a personal level, I’m also proving a point to a few critics who thought that my work would never fly. Aesthetic art (and photography) can have a greater function than just interior design accents. I’m taking on this new initiative of making connections between abstract aesthetic art and social commentary. Again, we do not need the horrific imagery of bloody victims or crime scenes to make a “documentary” statement about violence. My method involves delivery with subtlety. We want to invite people into the conversation and not scare them away.
Your art show at the Clark Centre for the Arts “How to be human” (view the virtual gallery here https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=KvoAJekKJoH) is both thought -provoking and beautiful. How did the concept for this show come about?
I knew that I had a lot of wall space to cover for this show – three floors! Naturally, I was going to include images from my series Out of the Darkness. However, I also realized that I needed to pay tribute at the local level to the new Clark Centre for the Arts and the historic Guild of all Artists.
My latest series, Enlightenment, also had some powerful imagery that I wanted to share with a new audience. It was a challenge to meld these three separate themes into a one cohesive idea. It must have taken me months of thinking, researching, percolating before I came up with the commonality between these three. It was the “humanity” we share. This then became the seed-word for the title: how to be human. The lower case in the title was intentional. Partially it was for stylistic reasons but also, I thought it lent itself to the idea of how small we are as individuals within this larger grouping of humanity. I’m not sure if this even was noticed. The three sub-themes to “how to be human” then had corresponding titles. “we are more the same than different” was used to showcase my pieces from the Enlightenment series. I specifically selected imagery that reflected some of the ethnic communities in Toronto. As one visitor pointed out in response to this theme, during these multicultural festivals, we always focus on the differences between our cultures. He insisted the focus should be on the similarities. We should be looking at the fact that all these cultures have common traits within their religious or cultural practices: love, kindness, goodness, benevolence. In so many cultures, when you are a guest, you’re given food, you are invited in to sit and enjoy the hospitality. I had recently experienced this myself. I stumbled upon a Sikh temple in Etobicoke. It was quite a find for source images. I was busy taking pictures of the exterior when two young Sikhs invited me into the temple for a tour. After the tour, I had a chat with the members. Suddenly, I was astounded by the fact that I was sharing tea and in a discussion with a group of Sikhs – old and young. We were discussing the cultural similarities we had in common. I was no longer an outsider but a guest and made to feel part of the group.
“we are all connected” was used to showcase my original series, Oculus, as well as come custom site-specific pieces. I wanted to pay tribute to the original concept of the Guild of All Artists, which was an art community started by the Clark family that owned the property that was eventually known as the Guild Inn. The idea behind this Guild was to incorporate the surrounding nature as part of the inspiration for the artistry. The Guild property was to be a refuge as well as an artist colony. Currently, the property, consists of the traditional grounds, connected to the Scarborough Bluffs conservation area, as well as the City of Toronto’s new art centre which is to be a focal point in art production and education for the surrounding community and, the city. Hence, I used my nature-based pieces as well as the custom pieces of the Greek Theatre and the Clark Centre for the Arts to make these connections. "wewillnotlethatewin" was used to showcase my pieces from the Out of the Darkness series. The hashtag, originally coined by the Pulse Foundation, was used to commemorate the 49 lives that were taken during the Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando. I felt it was appropriate to use it for this portion of the exhibit. The pieces I selected for display were all Canadian based, except for the one, Orlando 01. We must put an end to these acts of violence which are driven by irrational hate. Refuse the hate. Take the next step of brotherly and sisterly love. The concept of love versus hate was also evident in Oslo’s 22 juli Museum. There was one quote by a survivor of the Utøya shooting, Helle Gannestad: “If one man can cause so much evil – imagine how much love we can create together.” (Twitter, 22, July 2011)
The act of creating these mandalas is extremely cathartic. I find that by working on creating these complex geometries, I can not only find personal serenity (from my own mood and anxiety disorders) but I also reap new historical information which contributes to my self-awareness. I become a more educated and enlightened individual.
What is it about the mandala structure and geometry that captures your imagination?
My style has evolved from the original series, Oculus. At that point, I was working with basic symmetries in still life and nature source images. The geometry was already evident at this point, although less complex. There was no layering and photographic elements were evident.
The circular shape of the pieces was also purely coincidental at first. Then when I started with architecture, I began to work with layering. These architecture based circular pieces have multiple layers, superimposed, and it is only upon close inspection that you can see the photographic elements. The narrative and the reasoning came slowly as the work developed. I would come across different ideas and adopt them as part of my story or my process.
There is the idea that the circle is almost a perfect shape – it is a line without beginning or end. (In my new series Enlightenment, I am exploring the use of different shapes – squares which can frame or triangles which in themselves have many different symbolic interpretations)
Once a portfolio reviewer explained to me the idea behind some Buddhist mandalas which I promptly adopted into my narrative. They are mind or memory palaces in which we use spatial memory to memorize information, coded by significant symbols and images placed in the mandala. That completely fits in with the series Out of the Darkness. I’m invoking introspection and memory at the same time. The complex geometry creates a portal of discovery. At the top layer, there is an appreciation of the aesthetics. One layer down, the viewer can isolate the photographic elements. Beneath all of this, there is the historical event which needs to be commemorated. Beyond this we have the importance of memory – to never forget the victims and the responsibility of preventing future occurrences through education.
Furthermore, and on a personal note, the act of creating these mandalas is extremely cathartic for myself. I find that by working on creating these complex geometries, I can not only find personal serenity (from my own mood and anxiety disorders), but I also reap new historical information which contributes to my self-awareness. I become a more educated and enlightened individual.
The images remind me of the concept of the “golden spiral” and the effect that has on the human brain. We can’t look away, can we?
They are mesmerizing and hypnotic. In their abstractions, we all see something different. My interpretation is based on my personal experiences and may be quite different than your perception and interpretation of the image. A spot of colour may symbolize a certain emotion while a specific line may impart an idea of fluidity and movement to you.
The best part of this art practice is the opportunity to interact and talk with different viewers. In sharing interpretations, I learn more about the viewer’s understanding of the world, and how that may coincide or differ with mine. I also discover new ideas or relevant facts that I was totally unaware of before. But regardless, I enjoy sharing the aesthetic elements with the audience.
What exhibitions/shows are you currently participating in?
I just finished a group show called the 10x10 Photography Project. This was my first and very successful attempt of using my seminal style for portraiture. The annual project involves 10 queer photographers taking 10 portraits of queers in the arts. This was the 10th and probably last year. I was pleased how the portraits turned out. I was able to convey subtle messages about each subject through the use of specific-to-the-subject imagery in the background of each portrait. As well, the faces of the subjects conveyed the personalities. The use of the individual’s eye as the centerpiece of each portrait told an intimate and private mysterious story. I’m also currently in the Second Annual Juried Show at the Art Gallery of Mississauga which runs until October 23. My piece Convivencia (Coexistence), from the Enlightenment series, is on display. At the end of this month, I am participating in portfolio reviews at Fotofest in Houston, a biannual event, that has been postponed long enough due to COVID. As well, one of my pieces, Toronto 01, from Out of the Darkness, is in the Toronto Reference Library’s art collection and can be found in the digital archives online. (Link: https://digitalarchive.tpl.ca/objects/378723/toronto-01?ctx=4c359fe55a348dea60933e2287dd638a019d0af1&idx=0) This piece was selected as it was Toronto based and current. The perpetrator of the van attack had just been convicted and sentenced. Toronto 01 commemorates the victims of the Toronto Van Attack in North York.
Any upcoming shows that we can look forward to?
Next year, I have another large solo show at the Dal Schindell Gallery at Regent College in Vancouver. It is a private divinity college on the campus of UBC. This will be a very exciting exhibit when it comes to conversations with the divinity students – we will discuss the ideas behind Out of the Darkness and Enlightenment. My new images from my recent trips to Scandinavia and to Israel (October 2022) will be featured in this exhibit. The portfolio reviews in Houston might produce additional shows. I’m trying to expand my audience (and buyers) into the U.S. as well as the European markets.
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