10 things about: Tom Powell, the zodiac artist

Picture by K.E.Ooi
Picture by K.E.Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, March 13 — He was travelling around South-East Asia after finishing his degree in fine arts in the United Kingdom and made a fortuitous stop in Penang. That led to Thomas Powell being known in George Town today as the Chinese zodiac artist.

Powell, 31, was asked to help out with the George Town Festival (GTF) six years ago and now, he has a string of artistic achievements under his belt, particularly his Chinese zodiac series.

His solo exhibition where the heads of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac were painted on human bodies in various poses and costumes was part of GTF two years ago.

This was followed by the From Here To There exhibition at the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre early last year. A departure from his zodiac series, the work featured layers of  silhouettes that focused on the interchanging influences of different cultures.

Late last year, Powell started another zodiac series but this time, he chose to paint these as murals at select locations. He has painted five so far; within cafes and outside a restaurant wall, and he is still deciding on the locations for the remaining seven.

In between, he travelled around Asia, Europe and went back to the UK before coming back here to work on his ever-growing number of projects.

Here, Powell talks about painting and his latest projects in his own words:

I first came out here backpacking with my friends in 2009, ended up in Penang, met people like Joe Sidek, Fuan Wong and Howard Tan... these are the guys who got me involved in different projects. That helped me get to where I am. I remember how Joe stopped us by the side of the road and asked, “Are you guys travellers?”, we said, “Yeah” and he asked us to help with some project. We were happy, carefree travellers so we said “Yeah, sure, we’ll help out”. It was really bizarre. My initial plan was to come out and take photographs, meet new people, see new things, go back home and come up with a body of work.

I’ve not always wanted to be an artist. Not at all. I’ve always enjoyed art. I like to draw things and paint things. When I was younger, we used to go camping in France a lot, my dad would go off cycling with a wad of paper and paints and just paint old buildings and scenery and I would cycle beside him on my bike, and I would do the same thing, just badly. You know no one starts off being able to draw, everyone starts out with stick figures. It’s because I enjoyed it that I got better at it.

At one point, I wanted to be a pilot. Someone told me I’d have to calculate how much fuel I’d need and I had to be really good at maths and I hate maths so I was like nope, not doing that, forget it. At the end of my A Levels, I realised I like art the most and my teacher advised me to do a foundation course in college which means I got to do a lot of different stuff from sculpture, screen printing to textiles. I did that for a year and they advised me to go to a specific university and do fine art whereas I was thinking more of a job thing, because you know, you can’t be an artist. I was thinking more like graphic design and illustration.

I’m working on a doors project now. It’s going to be a literal representation of the train, the ferry, the island, the mainland. It’s to help raise the profile of Penang. It’s not decided… maybe a trail in Butterworth towards Raja Uda and then back to Penang. The doors will be kind of sculptural thing… I will paint both sides and then build a framework around it and then stick it into the ground so that people can walk around it, maybe open it. There are different ways I can make it more interactive and interesting. It’s all going to be Penang-based images, maybe a songkok maker, a lantern maker, something to do with food, festivals.... I started the sample piece already. It’s a collaboration with Think City and we are also actively going out and getting sponsors for this.

Another project is for Indian Summers. I’ve actually spoken to Joe about tying this project with GTFl. We have a rough idea of doing portraits of the Indian Summers cast on doors instead of doing murals. I’m thinking of the portraits on one side while the other side will be of the food, people, clothes and festivals. There’s going to be five or maybe 10 doors. It’s like taking a piece of Penang and adding additional elements of Penang... I like the idea of using the doors because they’ve each got their own history, they’ve been used, some are chipped and with different coats of paint.

I like the idea of playing with perspective, so if I was to paint it all stretched out and if you look at the front, you will see an image and only when you walk around the door, it will be condensed and that will be the actual painting.So, I’ve been playing with those sort of stuff. I’m also thinking of doing things with QR codes. The QR codes might link to a time-lapse video of me painting the door or interviews of people in the imagery.

Then, there’s the zodiac. I’m working on the fifth one. I’ve got all the locations lined up. The rat zodiac is a criminal only because he’s in Mugshot. Depends on the place, like the one in China House, it’s Lee Kuan Yew, right next to the doorway, and it’s guarding China House with the head of a monkey. Lots of people thinks it’s the Monkey God but it’s not actually... it can be. It can be both actually, year of the monkey, Kuan Yew with a monkey head, the Monkey King.

So, it depends on the locations, once a location wants to do one I will go to that place to think about what to paint there. I’ve done the rooster at the Big Fat Hen, the rat at Mugshot, a tiger at the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre and next will be the exterior of The Little Wine Bar. I’m trying to do these at a place for people to experience a part of Penang, the food, the environment. It’s my own project, something that I wanted to do. Murobond Paint Penang sponsored the paint.

I wanted to take those animals and use the human bodies to represent the characteristics these animals are supposed to have. You can’t do all of the characteristics so I choose a couple of different things to represent the snake or the dragon and so on. I liked the idea.

Most of my contacts are all out here now. Usually I stay here a few months at a time, then I go off somewhere, travel, go back home. Definitely Penang is my favourite place. I’ve been going to Singapore quite a bit because it will be quite nice to start a project there as well, whether it’s the zodiac pieces or doors project... I can see something like that in Singapore as well. Singapore doesn’t have the gritty charm that Penang has, it’s a bit more sterile and straight forward so if you stick something like that there, it’s a bit more jarring. Because in Penang, it’s literally part of the site.

Related Articles