• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Equity

My Name is Thom


I'm the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on this earth.

An article in two parts - an essay by Gabrielle Mordy, founder and CEO at Studio A, and a conversation (like no other!) between artist Thom Roberts and The Fulcrum Agency's Emma Brain

Many years ago now I met a collective of people with intellectual disability who liked making art and clearly had a skill in what they made. I met them in a community art program for people with disability in suburban Sydney. Thom was one of these artists.

I studied visual arts at university and I love the experience of being really absorbed in making artwork. I equally enjoy going to exhibitions and seeing my work on the wall and chatting to other people with similar interests. I like the feeling that I am a skilled and recognised ‘artist’. It is even better when I get paid for it. To me this is the essence of meaningful work. I think this is an experience that lots of Australians can relate to.

It became quickly apparent to me that the people I met at that community program in suburban Sydney did not have the same opportunity that I had (as a university graduate) to exhibit their work and pursue a career as an artist. They were making art, however they had no opportunity to exhibit, earn income, develop their skills nor meet like minded artists.

If you struggle to read or write, send emails, compose a CV and/or travel independently, then it is really hard to pursue a career as an artist. It does not matter how great the art is that you produce. Often, if you have an intellectual disability, you are really locked out of the mainstream art world, and you are locked out of all the personal, social and economic benefits that come with being a part of that world.

In late 2016 I founded a Sydney based company, called Studio A, with my colleague and friend Emma Johnston. Studio A exists to ensure talented artists with intellectual disability can pursue a professional career. We provide a specialist studio space along with the administrative and managerial support our artists need to pursue their dreams.

Thom Roberts is now a Studio A artist. Jump forward to 2022 and Thom’s work has been selected for a second consecutive year as a Finalist in the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. His artwork is in prestigious National collections and he has undertaken international art residencies.

For Thom, professional success means he can purchase whatever he wants at Kmart and can make as many photocopies as he likes at Officeworks. These are the activities Thom values and his earnings mean has the choice to access them. Professional success means that in a social setting when he is enjoying what he terms a ‘juicy beer’, and when someone asks him ‘what do you do?’, Thom can confidently look them in the eyes and say ‘I am an artist’.

A Portrait of Adam (Shane Simpson AM)
1015x1015mm
acrylic on canvas
courtesy the artist and Studio A
Thom Roberts, 2021
A Portrait of Adam (Shane Simpson AM)
1015x1015mm
acrylic on canvas
courtesy the artist and Studio A

Emma: Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m Emma.

Thom: Can I call you Woody Tiger?

Emma: Say it again?

Thom: Woody Tiger. 

Emma: Woody Tiger. I like that. That’s one of the better names I’ve been called.

Gabrielle: Can you tell Thom what your other job is? Thom has a passion for buildings. And Thom, was your dad an architect?

Thom: Yes.

Gabrielle: Was Buddy Brown Boy an architect?

Thom: Yes.

Magic Robot Machine
590x590mm
acrylic on canvas
Commissioned by Artbank for their collection on the occasion of their 40th anniversary.
Thom Roberts, 2020
Magic Robot Machine
590x590mm
acrylic on canvas

Commissioned by Artbank for their collection on the occasion of their 40th anniversary.

Gabrielle: what did you say to Kenny Sylvester the other day? He’s actually Matt Calandra. What did he say across the room to you?

Thom: That we’ve got a sandwich or leftovers. And I say, ‘My jail is Simba. It’s six in the morning, man.’

Gabrielle: Where is it six in the morning?

Thom: I made a bike chart.

Emma: And you’re where?

Thom: Well, according to Kenny Sylvester, his light in artwork is part of my sunrise. 

A Silvery Side
1160 x 808mm
acrylic on canvas
Thom Roberts, 2020
A Silvery Side
1160 x 808mm
acrylic on canvas

Gabrielle: Who is the judge based off? Was it Gladys?

Thom: Galdys, yes. 

Gabrielle: Gladys Berejiklian?

Thom: Yes. 

Gabrielle: And, what did you call her? I remember, you called her, ‘Wrinkle’.

Thom: I call her, ‘Mrs. Wrinkle.’

Courthouse Cats
Four-channel immersive video installation
Thom Roberts & Brayden Gifford, 2022
Courthouse Cats
Four-channel immersive video installation

Being in the Archibald makes me happy, smiling and proud. I would love to inspire other people to become a famous artist. I would like to be an artist until I am a very old man.

* This article was first published in our journal, Equity. Copies of Equity can be purchased at The Fulcrum Press, with all proceeds going to projects within First Nations communities.

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