Graduate Student Profile - Tom Holmes (Art)
When Tom Holmes arrived as a graduate student in the UCLA Art Department last fall, he quickly became intrigued by the fabricated community that exists among the apprentice artists who share work and living space in the department's Culver City studios
"By the second gathering," he says, "everyone had figured everyone else out. They knew who was girl and who was boy, who was queer and who was not . . . all of this psychic information that people receive almost immediately from any kind of group." To Tom, the sexual dynamics were particularly intriguing.
The outcome of his interest was a complex installation, with 50 photographs of "my orgasmic face" and, above those photos, 50 shots of people in the department "looking bewildered." The work emerged from a "need to make a kind of democratic gesture within this department, which seemed, in my mind, a little unaware of the sexual power they were throwing around."
But if it was a political statement, it had a sense of humor: "I put mustaches on everyone to lighten it up," Tom says. "Luckily, nobody's feelings were hurt. Everybody knew it was all in good fun." And, Tom believes, it eased the tension, particularly among newcomers like himself, who are surrounded by successful, more senior students, as well as "these powerhouse professors who are way too hippie to believe that they're in power."
Raised on a ranch in West Texas, Tom grew up with "every intention of being a preacher" in the Southern Baptist Church. Along the way, he realized that the part of preaching that most interested him was the performance. At the University of Texas at Austin, he met Linda Montano, a performance artist on the faculty. It was a religious as well as a professional experience.
"She was one of these 'insane' spiritual figures who you come across, who blow you over," Tom says. "She also gave me all the permission I needed: 'You're an artist,' she told me. 'Do what you need.'" By the time he completed three years working with her, he had a substantial body of work to present with his application to UCLA, the only graduate school where he applied.
He was impressed by the quality of UCLA's faculty, particularly artists in his field, such as Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden. Press reports seemed to be saying, come to UCLA and "you can study with a whole art star crowd," he says. "To meet them was a celebrity experience, where you're nervous and in awe." But he soon concluded that "they're just ordinary folks." On the other hand, they're just ordinary folks who "have big old fat careers," presenting their work in art shows all over the world.
Faculty access may be somewhat difficult at times, but because the star faculty attracts talented students, "we teach each other," Tom says. "A lot of my good talk and counsel comes from kids I hang out with at the studio." Students also bring their other interests and experiences to the community. For Tom, that has involved studies of queer theory, a class in the gay and lesbian studies program
His peers seem untainted by some of the press hoopla about the Art Department. "Everyone is here just to buy some time, get some good talk, and make some work," he says.
As he looks to the future, Tom finds himself increasingly drawn to Los Angeles, "a fantastically curious place" with an architecture that provides "some really beautiful things to find and be surprised by." Los Angeles also has a property that's important to a boy raised in West Texas. The city "has some soil, and it has easy access to soil outside the city," Tom says. "Just about every other weekend, I need to be on some dirt or I'll go crazy."
Los Angeles is also "as good as it gets for young people making art," Tom says. Successful shows by fellow students are enjoyed by all, he says. "We all take such pride in their achievements. Hopefully, I can catch up."
Although he says he would enjoy teaching, he believes that such jobs may be in short supply. Like other graduate students, Tom says, he has "a lot of hope about having a big old fat career" himself one day. " I want to pay the rent by selling art. That would be fantastic."
Published in Winter 2000, Graduate Quarterly