Andrew Thornton is a professional fine artist, trained at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He works in painting, collage, and metalsmithing. His work explores identity through magical realism and fantasy. Andrew is the Co-Owner of Allegory Gallery and Star Cottage Studio in Ligonier, PA. He and his husband plan to open a NEW creative space in Johnstown, PA called, Butcher Block Gallery. Andrew also sits on the Board of Directors for Touchstone Center for Crafts.
Tell us about your work:
Throughout all of human history, there has been a fascination with the idea of self. There has always been a compulsion to make a mark and say, “I was here”. My work is no different, but a continuation of a long legacy of the exploration of self and identity through portraiture. Growing up gay and a person of color, most of my life has been seeing myself through other people’s eyes and expectations. I am curious about the stories I have been told and the stories that I tell myself. My latest series investigates the way that I see myself.
How did you start your metalsmithing/materialsmithing/adornment journey?
I have been making jewelry for over 20 years, but focused primarily on beading and the DIY sector. During the pandemic, when things were shut down and we were forced to do a lot of soul searching, I asked myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Up until then, I would describe my relationship with metal as “casual”. I dabbled, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that I made a decision to seriously pursue my creative education again and deepen my relationship with metal.
How does your identity relate to your work? If at all?
I feel as though the roles of the artist is to be a chronicler of the world and times we live in. Each artist experiences the world differently and are tasked to capture it, distill it, and synthesize it. Moving from head, to heart, to hands — an abstract concept of what it means to alive is made manifest. My identity relates to my work because it’s part of who I am. It shapes how I see the world and in effect, what I create. Depending on the piece, there will be references to the gay culture that I am apart of. Being the son of an immigrant has profoundly shaped how I exist in this world… both a part of society and apart.
If you feel comfortable discussing your queer identity, what is something you would like share?
When I was growing up, we did not talk about identity. We grew up poor and our main focus was survival. Being queer was not something my parents were familiar with and were therefore afraid of it. I grew up in the wake of the height of the AIDS crisis and the death of Matthew Shepard. I was taught that being gay was dirty and shameful. I was taught that it was a death sentence. No one represented in mass media looked like me. I always felt as though I was engaged in a game of translation, pulled in all different directions like a funhouse mirror. It has taken a long time to learn to love myself. That might sound cheesy or cliche, but there came a point when I looked at my life and listened to what the world told me about myself and it didn’t ring true. And when I discovered that, I knew that I had to make a change or be crushed by what others thought I should be. The road to finding queer happiness hasn’t been easy, but I feel more firmer rooted within myself and what I want to make.
What are the main concepts in your work?
When I was growing up, my brother disappeared for 22 years. When he left, it changed my world. Here I was, this child who felt too deeply and painted his arms with shellac to shine like a diamond, already an outsider to his parents who looked at me like some strange alien, and we grew further apart. We did not talk about my brother. We did not talk about grief or anger, it just existed within us like gaping holes. So I retreated into world of fantasy to help survive the harshest times. I dreamed of a world where all things were possible: where what was lost could be found and what was broken could be mended. At the heart of my work is someone who tries to bring things together, who listens to fairytales as not just entertainment, but stories of who we were and how we lived.
Can you share a bit about your conceptual development?
I was fortunate to work with an artist named Brooke Larsen at the School of Visual Arts. He encouraged us to keep Idea Books. These are part sketchbooks, journals, and task lists. In essence they are Memory Palaces that are repositories for things that pique my curiosity or inspire me. I make notes about what I’m thinking about and how I can visually express that. I also take detailed class notes. I have since added to my visual hoarding by carrying my camera around on my phone. I’m so busy and juggling so many things, that if I don’t document it, even if it’s a scribbled note, it’ll disappear. I also am a firm believer in ritual. Ritual is any process that will reliably produce repeatable result. Being a professional artist isn’t easy; at least it’s not for me. There have been fallow years where I didn’t produce much work and instead leaned into other aspects of what it means to keep a creative castle afloat. It’s easy to get distracted. So, I have developed and reinitiated systems to help me create consistently. My Idea Books and the rituals I do, help me constantly engage my practice.
How do you take a break and reset?
I am still trying to figure that out! I grew up poor and it was instilled from an early age that your worth was tied to what you could produce. So even when I’m looking at flowers or reading books or even doom scrolling, I’m constantly collecting. While it might sound odd, I probably take a break or reset by doing work. The kind of work where you’re locked into a task and just have to do it, like weeding the garden or sorting beads. That voice in the back of my head sort of shuts off and my hands are moving.
What is your favorite tool, material, or process?
I have so many! I collect tools and materials and find it endlessly fascinating to learn about new ways of making. Currently, I am spending a lot of time learning about enamel and surface embellishments on metal. So I am intrigued by learning this sometimes fickle process. Sometimes you get exactly what you want and sometimes there are surprises. The surprises remind me to be humble and to continue to learn and problem solve.
What is something no one has ever asked you that you would like to answer?
When I was younger, there were times when I felt so twisted up that I didn’t want to keep going. I felt like the world would not miss me. What is something no one has ever asked me? It would be, “Why did you decide to keep going forward?” We, as a culture, don’t ask these questions because mental health is, in some ways, taboo. It can feel dangerous or unpredictable. So we don’t talk about sadness or grief. We create little euphemisms to dance around very real struggles. There are some who will say, “it could always be worse” or “it’s not real… it’s just feelings”. There’s a culture around denying what you think and feel. Some consider vulnerability as a weakness. And to the question of why keep going, when there are so many who will tell you that you are wrong or broken or not enough… I will say this: there is more. There are more things to see, more things to make, and more ways to help heal the world. Sadness is not bad. Being different is not wrong. How we feel is not an aberration. They are teachers.
What do you want to see in the field in order for it be more supportive?
When we ask ourselves what can be done, it can sometimes be overwhelming. One can feel powerless in the face of something so big. When that happens, I feel it’s important to identify the problems. One of the problems that I see is how we protect and give allowances to those who are predators or create toxic environments in our community. I believe in second chances and reform, but there are so many people who are openly abusive and hurtful in the creative communities and we allow them their existence because there’s an illusion that they have power. They have money or connections or positions within institutions and abuse that privilege. People who do not see what they’re doing as wrong, will keep doing it, and they won’t change their ways. So when we see instances like this, we need to draw a line in the sand and protect the victims.
A common issue for historically marginalized people is that their voices have been silenced and/or appropriated. How to address this is by creating opportunities for underrepresented artists to show their work and have a platform to share it. This includes funding programs that encourage dialogue and archival record. Books, journals, magazines, publications, videos…. all of these provide a way to establish a ground to build on. So often, people do amazing work but it sits ignored on a shelf in a closet. To be supportive is to create systems that help empower people to tell their own stories and do so in their own ways that are authentic to themselves and their work.
Acknowledgement that our understanding is ever evolving and the language that we use is changing too. I have seen people do work towards the goal of building awareness and representation and then have that work undermined because the ideas are “old fashioned” or serve only a limited scope. How do we as a community learn from the past and build on it? I think it comes from having people who represent those current ideas discussing how to move those issues forward and be led by those who are actively impacted by the decisions of others. Allow the lived in experiences speak.
Support also comes from accessibility and making these opportunities available for all different kinds of people. For instance, there are people who have a wealth of knowledge, but cannot teach because they don’t have an MFA or PhD. There are also people who have stories that matter who aren’t backed by academic programs. Perhaps support comes from having mentors help others who wish to write, or teach, or exhibit and develop relationships that can be used to strengthen the community based off of individual ideas.
I think our stories matter. They have power. And I think support can be given by creating ways to record, promote, and save these stories.
*** All interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity