Fifth Year Emerging Artists: Thomas Hardy ’20 explores a wide range of illustrative work

Jorie Van Nest / Olaf Messenger

Thomas Hardy ’20 has approached his time as a fifth-year emerging artist (FYEA)  as “a bunch of gifts.” Being able to receive a stipend, work in a private studio space  alongside other fifth-year artists and stay connected to art and the campus community at St. Olaf drew Hardy to the opportunity, and it has helped him continue to grow as an artist and build his portfolio before venturing off into the world of professional illustration.

Below is my conversation with Hardy from Wednesday, Oct. 14. I have edited it for length and clarity.

On what he’s been working on

“What I’m working on has been a jumble of things. I’ve been exploring a lot of different directions. We’ve got a show coming up on Saturday, and I’ve been trying to figure out what my artist’s statement will be. Because usually there’s a theme that you’re exploring or a single style that you’re working in a lot, but what I’ve been doing is a jumble of ideas, of different themes, different styles. I’ve been more in exploratory mode and branching out and just doing a lot of drawing.”

On his illustrative work

“Illustration is the type of work I want to go into. Basically, the way I think of that is art that accompanies text. So I’m really interested in doing stuff for editorial work like magazines and newspapers, or illustrations for books, promotional stuff, educational stuff. All that is what I’m hoping to do professionally.

The mediums that I use lately are a lot of ink and watercolor. I’ve been using a dip pen and brush with india ink, and doing a lot with water coloring gouache on top of that.”

On his decision to pursue the FYEA position

“I remember early on last year being ready to pull up stakes and head out of town, and so I hadn’t been considering the program too seriously for most of the fall semester. I just wanted to get somewhere else basically, I wanted to explore a different place.

“I don’t know exactly when the transition happened but I just remember having conversations with people about the program — people would ask me if I was interested in applying for it and that sort of thing. The more I thought about it I was like ‘I should at least try,’ because this is a whole lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’d be probably trying to do a similar thing this year, but just with less resources if I wasn’t in this program.

“So I’m really happy they offer it, and I’m really happy that they wanted me to do it.”

On the annual FYEA fall showcase

“It’s a chance for us to show what we’ve been working on so far. I’m excited to see everyone’s stuff together in a cool space that’s not our studio. It’ll be cool to see it presented in Groot [Gallery]. There’s so many projects going on in the studio and it’s turned into a really messy — like chaotic in a good way — space.”

Art by Thomas Hardy

On getting into the program and the effects of COVID-19

“I found out I was accepted into the program after everyone had signed leases and stuff, so finding housing was a little bit difficult. The late acceptance time combined with the pandemic made that challenging this year.

“I feel like we’re all just dealing with it and trying to stay safe and be smart like everyone else. I don’t know if anything has been exceptionally difficult for us; we’re a small group and we’ve got our own studio space, which makes it super convenient as far as keeping distance and everything.

“One challenge has been that there are limits on how many people can be in a classroom at a time. So helping out with classes or visiting to talk with students in various art classes has been a challenge this year just because of all that.

“In general we’re staying safe. I feel fortunate not to have to deal with online classes right now, to be honest. I admire you all.”

On the responsibilities of a FYEA

“Part of our responsibilities as [FYEAs] is to help out in various ways with the art department. I’ve been visiting the figure drawing class a handful of times, and then we’ve also got the annual art picnic coming up, but it’s over Zoom this year, so we’ll be helping to host that. We try to stay connected with the art department.

This year it’s been a bit of a challenge because everything is sort of disjointed, but that’s the goal — help out where we can.”

On the most intriguing part of being a FYEA so far

“One really great thing has been the freedom to explore a variety of different projects. I’ve been doing some illustration projects for posters and promotional stuff. I’ve been doing a lot of sketches in my sketchbook, and also working on a couple murals in addition to working up in the studio and working on stuff with ink and watercolor. So I feel like I’ve had the chance to dive into things in a bunch of different directions.

“I’m also working part-time at Target to pay for rent and groceries, so it’s not like I just have all day to work on stuff, and some days I get more done than others. But even so, it’s like when else in my life would I have, short of being a professional artist, the freedom to dive into stuff this much. It’s been a really liberating experience in that way.”

On his connection with the community

“I’ve really enjoyed being more connected with the community. I did a project this summer with the Northfield Union of Youth. I mentioned I’m working on two murals — one with my friend Marcel [Hones ’21] at Keepsake Cidery, and another for the people at Loon Liquors, which is a distillery in town. So I feel like I’ve been able to feel more connected to the Northfield community that way.”

On his favorite project so far

“The Loon Liquors one has been a real blast. It’s also been a challenge — it’s taken about twice as long as I hoped it would. Transitioning from the sketches that I did to plan the mural up onto a wall itself that’s way bigger, and the lighting in the room, presents another challenge. That’s been a real learning process, but I’m so glad I did it. It’s just been exciting to work on a project that’s going to be so visible, and I feel really fortunate that I got connected with [Loon Liquors].”

Photo of mural by Thomas Hardy

On developing professionally

“I think the two big things that I have to do are keep improving my portfolio, so it’s really tailored to show people the sorts of work that I’d like to be doing and am capable of so that I can get jobs as an illustrator, and then networking. I’ve been sending out postcards to art directors and looking for other ways to make connections, but it’s challenging. Networking is difficult, and I think a lot of the times you get a job it’s because you happen to know somebody. So those two are things I’m attempting to do this year to set me up for life after this.

“But also I think life is just full of surprises. I don’t expect everything to fall in place right away, but I’m hoping to do this to whatever extent I can and just build it up to possibly doing art full-time in the future. But in the meantime, I like exploring different things too.

“Gosh, talking about careers is difficult — I guess that’s what it comes down to. I’m just giving it a shot and hoping for the best.” 

Thomas Hardy pictured with Loon Liquors mural of his own creation.