in conversation with Sam Laurie
In February 2021 I interviewed Canberra artist Tom Buckland in his Page studio as part of a project for Collaborative Curating and Storytelling (HUMN8034) at the Australian National University.
Buckland has been a Canberra local for almost a decade, after moving from regional New South Wales to complete his honours in visual arts at the Australian National University. He is now a practicing artist who has exhibited and undertaken residencies across Australia.
“Now I’m kind of out in the world, out in Canberra making sculpture, doing all sorts of creative things”
Buckland’s work brings the audience into his pieces and allows them to connect and experience his created worlds. From cardboard birds to thinking caps to becoming a human hermit crab his work has a playful spirit that explores possibilities and alternate realities.
“I grew up on a farm. So I learned to make things with my hands. And I learned how to fix machines and tools and appliances. So I guess that was kind of a farmer spirit, DIY. And I like expanding my skillset just by making.”
“As a kid I used to make a lot of things out of cardboard boxes and toilet rolls and that sort of thing. I’ve always been sculpture based, I dabble in a bit of photography and digital work as well.“
I was curious whether Buckland’s DIY spirit was an active choice or just the natural path of his creativity.
“It’s part of me, that DIY. I don’t think I can make any other way.
Buckland’s garage studio is itself an ode to breathing art into the everyday. Boxes of objects are waiting to be reimagined and hanging on the wall and tucked away in corners are previous creations. I asked if he had any favourite objects or pieces and a few works were quickly pointed out around the room.
“I like this guy, he’s a bunch of ping pong balls that I found one day by the side of the road. [Mounted spider head]. This was a shower curtain ring [large pierced nipple]. This was a bucket I found by the side of the road [Space helmet].”
“Some objects I’ll find and they’ll sort of talk to me, they’ll have a history, and [the finished work will] be there right away, I can see that this is what it’s going to be. But other objects I’ll find – and those big boxes there, they’re full of objects – and they’ll just kind of wait and sit around for a while and then suddenly one day *clicks* the idea will come to me of what it could be, what I could use it for.“
“People relate and they’ve got a sort of a story and emotional, nostalgic connection to the object“
Buckland has been involved in many collaborative projects throughout his career, and was happy to share why he thinks collaboration is so important.
“As I get older I think I prefer collaborating because I enjoy learning something new every time. I learn something new working by myself, but I think I learn more when I’m collaborating.“
“For me, it’s been really getting out of my comfort zone. I get so used to working or looking at things a particular way. It’s great to work with someone else, and they start to question your own processes and why you do things that way. It just opens you up. Otherwise you tend to get stuck in the studio. Got the blinders on looking forward.”
“There’s a couple of local artists that I work with regularly. Sam Watson, who I went to art school [with], we work together. We haven’t worked together for a while, but we chat and communicate about our work as it’s in progress, give each other feedback. And so that’s a really valuable relationship for me. [I’m] inspired by her work, and she’s inspired by my work. So it’s a mutual relationship, which is really good. And there’s a couple of artists in the community that I can work closely with. I do work for Tony Steel who is a ceramic artist, so I teach ceramics at Belconnen Community Services to a group of people with disabilities. That’s really valuable, working with Tony and learning brand new skills from him.“
The idea of collaboration as a learning experience is a recurring theme in the way Buckland discusses projects he’s undertaken with others. With eyes open to the possibility of everyday objects and a mind open to learning from all experiences it is no surprise that Buckland creates works with such a strong sense of exploration.
With his strong history of collaboration I was curious as to whether there were any artists who he felt had particularly inspired him or helped shape his creative practise. The answer came swiftly and in a tone that spoke to the understanding of these artists impact on him.
“The first year of art school I was taught by Simon Skule and Jacqueline Bradley. Jackie’s still in Canberra, she’s a practicing artist, but both of them were a huge influence on my work. So the way Jackie [works] in particular, she pulls apart objects and redefines them, that had a huge impact on me. And Simon, his philosophy and his way of making and his work ethic was really, really influential on me.“
Buckland’s works also often involve performance or interactive elements. Having works in galleries, arts festivals and performance pieces in the wider community means he is able to reach a wide audience and have a broader range of people interact with his work.
“I worked [in 2018] on this project called Destructamatic. It was a collaboration with a friend of mine [Kon Kudo], who’s also a Canberra artist. We just gathered all this junk off the streets, and we stuck it all together and activated it [with] motors and sound. And that was a really great collaboration, because I learned a lot from him. He learned a lot from me. It was [composed of] big, interactive sculptures that the audience could play with. It was great. I think it’s important that people can become [part of the work], they’re not just looking at it, standing back,… People can touch it and play with it, and have some kind of experience with it beyond just looking at it.“
Buckland has a clear passion for blurring the line between audience and art as well as incorporating performance to bring pieces to life.
Art can be a vehicle for communicat-ion, connection and celebration. Buckland has worked with Tuggeranong Art Centre, Belconnen Art Centre, and in a range of other community projects around the Canberra region.
“In 2019, I made this giant lunar lander out of cardboard. And that was for the 50th year [anniversary celebration] of the lunar landing. I was really happy with that and got some really great responses to it. [I got] to talk with some of the people who worked at Tidbinbilla during the moon landing, which was great.“
“Any work that creates a discussion [in the community] whether good or bad, is interesting.“
“I think the sky whales are a really good example. They bring out this huge debate, whether you think they’re good or bad. They’re engaging the community and getting a bit of discussion going. Stirring up the dust a bit.“
Thoughtful and gently spoken Buckland recounts a recent collaborative work he was involved in that had a different tone to many of his other works;
“In 2019 I did On Thin Ice, which was a project working with local journalist Ginger Gorman and the drug rehab centre at Fyshwick. Ginger was interviewing people at the drug rehab centre and I was creating work based on their stories”.
Also involved in On Thin Ice were Canberra artists Jess Higgins, Hillary Wardhaugh, and Martin Ollman. The artists and journalist working together in their different mediums created a series that was able to engage and reach a wider audience than any of the contributors could have reached had it been a solo project.
“That definitely brought attention to those stories that go completely under the radar, humanising, bringing the human element out in their stories. I had someone crying looking at my work, which was new.“
“I think it’s really important, [collaboration]. To see these things working together … intersecting and creating new things out of that collaborative process is really interesting.”
And of course nothing done in 2021 is complete without discussing the whole global pandemic situation.
“I had a performance last year that I was constantly having to disinfect, which was an interesting experience [Rolladex of the apocalypse]. Gallery openings have been very strange – all spread out. But they’re slowly starting to come back. And I think a lot of people were just locked away in their studios making throughout the time, but they’re slowly coming out now. Maybe this year people will start to emerge from their caves. I’m having to think of new ways to get people to interact with stuff, like digital.”
Buckland will no doubt continue to make interesting and imaginative works that engage the community and capture his sense of playful absurdism.
See more of Tom’s work on his website or discover the other artists involved in these projects.