The Last Gig Before Covid: A Chat With Philippa ‘Phil’ Tomlin About ‘My Place In The Crowd’

self-portrait of Philippa Tomlin alongside her work, Tomlin is a white woman wearing a dark denim jacket, large headphones, sunglasses, and holding a paintbrush to her mouth like a microphone

During lockdown last year Philippa ‘Phil’ Tomlin signed up for Inktober. When the drawing challenge gave her the word ‘Cheers’ as a prompt, she found herself having an idea that would eventually lead to her art show – ‘My Place in the Crowd’ – centred around the last gig she attended before Covid-19. 

“I wanted to set myself challenges that would improve the skills that I wasn’t so good at, and I wanted to be playful,” said Phil.

“It sounds a bit ‘drama queen’ but when I’d finished it and looked at it, it kinda took my breath away and I had a little emotional response.” 

So, she had this little ink drawing, based on a photo she took at the gig, and she started to wonder what they would look like as painting. So, she began painting them on canvas. 

“Some were more about the lights rather than the music, so I brought in the crowds,” she explained to me.

Phil was feeling a bit down at the time and at a bit of a loss, when she saw a call for applications for Renfrewshire Council Town Restorations, offering funding for suitable projects. 

“I thought, I could totally do this! It mentioned engagement – a key word for me. I could talk to people about their last experience of a gig, could ask for pics and gig stories.”

She had never put in an application for a big project, and was “super surprised” to be awarded “the full whack” of £5k.

Suddenly it became real.

“I was aware that I was an individual artist, not an organisation receiving funding, and I certainly felt a little pressured.”

She put herself into a ‘project manager role’ and asked her work for a sabbatical. 

“I was very excited. I trained as theatre maker in community theatre and it seemed a nice way of bringing my practice together – social engagement and participation – and raising my visual artist practice.”

She had experience in producing – project set up, admin, getting artists involved, “If you do the leg work and get everything in place then your brain is free to be creative.”

But while she enjoyed building a team and having the creative artistic conversations, she found it difficult to do promotion. 

“I had to promote it myself really hard, and I hadn’t really anticipated that, by having volunteers for interviews, everything slows down, especially during lockdown. You’re relying on people with busy lives to get back to you, contribute, spend time with you, all from the goodness of their hearts,” she said.

“I find it difficult to promote my own work. You don’t want to appear full of yourself do you?  Arrogant and pushy, but if you’re not confident in what you have to offer why would anyone else be?”

But she found she was good at promoting the work of others, saying “As an enthusiast of the arts, I ‘get’ people’s work, and where they are coming from.”

Phil agrees that she needed to apply this to herself. And alongside the large paintings she also decided to include sound pieces.

“From the very beginning I knew the paintings had to be big. Inviting people to stand up against the paintings and imagine and remember being part of a live music crowd was always the aim.”

“It’s a bit nostalgic, and a little bit of a lament for things that I don’t think that are ever going to be the same again.”

“I wanted to create an atmosphere and hear real voices. I could have waffled on myself but I wanted different perspectives, voices, opinions. I built a team – to help structure questions and interviews, get a range of responses, and to use sound and music to create atmosphere – kept it light hearted – its gigs after all!”

The resulting sound pieces certainly have atmosphere. There’s talk about weird things seen at gigs, people who annoy you in a crowd, joyful moments. They are often funny and connected. People having similar responses and feelings.

Phil had always wanted to use the interviewee’s voices, not actors. 

“It’s authentically their voices, and they are proud of saying the words. I wanted crowd noise too, music, atmosphere, so I built the team to that end. I’ll recreate a version of the crowds on the frontage as a mural – not same as boards and you can’t get as near but they will have the original boards inside.”

This ongoing project will be available to view soon at Callum’s Cavern, 66 Old Sneddon Street, Paisley PA3 2AP. 

By Jacqueline Jay Wilde

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