Spotlight on Blair Thornley

WRITTEN BY: KELSEY PRINCE

We sat down with local artist Blair Thornley, the creator behind the larger-than-life North Park parking structure art, and learned more about her artistic journey.

Kelsey Prince: Thanks for sitting down with Explore North Park! Let’s get to it. Tell me a little bit about the journey that landed you in North Park.
Blair Thornley: Ending up in North Park was somewhat accidental. I had studied in Rome and New York, and then I became a freelance illustrator (beginning in 1982), mainly for editorial magazines and newspapers. My clients were all over the country and I could be anywhere. I was in New York City, then Boston. One of my best friends, Larry Ashton, had moved here. In 1992 it was cheap and it was easy to get around at the time. Our friend, David Jenson, owned Soho Tea and Coffee in Hillcrest, and made us food and coffee every day. He also helped us to get a huge studio space. The town was pretty quiet – no distractions from painting and drawing. Everything conspired to make it an easy choice, although I was planning to only be here for a couple of years.

KP: We’re very glad you stayed. After exploring other mediums, you got into animation. What about animation really speaks to you?
BT: Animation is about movement. I love to study movement, gesture, body language – the way people move and what attitude or emotion they are conveying. Animation is just an extension of that. It’s really a drawing stretched out over time.

KP: How do you choose the subject of your art? Does any one subject specifically inspire you?
BT: Everything can be inspiring – evening news, photos from The New York Times, perspective, architecture, light, people, cars, California, American public places such as Laundromats, donut shops, mechanic shops, reflections in windows, and peoples’ gestures. Studying life – everything you can observe in and about mundane daily life. Things that are not inherently beautiful. Nature is already perfect; it’s not as interesting to me as a total subject matter, and my childhood and personal history often slip in.

KP: What was the inspiration behind the pieces created for the North Park Parking Garage?
BT: Humor and readability from a distance. Each side pertains to what happens on that block: shopping, parking the car, eating, traveling (on the University Avenue side) and performance (across from the North Park Observatory Theatre).

KP: What is your creative process like?
BT: I’m a little bit erratic. I work in intense spurts, but the most important thing is to find a way to work with my hands (creatively) every day. Sometimes I go out into the city with a sketchbook, or draw from newspaper photos. I believe it’s important to keep looking outside of your own experience, otherwise you’ll keep repeating yourself.

Sometimes I put paper on my desk and start drawing or painting on it with or without a plan. I am always surprised by what comes out. I do not plan, and then execute what I’ve laid out because my hands will not do what I see in my mind anyway, and because the accidents are always what I like the most. I usually work on several pieces at a time, which keeps me from overworking one piece.

KP: What role do you think art plays in society?
BT: Doing art is how people see what’s inside of them. How can a society feel grounded without that? And then we are inspired by others’ expressions in art, as long as it’s done with sincerity and not just surface. Seeing others’ art makes me know I’m not alone. It lets me see others’ ideas or way of seeing from a deeper emotional level. How exciting! Society without art would be small and sad.

KP: I completely agree. Do you have a dream art project – something you’ve always wanted to work on?
BT: Dream project? I would love to do a painting or a sculpture, which is gigantic or I would love to do a New Yorker cover.

KP: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
BT: My father said, “Whatever you love to do, find a way to make a living doing it.” Or, that’s how I remember it.

KP: What do you have planned for the future?
BT: I’m hoping to put some of my work into books. There is too much to look through and it’s very hard to organize. I will always draw and paint, I know that much. Maybe more sculpture art. I need to work more, to work harder and to work bigger. I feel I may need to move. For one thing, San Diego is way too hot and sunny for me. I miss the rain and wind. I am always thinking of going back east, I may need the pressure of that culture.
And if I were there, I may want to be back here.