Culture Shock: The New Iconography

The Work Of Thomas Christopher Haag Cuts Straight To The Unconscious

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
Thomas Christopher Haag
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I text my sister a soup bowl. She returns it with a smiley face with hearts in its eyes. An abbreviated exchange goes on like this until she concludes it with “GN.” Cycling forward and backward all at once, we return to the glyphs that conveyed meaning millennia ago as we, in a stupid headlong stumble, move into the future. Ask the sometimes-local artist Thomas Christopher Haag and he’ll tell you that everything moves in a cycle and there’s great power in that as well as the symbols that populate our lives. He’s surprisingly optimistic about the state of the world as he moves freely through it, affirming independence as self-preservation.

Haag splits his time among various locales, most significantly New Mexico, Washington and California. Rooted for the moment in Santa Fe, he and I sat beneath his recently completed mural at Deep Space Coffee and talked about meaning, the lack of it and designing one’s life around the shifting concept of freedom.

Alibi: Why travel so much? How does it inform your consciousness?

I’ve been traveling basically since the time I was 17. I left home and I’ve been traveling ever since. I just really like the freedom in it. It suits my temperament.

That lifestyle lends itself well to public art—creating murals, for example.

The art world is kind of funny these days. It’s harder to make a living in one spot … and I don’t do side jobs … I just go and spend a few months, get established, do a mural or two, get to know everybody and then move on and [later] go back. It’s a cycle where I get to keep these little spots.

Are there any elements that are necessary to your creative process?

Freedom. In all aspects … that’s kind of my requirement for this lifestyle. I don’t like a lot of chains on me. I wake up everyday basically just doing what I want. I’m really lucky and grateful for that, but it requires that you set yourself up for it. You have to be okay with being broke. You have to have low expectations for your day in order to be impressed with your day … I don’t really have any money in my pocket right now, but it doesn’t really matter because some people spend their whole lives working, making money so that they can eventually do what they want. That never made sense to me. All I want to do is art.

There’s a lot of cultural and societal pressure to signify that you’re an adult with your shit together.

And I don’t give a shit about being an adult. It’s just another label that we give ourselves. I’m 44, so technically that makes me an adult, but I’m way more of a kid than I’ve ever been.

In what ways does the concept of freedom manifest itself in your work?

Well, I paint what I want. I don’t worry about what’s selling or what the galleries want. … [My paintings are] really playful, but also deep because I have the time to sit around and think about big things and engage [with] those ideas … I think people really respond to that kind of play. There’s not enough of it in the world. It’s a commodity that people are hungry for.

Can you tell me a little bit about this mural [at Deep Space, which is a series of small, distinct symbols]? Was it challenging to create all these different images?

It’s challenging just to do it, to keep the brush moving and spend the hours … but mentally it’s not challenging. It’s like a relief, a vacation for the mind. I’ve studied iconography and symbology for a long time and I’ve always put it in my work … I did an album cover for the band You. I showed it to Erik [Lisausky, the drummer of You] … who said, there’s lots of images here, but you don’t ever repeat them … how many do you think you could do, off the top of your head, with no reference material without repeating any? … I went home and I just started filling pages … in really small symbols, and I got to 4,500. My hand cramped up, but I didn’t run out of symbols. It seems sort of endless for me … I couldn’t tell you what every symbol up here means, but they mean something to somebody.

What symbols have always resonated with you? Why are you drawn to them?

I’m a big fan of astronomy and molecular makeup. … Subatomic particles look a lot like atoms banging around. Ever since I was a kid I’ve found that really fascinating. Jung talked about how … symbols pass by the conscious line and go directly to the unconscious. They speak to everybody whether they know it or not.

What are you working on this summer while you’re in New Mexico?

This is busy season for me. I’ve got murals to do everywhere, Sister Bar is next. I’m having a show in Santa Fe opening in June. It’s a group show with Jodie Herrera and Roland Van Loon at Van Loon Gallery. That’s where I stay when I’m in Santa Fe—my studio is right next to the gallery.

Are there any ideas that you find exciting lately?

I’m really excited about … the laws of nature as we know them [and how] they don’t work in some situations. I find that exciting. Concepts like time and space getting weird are exciting to me. I like the way the world is getting frustrated with old ideas. You see it everyday … I see everything as cycles and evolution. You look at a garden in winter and all the flowers are dead and turned brown and pretty soon it all goes to shit and we call it compost. Well, what is that decay actually doing? It makes the next season better. I see what’s happening in the world as a natural thing and I’m actually pretty optimistic about it. Evolution is not a thing you can stop or hinder … The death of something old is the direct birth of something new.
Thomas Christopher Haag

Thomas Christopher Haag at work on his new mural at Deep Space Coffee

courtesy of the artist

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