Building houses and painting landscapes may not be an obvious pairing career-wise, but North Otago artist Tom Simpson appears to have created a beautiful blend of the two to suit his lifestyle. He speaks to Ashley Smyth about building his own tiny home, and his art.
‘‘Whatever the word ‘talent’ means to you, it really amounts to nothing without hard work,’’ North Otago artist Tom Simpson says.
In a short video he was asked to provide for pupils at his former high school St Kevin’s College, Simpson offers advice for those contemplating art as a career path.
‘‘I think that anything in life worth achieving takes persistent effort, and art is really no exception to that.’’
While Simpson’s talent is clear in the work he creates, it is perhaps the less obvious ‘‘persistent effort’’ that ensures he continues to be able to make a living doing what he loves.
On his parents’ Tokarahi farm, Simpson has completed a tiny home he began in Arrowtown while working as an apprentice builder.
‘‘I moved it back here shortly after the first lockdown, just to finish off the inside, which I thought would probably take a few months but, you know, it ended up taking a bit longer than that.’’
Building was a change of tack for the artist, who graduated in 2005 with an honours degree in design from Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Wellington.
He spent the next 10-plus years as a freelance illustrator in the design, publishing and entertainment industries, first in New Zealand and then Thailand.
After returning to New Zealand in 2016, he decided to turn his attention to building, while also making a shift on the artistic front to painting oil landscapes.
‘‘I wanted to spend more time working on personal artwork, and I think, just living in Queenstown, landscape seemed a kind of natural outgrowth of that.
‘‘Just kind of coming back to the Otago landscapes that have been such an inspiration to me, I guess it sort of felt like an artistic homecoming as well,’’ he said.
‘‘I had lost some of my enthusiasm for the illustration work I was doing . . .and felt I was spending too much of my life sitting at a computer.
‘‘I wanted to experience working a more physical job, and to have some spare time to reconnect with my artistic passion. The building apprenticeship allowed me to do that.’’
While completing his apprenticeship, Simpson started to think a tiny home might be a good option for him, and eventually allow him to spend more time on his art.
The design was mostly his own, which he came to after ‘‘watching a bit of YouTube and seeing tours of tiny houses’’.
He took notice of what aspects he liked from a variety of houses and tried to combine them into a design that worked for him, using computer programme SketchUp to create a digital 3D model.
‘‘That kind of allowed me to solve a few problems beforehand.
‘‘It almost felt like I had built it twice, because you’ve got the 3D model, making sure that kind of works in theory . . .and then, I think just being able to spend some time in the space, and kind of get a sense for how things would really go together, there were a few little adjustments and things that I made.’’
Materials for the build were chosen partly due to the 3.5-tonne weight limit for the double-axle trailer the home is built on. The bench tops are tussock board (panels of pine laminated together), and the cabinetry is pine ply.
Simpson was fortunate to have gathered a ‘‘good stash of materials’’ before the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, which allowed him time to work away on the project.
Now, 18 months later, the 6m by 2.5m home is small, but perfectly formed, apart from the last few finishing touches.
The end result is both practical and inviting, with little space for extra belongings, aside from a firmly packed shelf of favourite books at one end.
Two freshwater tanks are built into the sub-floor, and filled through a port in the side of the wall. A greywater tank sits in front of the axles, and an RV pump under the sink sends water to the two basins and shower.
The two-burner hob, oven and shower are all powered by gas, while electricity is delivered via a caravan plug.
Solar panels were an option for the future, to take the home completely off-grid.
A bed sits on a mezzanine floor at one end of the house, and the high bookshelf at the opposite end, both accessible by a purpose-built ladder. The bathroom includes a composting toilet, a Showerdome (to contain condensation) and a washing machine.
A bench seat with drawers can be converted to a spare bed, while a hinged shelf hangs down from a side window and can be hooked up as a standing desk, or breakfast bar.
For colder months, there is a tiny-home-sized Roaring Meg Wood Burner.
‘‘One of the things I learned from watching all those tours is that any way you can use a space for multiple purposes is really helpful, especially in such a small space,’’ Simpson said.
The entire project was a learning experience, which had made him ‘‘a bit more resourceful generally’’.
Staying in Tokarahi for the past 18 months was not his original plan, but as well as completing the house build, he had been working on some art projects.
A move to Dunedin was on the cards, and a spot ‘‘tentatively’’ lined up for his home to go.
He was also looking to rent a studio space there.
‘‘That’s kind of one of the reasons why Dunedin has been the plan, I think it’s a good place to be an artist.’’
Although Simpson had made a move back to more traditional artwork with his landscape oil paintings, he still used facets of his digital skill-set, which was especially useful for commissioned work.
‘‘I start by doing a few pencil sketches — often I’ll scan them and sort of resolve them on the computer. It just kind of allows you to edit things quite freely.
‘‘It allows you to flip them and scale things up and down — it’s just kind of flexible in that respect, and once we have a sketch the client’s happy with, I’ll go and order the materials, based on the size that they’re after.
‘‘I usually transfer the drawing on to the canvas with some carbon paper, so I take my sketch and blow it up, and just print off a line-version, and that’s what I use to, kind of, trace on to the canvas.
‘‘I think that both traditional and digital tools have certain strengths and weaknesses, so being able to utilise both of those is great. It’s really handy.’’
When it came to actually painting, he would pick an area to focus on for a painting session, and try to finish it as much as possible.
Once the whole surface was covered, any adjustments were made as needed, such as glazes, to lighten, darken or shift hues.
‘‘So going back to working traditionally, working in oils. It’s more demanding in terms of the planning stages of a work . . . but it’s also an approach I just seem to enjoy a lot more. Just a more, kind of, hands-on approach.’’
Although his time of late had been mostly filled with commission work and finishing the tiny home, Simpson also liked to spend as much time as possible on ‘‘self-initiated work’’ and hoped to have more work available to show in galleries soon.
More of Tom Simpson’s artwork can be viewed at artoftomsimpson.com or on Instagram and Facebook @artoftomsimpson.