The assignment consisted in designing a portfolio website for the Amsterdam-based artist Tom Heerschop that does not only display his tremendous amount of work but also enables the viewer to see the relations between his artworks and his life story being characterized by dramatic ups and downs.
About Tom Heerschop
Tom studied fine art at the Rietveld Academy and the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, which are said to belong to the most prestigious art academies in the Netherlands, and was deemed a very promising artist. Though at the age of 25, when everything seemed to be right on track – he was successfully working as an artist and started a family – soon his life went off the rails. His behavior was marked by agression, violence, lethargy, depression, impulsivity, memory loss as well as a lack of empathy and ambition. Upon insistence by his wife, he did several therapies but there was no improvement in sight. Though he was very productive in the beginning of this period – producing and selling more than 100 artworks per year – his condition got worse until he was not able to work anymore and the situation became unbearable for his family.
In September 2008, it was discovered that a benign tumor has been growing in his head for at least ten years. The diagnosis was rather a release than a shock as it proved that he is not crazy but ill. After the tumor has been removed he was almost euphoric, resulting in a very productive phase. But, after things have settled back into their everyday routine, his usual workflow vanished and he fell back into old behavior patterns. A couple of months later, another specialist in neurology discovered that he has a considerable brain impairment that has been caused by the tumor. Although Tom is on the mend again, he is forced to slow down for several years and has to learn to live with the limitations of his brain injury. Looking back at his work, his illness had a huge influence on his work. The human brain, overload and explosion are topics that always recur in his artworks.
Tom and his girlfriend (and manager) Bregje, came to our studio in search of an online presence that does not only display the heaps of artwork Tom produced in the past but also tells his story and draws attention to his comeback. We were immediately exited about the project due to his intriguing story and personality but also because it was a long desired wish for us to work for a contemporary visual artist.
As Tom’s story already offered numerous possibilities, we hardly needed any references or inspirational material. Bram and Maurits started with a conversation about the projects during lunch and went out for a walk. In this initial stage, they asked themselves how they could stand out from the crowd and would present themselves if they were a visual artist.
Concept and design
It was clear form the beginning that Tom’s story will play a central role in the concept, as you have to understand him to understand his work. The concept is based on the following three components that highly influenced his work: His brain tumor, his sheer productivity and the fact that he always draws right away without knowing beforehand what he is going to create.
Our initial idea of a narrative concept that takes you into Tom’s world directly met Tom and his wife’s expectations In contrast to many other visual artists that are rather reserved and keep themselves in the background, we’ve decided to make Tom present throughout the whole website. He is looking you straight in the eye from the moment you get to the website which surely makes the visit really intense and something you haven’t seen before. By clicking on his head, the ideas floating arond in his head become visible in the form of different animations. Even though Tom still has to be very careful with his energy, we asked him to actively contribute to the animations. For this reason, all of them are the result of a strong collaboration between our studio and Tom. In total, the website displays 50 customized animations that can be divided into four different types: GIF animations, SVG animations and animated collages. The portfolio is divided into different series that are displayed in chronological order. In this way, you can track back the different phases of his life, put them into context with his artistic development and discover the variety of his work. However, if you come to the end of each series or the whole portfolio, there is a loop bringing you back to the start. This of course has functional reasons but also alludes to Tom as an unstoppable maker and the seemingly endless loop of creation he is situated in.
Behind the scenes
During the concept development phase, we made certain changes bringing along some unexpected challenges. In the beginning, we thought about splitting the website into an introduction page with the animations popping off Tom’s head. Once we decided that Tom should be visible even in the deepest part of the website, we had to master some technical challenges, especially as we had to somehow place the massive amount of around 1200 artworks around his head. Also the amount of animations kept us busy, especially the rather complex ones consisting of more than 200 drawings and 24 frames per second. And as you can imagine, every now and then an inadvertent mistake happened such as a stroke that couldn’t be programmed or not connecting the laptop with the charger forcing us to start all over again.
Thanks Tom not only for sharing your personal story with us but also for putting so much energy in this project!