“Most people know me as a painter, but this show is different,” says Marc Thomas, chief preparator at the Honolulu Museum of Art. At his upcoming solo exhibition Work Space at SPF Projects, Thomas moves into the conceptual, drawing inspiration from his day job.

The Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection encompasses more than 50,000 works of art, and at any given time it can have multiple works on loan to museums around the world. If moving art from the museum vault to the gallery and installing it takes special care—which it does—sending these fragile masterpieces to destinations thousands of miles away unscathed is another undertaking all together. As chief preparator, Thomas ensures that works in the collection travel safely—whether it’s to our own gallery walls, or to the U.S. Embassy in Geneva, Switzerland—where three paintings by local artists were sent.

“I’ve probably built over 200 crates since I’ve been here,” says Thomas, who has been with the museum for 20 years, the last 10 of which has been in his current role.

Thomas has to custom build crates and travel cases based on each painting’s individual specs. This is harder than it reads, as art comes in all shapes, sizes, and structural integrities. Sculptures have fragile extremities; works on paper can be extra sensitive to light, or moisture in the air. Not only does an artwork need to arrive at its destination at the condition in which it was sent, the recipients of the art need to be given clear instructions as to how to unpack the work in such a way that it can easily be repacked.

An example of a custom build is Robert Rauschenberg’s Trophy V (for Jasper Johns)—one of Thomas’ favorite pieces in the collection. One of Rauschenberg’s famed “combines,” the painting has three-dimensional elements, such as a protruding cardboard box, that had to be considered when Thomas created a crate to transport for it’s journey to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and London’s Barbican Art Gallery in 2012-2013.

The custom crate Marc Thomas created for the museum's Rauschenberg combine, with and without the artwork.

The custom crate Marc Thomas created for the museum’s Rauschenberg combine, with and without the artwork.

With decades of art and preparatory experience under his belt, the lines between Thomas’ workspace and studio space have blurred. For him, the materials and tools he uses on a daily basis have transcended their utility, and become a source of exploration. “The work I’m doing now is more factual and immediate. It’s about approach—how it’s made or remade, or re-contextualized,” explains Thomas. “When I make crates or work on exhibitions, there is a language developing that I can see, and that I can relate to my art, and the materials I use here become materials that I use in my studio, and in my art. Materials such as archival paper, blue tape, foam, wood, etc., are all used in my work.”

Recently Thomas has transitioned his work to focus on more conceptual ideas.  “For me art is a process of letting go of control, while at the same time being informed by something” he says. “It’s really challenging because it’s human nature to want to imbue meaning into everything. In art, we question everything. I like to keep it open ended”

Former member of the museum’s installation crew Drew Broderick owns SPF Projects, and approached Marc with the idea for this solo exhibition. “I’ve been toying with this kind of work for some time now, “ says Thomas, “[Drew] understands the way I see things, so I was excited when Drew asked me to do it.”

“The whole idea is to involve the viewer.” Thomas hopes that his work “resonates with viewers in such a way that they don’t feel the need to understand what it is they’re looking at, or even why they’re feeling the way they do when they look at it, just that it feels relevant in some way.”

Work Space opens this Thursday, Dec. 18, at 6pm.
SPF Projects, 729 Auahi St, between Cooke Street and Lana Lane
See details.