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In conversation with… professional artist, Tom Groves!

Earlier this month, Britain Uncovered made the trip up to Luton to meet with professional artist and life drawing enthusiast, Tom Groves! In addition to discussing Tom’s relationship with his body and the ways participation in clothes-free experiences have had a positive impact, we’re also exploring British attitudes towards nakedness and sexuality, the backlash to Channel 4’s ‘Naked Education’ series, the reasons why Tom doesn’t want there to be a fuss about nudity, and so much more!

Professional artist, Tom Groves, posing with a self-portrait at his home in Luton

Britain Uncovered: Hi Tom! Going back right to the start of your journey, how would you describe your body confidence levels in your adolescence? Did you generally feel comfortable in your own skin, or was it not something you were ever really conscious of?

Tom: I didn’t think about it very much. I was very sporty, so I was fit and athletic, and I didn’t have problems with it. I went to an all boys’ school for most of my upbringing, and I wasn’t aware of girls – so I was neither conscious of gender body issues, nor worried about trying to be attractive to the opposite sex.

I would have liked to have been taller and better looking, but there are certain aspects of my body that I really like; but they tend to be weird! I like the fact I have very high arches on my feet (I describe them as “feet how feet should be”), and then there are certain aspects where I would prefer things to be a different shape.

BU: Over time, would you say that you have become more aware of your body, and if so, how has your perception changed over time?

Tom: More awareness has definitely come about from things starting to stop working. That’s my real problem. My eyesight has got markedly worse in the last decade, so I’ve gone from being able to see really well to not, which has been awful. It comes back to the practical side, and I notice when I can’t do things.

I think generally I have self-confidence that has come from success that I’ve had in my life. Which means that I don’t care what people think about my failings. I don’t want to piss people off or upset people, but if someone looks at me and goes, “Man, your hair is a mess”, I’m like, “Okay.” I do not care. That is not important to me, and I can make it not a mess if I wanted to. It doesn’t matter. If you look at me and go, “That guy is a loser because he’s got messy hair”, fine.

BU: You’re not seeking that external validation.

Tom: I do not need that validation at all. And I’m fortunate that I don’t need that, and I think I don’t need that because I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had the upbringing that I’ve had. Basically, I’m really fucking good at exams, and it turns out you can go quite a long way in life by being good at exams. And I just happen to be.

BU: So you tie your success and achievements in with your entire mental outlook, and your perspective of your body just sits within that?

Tom: Yes, it’s a holistic picture of the world.

The Caracalla Spa and thermal bath complex in Baden-Baden played host to one of Tom's earliest spa experiences

BU: In the time that we’ve known you, you’ve been an enthusiastic participant in a variety of different events involving nudity – ranging from life modelling classes to sauna visits to skinny dip events and beyond. What was it that first appealed to you about trying out clothes-free experiences such as these, and what were some of your earliest experiences in this regard?

Tom: When I was young, I wasn’t confident about being naked, and I was extremely shy until I went to university. I went to Cambridge, and I would not have applied had it been down to me, because I thought everybody there would be super smart and that I’d be like a fish out of water. But at some point in the first term, I thought, “I fit in here! These are my people”! I had underestimated myself, and that was a revelation. And I thought, “What’s there to worry about? I’m at one of the best universities in the world and I can completely hold my own here, I’m fine.” That really boosted my confidence, and it just reflected across the board. There was no kind of social nudity thing, but there was definitely comfort within myself.

The nakedness really happened thanks to an article in The Guardian. The journalist said, “So I got a call from The Guardian, and they said Baden-Baden [in South-West Germany] is famous for its spas, but it’s also the town in the world that has the most Michelin star restaurants per head of the population. What we’re looking for is for somebody to go over to Baden-Baden, go to the spas during the day, and go to the Michelin star restaurants in the evenings – so two spas, and two restaurants for a weekend trip – and then write us an article about it. Obviously we’ll pay for everything. Would you be interested in writing us an article”? And the journalist was like, “Yeah”!

And I was reading the article and I thought, “This sounds fantastic!” I’d never been to a European spa or anything, but I liked saunas. I read this article and said to my girlfriend at the time, “We should do this”! And she said no. I was like, “What do you mean, no? Why would you turn this down”? So then a couple of years later, by which time I was with Andy (my current partner) and telling her this story, and she said, “I would not say no!” And so we did that, and we both thought it was fucking brilliant!

BU: And you felt entirely at ease and comfortable with the nudity element straight away?

Tom: Yes! People get really het up about the nudity at these spas, and it’s just not important when you’re there. You get there, and everyone’s naked, and after eight seconds you adjust to that. And then it’s just like, “Okay, this is how it is.” People’s imaginations of what it means for everyone to be naked is totally different from the reality of what it means for everyone to be naked.

BU: A lot of these perceptions are seemingly caused by cultural issues in the UK, in which nudity and sex are still intrinsically linked by so many people – whereas in mainland Europe, there are healthier and more mature attitudes, and they’re able to desexualise the body in the sauna environment and make more of a distinction. Do you feel as though these attitudes can ever be reversed in the UK, or is it too deeply embedded into people’s psyches at this stage?

Tom: I think there’s one aspect – our views on privacy are clearly going to change, because we don’t have it anymore. You’re being watched by cameras all over the place, and if you do anything, people pull out their cameras. The internet tracks everything you do, and there is no privacy anymore. And to a certain extent, that’s about how you look as well. If not being naked is partly a privacy thing, and you don’t have any privacy… I don’t know how it impacts it, or whether it makes things better or worse, but I think people of my generation grew up with certain norms about how much privacy they had and what people knew about you, and what people could see. And people who are 20 now have never experienced the same thing. The internet has always been around, and we’re now getting to the point where cameras on phones have always been around. And social media has always been around. And that will lead to different attitudes.

'Naked Education', a new programme promoting body positivity, has received fierce criticism. Image: Channel 4

BU: I don’t know if you saw episode one of Naked Education on Channel 4 at the start of April, but it’s a new programme that’s essentially seeking to introduce the body positivity movement to a wider audience – and many people will likely not have been exposed to this type of content or way of thinking before, so it definitely seems like a worthwhile exercise.

However, there was one scene in which a group of 14 to 16 year old students were shown a line-up of naked women – entirely within an educational context – to illustrate that we all have different body shapes, body hair, imperfections and so on, and the students seemed to find it quite comforting to see normal bodies that they could relate to. But in the days following the broadcast, the segment drew fierce criticism and led to hundreds of complaints to Ofcom, with viewers branding it as “paedophilia”, and commenting on how disgusting it was for children to be seeing people without clothing. Which is sad, because I feel as though they missed the point of the entire exercise – and people are still sexualising the context even when it was made explicitly clear that this wasn’t what it was about.

Tom: I haven’t seen the programme yet, but I think that’s likely to be the case with this kind of thing. To some extent, it’s okay to have that, because you can then push back on that and be like, “Well no, it’s not sexualised, it’s not paedophilia. You’re the one who’s wrong here, you’re the one who’s got the outdated attitudes.”

Over my lifetime we’ve seen homosexuality – at least within the circles I’m in – go from being a taboo subject that you don’t talk about, to now being at a stage where it’s not really a thing. And 20 years down the line, we’re seeing transgender people going through the same process. Years ago, transexuality was deemed by some to be “weird” and “freaky”, and although we’re absolutely not at the point of acceptance yet, generally, the group of people who are at the point of acceptance is growing, and is now a significant minority. Maybe even a majority at this point, I don’t know what the attitudes are. And it just seems inevitable that in 20 years’ time, transsexuals will be where homosexuals are today, where it’s just a thing.

And so the positive case for body positivity and nudity, would be that you make a show like Naked Education, and that you have people react in that way. Because then other people will come in and be like, “Get with the times. What the fuck are you talking about? It’s not paedophilia to be naked, those two things are not the same thing.” And increasingly, those people who have that view die out or get used to it, or just become a dwindling minority of people.

BU: So you feel as though it might just be a generational thing, and that younger people are more open to these concepts and ideas?

Tom: Yes. I think if 60-year olds think nakedness equals paedophilia, and 20-year olds think, “What are you talking about”, then you’re on the right path because obviously that’s an argument in the long run that you win.

The danger is that you get reactions like you have in the States, such as those that followed the recent story about the school teacher being fired for showing students a statue of David. I understand there may be more to the story than the headline reported, but clearly that kind of thing happens in the US. There are substantial blocks of evangelical Christians, or right-wing people – conservatives, essentially – who have strong feelings about nudity that really make no sense, particularly when they’re just equating nudity and sexuality. But those groups are significant in size and influence, and they can affect policy in such a way that you can’t get the natural development that you might otherwise see. That’s the concern. If a show like Naked Education comes on, and you get Mary Whitehouse-esque figures coming in and pressurising the government into saying, “Okay, well you can’t now have naked people on television because that’s paedophilia”, then that’s a big problem, and a big blow for the cause.

But if that doesn’t happen, and if it simply sparks a debate, then you’ve got to think that you’re on the right side of that debate. Ultimately, people can believe whatever they want to believe. As long as they don’t disrupt how I live my life, I don’t care what they do. Personally, I think they’re bonkers and that they’re missing out. If you’re not going to a European spa because you’re concerned about the nudity, I just think you’re missing out. I’ve been with my partner and with several friends over the years, and nobody’s had a bad time.

Therme Manchester, the UK's first city-based wellbeing resort, is due to open in 2025

BU: In 2025, the Therme Group – which operates some of the biggest spa complexes in Europe – is opening a new facility on British soil over in Manchester. Do you feel as though British people will be receptive to the concept of a clothes-free spa and sauna facility like this, or might there be cultural barriers that prevent it from being as successful as its counterpart venues over in Germany?

Tom: So my expectation for Therme Manchester is that it will be basically a textile version of Therme Erding. They will have a pool zone that will be textile, and a sauna zone that will also be textile. That’s my expectation.

I’m guessing there isn’t the initial demand on a big scale for a clothes-free environment like there is in Europe. If we’re lucky, then they might say, “Okay, one day a week or one day a month can be clothes-free”. Is one day a month too much to ask for? And then those of us who prefer to sauna with no clothes on can go that day, and people can try it out.

The trend in Europe is actually moving in the other direction. Spa Zuiver in Amsterdam, which I’ve been to a lot, was a fully naked environment when we first went, but then they introduced a couple of clothing days a month, which then became weekly clothing days – and now Tuesday through to Thursday is textile, and only the weekends are naked. For me, it’s a much worse experience being in a swimsuit. When you get out you’re wearing this wet, cold clingy thing, and it’s just much nicer not to have to wear clothes. Swimming is much better without swimwear too. I think the swimsuit is literally the worst invention of all time!

But if the trend is going the other direction there, I’m not optimistic that we’re going to come in with a large-scale, clothes-free sauna environment. I think it will be great if they had that facility though.

BU: For many years you’ve been a regular attendee of Ruby and Rosy’s Body Love Sketch Club events, which are “joyful workshops in creative empowerment, body positivity, and celebrating our bodies in their (optionally naked) glory”! Having attended so many of these fantastic events over the years, what would you say that you most enjoy about the events at this stage?

Tom: At this stage, it’s the social aspect to it. I really enjoy the drawing and the modelling, and the whole vibe of the class, but I also enjoy going to the bar afterwards and hanging out with the other attendees, who are people I have common ground with. For me it’s a nice experience, and because I don’t have any problems with the nakedness, there’s no stress involved. Ruby and Rosy are excellent and I really like them, and they run the class superbly. I do feel like I’m a fixture in the class.

Tom at the BLSC. Image: Emma Myrtle Photography

BU: For those unaware, Ruby and Rosy typically start these classes with a wildly entertaining ‘naked race’, where they compete to see who can disrobe the fastest – and at one session, you actually ended up replacing one of the hosts and taking part in this yourself! How did you find this experience compared to the other life modelling elements of the class?

Tom: Okay, so the naked race was slightly nerve-racking! It was slightly different to do that, because there’s a difference between posing for three or four people and just being part of the art class, and having 30 people looking at you – particularly early in the class where you don’t know some of these people, and they don’t know you. It hasn’t established itself yet. It wasn’t that I felt bad or didn’t want to do it, and it’s not so much the nakedness aspect of that even; it’s the being the centre of attention. I’m not somebody who wants to be the centre of attention. I want somebody else to be the centre of attention! So I had much more of a problem with being the centre of attention in a class of 30 people than I did being naked in a room full of 30 people.

That’s one thing I never lost from my childhood. I was painfully shy growing up, and over time I got more comfortable with chatting to people, and speaking in public, and being naked in public. But I’d never reached the point where I’ve actively wanted people to think, “Let’s all look at Tom.” But the naked race is a smart thing to do. Ruby and Rosy do it very well and it establishes the tone.

BU: In light of all the experiences we’ve touched on during our conversation today, would you go so far as to consider yourself a naturist at this stage?

Tom: No. It’s kind of a strange answer, because clearly I partake in activities that involve nudity and being comfortable with it. And it’s more that I don’t think of myself with that label, or any labels, rather than I actively think, “No, I’m not a naturist.” I just don’t classify myself like that.

But also, British Naturism frustrates me as an organisation. I want to be supportive of them and their goals, and I am happy to live in a world where they have what they want. But what they want isn’t what I want. What I want is for nudity to be unremarkable, and where it just doesn’t matter. To some extent they would say that’s what they want too, I think, and they would argue that’s what they’re trying to achieve. But a lot of what they do is making a fuss about being naked, and I understand why they do that – and that may even be the right thing for them to do. But that’s specifically not what I want.

My partner and I went to one of the Great British Skinny Dip events last summer, at a lido that was relatively close to us. It was a very hot day, and I think that the GBSD is one of the best things British Naturism does. I think swimming is better naked – it just is. It’s a very natural thing to do naked, it’s very easy to do, and it’s less exhibitionist than many things because you’re in the fucking water! You get in the water and you’re covered up, and people can’t see you anyway.

It was really nice to be in the pool on a hot day. But at some point they gathered everyone around for a group photo and got everyone to jump out of the water, but that’s not what this was – and that’s misrepresenting what the event was. And also, if that’s what the event was, I would not have gone. I don’t want there to be a fuss. So we chose not to partake in the photo. I’m not a member of British Naturism but I am on their mailing list, and every time I look at their emails, the majority of things that they are pushing at me are things where I just think, “I do not want to do this.”

To come back to the original question, I think I just do things that are interesting and fun to me, like the BLSC art classes, saunaing, swimming or whatever – and if those things are better done naked, I do them naked. But I do not set out to do things naked. I don’t go, “I want to be naked today, so I’m going go for a walk naked.”

It’s about doing things I want to do, and if they’re better being done naked I’ll do them naked, and if they’re better done clothed I’ll do them clothed. And I don’t want there to be a fuss about nudity.

Sketches created at a life drawing session Tom hosted

BU: Body positivity artwork and empowering nude art seems to have taken on a life of its own over the past few years, and we’ve been very fortunate to have interviewed many of the artists involved in this movement – but is this style of art, or the message behind it, ever something you would be interested in portraying through your own artwork?

Tom: Yeah I’d love to do that, that would be so much better than what I do! My friend Helen’s artwork is largely focused on nakedness and nudity – not 100%, but that’s her standard. She asks me what I’m working on, and I’ll say that I’m trying to make 30,000 pin pricks in a piece of paper look like Andrew Tate. And I’ll ask her what she’s working on, and she’s like, “Ah, here’s my painting of this triptych of three different sets of boobs.” And I’m like, “Yours looks more fun than mine”! And she says, “I wonder why that is! Could it be that you’re just doing the wrong kind of art?” But for sure, clearly!

That said, I don’t make art that looks pretty – I make art that makes a point. And I just don’t have a point to make with nudes right now. If I can make a point with nudes one day, then I will happily paint nudes.

BU: Artwork celebrating the female form can be been hugely empowering for its target audiences, and it’s undoubtedly helping people to embrace their bodies and feel a greater sense of body confidence than ever before. Do you feel that artwork along similar lines could be beneficial to a male audience, and do you feel that men suffer from body image issues in quite the same way?

Tom: My impression is that it’s much less of a problem for men. I think I’m lucky that it’s not been a problem for me, and I have to then guard against assuming it’s not a problem for other men. But I think generally it’s true that it’s less of a problem for men. I don’t know how much of a problem, but it’s obviously a problem for a lot of women. The way that women’s bodies are presented in the media and the pressure they get put under is awful.

So often we get somebody coming to Body Love Sketch Club saying, “I’m not confident, I’ve never done anything like this before, I’ve always had issues with my body and this was just a really great, empowering experience.” And what I get out of that is to see somebody having those issues and dealing with them, and being aware of them… it’s in my face that this is a problem. And to some extent this is a problem because of the way people like me behave. Hopefully not me, but probably sometimes me. And definitely people like me.

People like me do not think about women’s body issues, because we’ve never had to, and going to the BLSC you’re confronted with it, and you realise that this is a thing. To some extent it’s a shame that more people like me aren’t at the class to see that, and to come out into the world and realise that it’s a thing they have to be aware of – and to ask themselves, “What can I do in the outside world to reduce that”?

Tom with his lego portrait of Rafa Nadal (created in 2021)

BU: Although you’re not currently seeking to focus on the body (or related themes) within your art, it would be remiss of us not to touch on it at all. Could you share with us some of your motivations as an artist, along with some insight into your ongoing Illustrated Definitions series?

Tom: Most of my art focuses on sending a message or making a social or political point, rather than trying to look nice. And that’s what the Illustrated Definitions series is – I take a simple word and I paint the definition of that word. So for example, take the word “Crooked” – I can just paint some zig-zag jagged lines to represent the definition “bent or twisted out of shape”. But then if you happen to look at all those crooked lines as a whole and think you see a face that represents the other meaning of that word – “dishonest; illegal” – well, that’s a nice bonus isn’t it? And yes, as it turns out that particular painting does happen to look a bit like President Trump when you step back and view it holistically. Each painting also includes the definitions themselves and example sentences that show the usage, which allow me to provide more context about the meaning of the painting within the painting itself.

I’ve done about 70 of these paintings so far, grouped into various series' covering topics like Brexit, Fox News and the pandemic. They’re fun to conceive and I enjoy the challenge of trying to get the maximum amount of information into the painting – and everything is included for a reason, such as the style, the wording, the colours and the materials used. They’re also not exactly popular or marketable – the only people who want a picture of Donald Trump on their wall do not want a picture of him that suggests he’s a crook – but that’s not the point. The point is for me to say, “We’re fucking this up, and this person is an example of how we’re fucking it up,” but to do so in a way that’s a bit more interesting to look at.

But if that’s too heavy for you I also make incredibly cool portraits of sports stars using 50,000 tiny lego pieces for a bit of light relief. They do look good on the wall, so I can make nice things – I just don’t always do so!

BU: As we bring things to a close, how different would your life look if you’d not found your way to all of these different clothes-free events and experiences, and what would you have been missing out on had you not ended up going down this particular road? And what are people who aren’t involved in these types of activities missing out on?

Tom: It would just be worse! If I hadn’t done any of that, I’d still be sitting here right now. It hasn’t affected my career, my money, where I live, or what I own, and my life would be the same. But if I were to think about the 100 best experiences of the past ten years, a lot of them would be related to being naked. I think there would be a bunch of spa experiences in there, I think BLSC as a thing would be in there (if not individual sessions), and I think the fantastic nude beach we visited on the West Coast of France would be in there. Over the last ten years there would probably be more really good naked-related experiences than any other single group of experiences (whereas historically it would have been sport for me). There’s been no cost, and it’s made my life better.

If you asked me what I regret about my life, it’s that I didn’t start doing this when I was younger. If I’d read that article in The Guardian when I was in my mid-20s, I’d have had an extra ten years of these really good experiences. And it’s come at no cost to me. It’s just a shame. My view is that you probably get to a point in your life where you stop caring about how you look, and how people look at you. And for people who never get to that point, I think that’s kind of sad. For people who get to that point when they’re lying on their death bed, and they think, “I’ve got two days left to live, I do not care how I look at this point and I’m not going to put make-up on”, that just strikes me as being the worst thing that could possibly happen: that you only get to that point right at the end of your life, where you realise that it doesn’t matter what you look like.

So if you’re going to get to that point at some stage, the sooner you get to it, the better. What’s going to happen if someone sees you naked? Actually, nothing. Nothing’s going to happen. The world just keeps on going.

To see more of Tom’s fantastic work and to keep tabs on his upcoming projects, you can follow the artist on Instagram, @tomgrovesart, and through Facebook by clicking here. You can also enjoy a 3D gallery experience of the artist's Illustrated Definitions series at Kunstmatrix.

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