By E.S. Sparks
Simone Thornton, aka Real Gold, is a multidisciplinary artist and head poster printer at FSG. Originally from South Florida, she is no stranger to walking on the wild side, and her artwork often captures what lies in the swamps of the human mind with fluorescent delight. They say that sunlight is the greatest disinfectant; strange late nights bleeding into morning are rendered in bright neon detail. Thornton doesn’t shy away from these odd moments, and manages to make it seem as if maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay?
With a new mural adorning the FSG wall, Thornton has made her mark by transforming the space with her signature vibrancy and uncanny ability to set the scene. Creepy crawlers and weirdos welcome! No judgments here, just real talk.
When did you move to Austin?
I moved here beginning 2016 from San Francisco. I had my own little screen printing business [there] but was working four jobs. It was just so nice to come from San Francisco being in intense survival mode and coming here and being able to relax a little bit and change my priorities in a big way. I was just working in a barbecue food truck, but I was able to survive. Got on my feet and was able to get an apartment and got a job at FSG and started doing what I really loved. I met [my partner] Levi, which was totally random, so I was like, I guess I’m going to stay here! [Laughs.] It was really organic. I was just so ready, I wanted a different lifestyle. I wanted to be closer to home and be in the South. The Southern hospitality, people being nice—it had been so long. Living in an East Coast city, then living in a West Coast city. It was nice [to move to Austin and be around] people making eye contact, offering up a helping hand, I just wasn’t used to that and it made me feel really good.
Where did the idea for the FSG mural come from?
I had this design and it [originally] said “More than a feeling,” just some rock ‘n roll stuff that I had been working on. I’m so happy to do it and I’m glad it’s going down–it’s going to be sick. Working for FSG and having freedom and being able to do your craft in the way you want to do it, you’re able to still enjoy what you’re doing and I am thankful for that. I have a lot of creative freedom, which is amazing.
Muralist, screen printer, painter, designer, illustrator… You’ve been able to successfully translate your style through quite a variety of mediums.
I’m also classically trained in printmaking, but the worlds are very different. The fine arts side of it [versus] working in an industrial shop. Printmaking is one of the oldest forms of art mediums in history. Mostly lithography; I always thought I would get more into that area. But screen printing is the more user-friendly, affordable, industrial form that’s more mainstream. When I was majoring in illustration I was able to create a lot of work using screen printing and that’s why I ultimately minored in it. It’s easy, fun, immediate. I have been screen printing since I was in high school. I love the idea of being able to make a piece of art, but having 30 of them. I’ve always loved that about screen printing. Making art accessible and the graphic history of it and how it can be fine art but it’s also so illustrative. There’s such a battle between illustration and fine art in that world, fine art is taken way more seriously.
Your art takes me back to when I was in high school and wanted to be Daniel Clowes.
Oh, I love him, yeah. I was obsessed with his graphic novels and he was a big influence for me when I was in college. Just that graphic style and am so drawn to that sort of dark satire. I love Ghost World. Even with these new “Wild at Heart” shirts, I just love that dark underbelly of society that I experienced so hard in Baltimore and San Francisco.
I also take a lot of inspiration from Florida. Just the weirdness of it all. My colors, my plant life, all of that directly correlates to my upbringing in Florida. I just want to be saturated with the most color and the most plants at all times.
There’s often the look of a still life, but with some narrative element peeking through.
Definitely everything that I make is storytelling. My style of illustration–I like to set the scene and set a tone. For the most part the things I make at [FSG] are kind of bouncy. I kind of took a leap making that “Wild at Heart” [design]. I just love telling a story in an image, having so many different parts of it maybe speaking to something else.
Is there anything in your work that you’ve been surprised by people being drawn to?
My quarantine shirt that everyone’s responded to. It’s really pretty to look at, but behind it all it was like, we were in quarantine and we were gambling online. [Laughs.] To get a thrill, you know? I just think it’s funny how people like to be bad. Like, it’s fun to be bad. I used to create a lot of work that looked really masculine, that was mainly black-and-white. Like a really seedy bar. Or just weird situations that people put themselves in. like at the end night when it’s 3 am where do you find yourself. I just think it's interesting because I feel like so many people can relate to that but no one really likes to talk about it because it's taboo in a way, like, Oh, you’re drinking, you're gambling, you’re getting high? Yeah, but…
It’s bouncy and fun! [Laughs.]
So I’ve never seen Wild at Heart, but I love David Lynch. The scariest thing to me is that uncanny, surreal feeling of like, maybe the whole fabric of my reality was wrong because I saw this one weird fucked-up thing. And now it’s so jarring to me that I can’t forget it.
Right. That’s David Lynch to a T.
It’s subconscious, but if you’re asleep a good amount of the time and then your work is meditative, it can kind of seep into reality. That’s sometimes more real to me than the day-to-day grind.
Yeah, and I think that people are scared to admit that. Like, What are you doing at work? Are you thinking about what you did last night? [Laughs.] I think that’s one of the things that I love about David Lynch’s work. These [characters] being obsessive and getting themselves into these fucked-up situations. But wanting to go deeper and deeper into it instead of turning away from it.
Is there space to do that and still be a healthy human?
I’m trying to figure it out. [Laughs.] I’m trying to find the balance. It’s hard. I have more responsibilities than I’ve ever had in my whole life. I’m definitely in a transition period. I’ve had to grow up a lot since I’ve been with [my partner], which has been really good for me.
How do you like to indulge your dark side or connect with that?
It’s changed a lot. I’ve had a lot of 6 am mornings in my past, and not to say I don’t indulge in that now every once in a while, but it’s fun to get into that weird place where you’re partying with your friends and some people trickle off and you get to connect with people in a way that you don’t normally because you are intoxicated or doing something kind of taboo. I feel like people really show their ass, and I really like it. It’s fun. Just being a bartender for so many years in San Francisco, I saw so many different sides of people. [Addiction] is very serious and I super respect people that are cleaning their lives up and going to a different stage. I just think it’s interesting because it’s so hard for [some] people to be honest in their real lives and they need to get to that point to understand who they are or even get to know someone else.
Is it fair to say that your artwork sort of commemorates those more dark or hidden moments in a way that isn’t shameful?
Yeah, I like to make art that someone can look at and connect with and feel kind of badass, you know? Like, Oh, I did that. Or I remember what that felt like. Or I was in that weird-ass situation. But I’m not trying to glorify it, it’s more just a moment in time. It’s okay. It’s okay that that happened.
Maybe art, fine or otherwise, is most effective when it’s holding a mirror to what’s real.
Yeah, totally. I think a lot of people are dishonest about what their private life looks like because we have to put on such a face in our professional lives. There’s real life, man. And it kind of has an ugly undertone—I feel like people want to see it as ugly. But it doesn’t have to be.
Is it truth or is it fantasy or is it both?
I feel like it’s both. Like with my “Night Beans” illustration [and tee design]. It’s Friday night, this dude’s coming home, he’s gonna put on his freaky-ass cowboy hat, he’s going to eat a can of beans and fucking gamble, do his scratch-offs, put his knife in his pocket, and who knows what’s going to happen! [Laughs.]
Ha ha. Is that you or is it a character? Do you envision different characters?
For sure. A lot of it is me getting my own kicks out in my own personality and just knowing a lot of people I’ve run into like that. The 9-to-5ers that go out at night, the creepy crawlers. [Who are] honestly in a way kind of the backbone of society! They’re the ones giving this dude in the bar a job. I learned a lot while I was bartending, so many walks of life walk into a bar… That’s the beginning of a joke, right? But it’s true. I don’t want to say my work is bar-oriented. But it’s just at a place where I feel like a lot of people can connect, no matter what their life looks like on the daily basis. Their fantasy is to be able to fucking be badass and get into some trouble. [Laughs.]
Is there anything you want to grow towards in your art?
I do also make a lot of work that is just [concerned with] pure beauty. Nature and colors. I guess I’m always trying to find that balance between being able to feel like I’m living life and getting the most out of it and experiencing it in a way that I think is beautiful and fun. And I just want to keep working towards that, and have this balance of being able to make money, and being able to make images that I find interesting or funny. I mean a lot of it is amusement for me.
My life looks totally different than it ever has. Having land, living in Texas. Being out there you really are face to face with who you are. If you were to ask me 10 years ago, I would have pictured something completely different. Sometimes I think I should be way farther along, but I’ve sculpted my career in a way where I do art for a living and I support my family that way. That’s fucking cool. And I’m real thankful for it because of how much I had to hustle and struggle.
How I’ve grown in the past six years, I just want to keep on this positive journey while still being true to this commentary that I keep being drawn to. I’ve never really been able to pinpoint how to describe it… Like when you get into a fight with somebody and you fucking drive off and go do something weird, you know? That’s real. People don’t really talk about those nights.
We’re kind of defined by those moments.
Yeah, we are! And it changes you. I feel like people should be more comfortable with those moments and feeling that way.