From Waste to Wall: James showcases nature-inspired artwork

Ruth Peterson | December 17, 2020

An award-winning artist who creates stunning pictures from scratch cards and other recycled materials will have his unique work on display to public audiences in the New Year.

One of James’ creations from scratch cards

A gallery of unique work

From Waste to Wall, an exhibition of James Owen Thomas’ striking collages created from pieces of the cards and other recycled materials, will be showcased in galleries in Yorkshire and Sussex.

It reflects a very creative and busy time for James, who completed a two-year Art and Design course at Bradford School of Art at Bradford College this year, gaining a distinction and a merit.

His interest in art began at a very young age. James, who is 19 and lives in Pateley Bridge, said: “As a very young pre-school child I enjoyed being taken on regular visits to the local Towner Art Gallery where I lived at the time in Eastbourne.  The gallery was then located in an old town house rather than the modern building where it is now by the seafront.  I was too young to remember details, but I’m told I became completely absorbed in whatever I saw at the gallery.”

Expressing himself through art

Through art, James, who was diagnosed with autism aged three, found a way to express himself.  From the age of five, James attended Project Art Works (PAW) courses during many school breaks.  He explained: “The art therapy I received 1:1 with trained artists enabled me to express myself through painting and drawing as I lacked the language skills for communication at the time. 

“Each work space at PAW – whether in a corner of the art room or an outside building in the garden area became a sensory place of colour and texture.  I felt happy there and completely focused on what I was doing.”

After transferring schools to Bexhill on Sea in East Sussex, James began to enjoy visits to the De La Warr Pavilion Arts and Culture Centre. He said: “I loved the quirkiness of the exhibitions.  I still go and often meet up with my beachcombing artist friend and mentor, Penny Hobson.  I first met Penny as one of the artists who helped me at PAW many years ago!”

A world of art to explore

He continued to visit many more art galleries when he moved to Yorkshire with his family at the age of 10, with an exceptional range of galleries to choose from, including Cartwright Hall in Bradford and The Hepworth at Wakefield. There was also the Tetley Gallery in Leeds, where James took part in further art courses. 

Fellow Bradford College art alumnus David Hockney’s paintings are also a source of delight to James. He said: “My favourite place to visit is Saltaire where Salts Mill is special to me.  I always enjoy looking at David Hockney’s images of trees.”

Inspired by the environment

The environment has always been crucial to James’ work. Everything he uses has been made from recycled items – from the second-hand canvases he buys to the materials he uses to collage onto the canvases.  James said: “It could be termed environmental art. The techniques I use are to collage layers and layers of torn, cut or hole-punched pieces of paper onto the surface until I’m happy I’ve achieved the right effect.  This method is slow but I find it therapeutic.”

The environment also features in his work and is a major inspiration as James has been a volunteer in outdoor locations for many years.  Since the age of 14 he has volunteered in the wildlife team of the National Trust at Fountains Abbey and Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire. 

More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he has been doing conservation work in woodlands near his home.

A symbol of lost hopes and dreams

He began using scratch cards after noticing one floating in a puddle of water, catching the sunlight. Having taken this piece of ‘litter’ home, James began to turn more scratch cards and other discarded materials into works of art.

He said: “I liked collecting firstly bus tickets and then train tickets when I was younger.  My interest then turned to National Lottery scratch cards.  Their colours attracted me and once I had built up a small collection I had enough to start tearing them into small pieces and rearranging them into a mosaic-style format.  My art started from there really and once local shops knew I was using them for my art, they started saving old ones for me.  I now have a large supply!

“To me, these colourful symbols of lost hopes and dreams can be transferred and have meaning again in my artwork.”

Gaining confidence

As James grew older, he began to gain confidence to have some of his early pieces displayed in the school hall.  He said: “That led to me feeling able to talk to the National Trust about my art and at the age of 15, my nature artwork was displayed in the information centre of Brimham Rocks.  When I later completed a collage of Fountains Hall it became the next location to display my art at Fountains Abbey.”

Public acclaim

At the age of 17, James had an exhibition, Much More Than Meets The Eye, displayed at Bradford Industrial Museum. This was a year after having his work showcased at Durham Cathedral World Heritage Visitor’s Centre. He went on to have work displayed at the National Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield, the National Park Centre in Wensleydale, Ripon Cathedral, Durham World Heritage Site (twice), Ripley Castle, Art In The Mill Knaresborough and Otley Courthouse Museum.

Following in Hockney’s footsteps at Bradford College

In 2018 James began to study for a Level 3 Diploma in Art and Design at the Bradford School of Art. He chose the college due to its impressive regional reputation and the well-established artists who previously studied at the college.  

In the first year, his final major project (FMP) was the installation of a recreated sensory room using his ideas from his first enjoyment of art at PAW in Hastings.  James said: “In Year 2 my FMP was going to be an installation of a recreated bird hide area based on my experience of being a wildlife team member for the National Trust.  Due to Covid-19 and National Lockdown, my Year 2 idea had to be adapted to using materials available at home, rather than me being able to go shopping and purchase what I needed for the bird hide. 

“My Year 2 FMP became a study of what I could see in the garden from my window.   It consisted of sections of the cherry tree in blossom covering 11 different canvases. 

Learning new techniques

“To me my coursework was personal – all the research was based on places I have been to in the south-east including London and artists I have met and worked with.  I also incorporated my method of working that had developed since my early years of picture exchange communication.

“I enjoyed experimenting with new techniques with my photography in the darkroom and also using the traditional printmaking equipment.

“I’m lucky enough to know two previous students of Bradford College who are now very established artists and I worked with them in their studio doing printmaking.  This was part of my own research for my coursework.”

As part of his work experience at Bradford School of Art, he even joined the team at Scientific Games in Leeds and was shown how to produce his own scratch card.

Commission for Pontefract Racecourse

He added: “Depending on the project, I do incorporate other recycled materials into my artwork.  In 2019 I was commissioned by the Pontefract Racecourse Company to create four pieces of artwork using their old raceday tickets and badges.”

This was James’ first major commission and one of a series of successes in 2019. In the same year, James achieved a Gold Arts Award through the York Theatre Royal. Furthermore, he designed a logo for his home town as part of its entry to Britain in Bloom last year. James achieved an individual Young Champion award for his logo, with Pateley Bridge achieving gold in the large village category.

Over the following year, James will be expanding his knowledge of I.T. and social media to promote his artwork.  He has just created a rainbow canvas, which he has gifted to Feastfield Medical Centre in Pateley Bridge as a thank-you for looking after his grandmother.

James Owen Thomas at work at Bradford School of Art
James at work

Telling the story of Caudwell Children’s Charity

He is currently working towards a project for the Caudwell Children’s Charity, which supported him as a child and celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. For this, he is cutting up out-of-date brochures, tickets and display materials and re-telling the history of the past 20 years of the charity in pictures.

He said: “My FMP for Bradford College wasn’t assessed by the examining board due to the problems of Covid-19.  I turned my initial disappointment into something positive that could be worked on further and developed into a piece of artwork comprising 20 canvases that together formed the cherry tree in blossom artwork. 

“Once complete these canvases will be delivered to the charity’s head office and later put on display in London at an auction event to help raise funds. Caudwell Children’s Charity has helped over 50,000 children these past 20 years and it’s symbolic that I was one of those children many years ago and will be 20 myself next year!”

We all have a voice

Having enjoyed his time at Bradford School of Art, he has this advice to students considering studying here: “To realise that we all have a voice whatever our race, gender or disability.  Think about what you hope to gain from doing the course and ask your tutors to listen to your point of view.  We all have something we can share with others but don’t feel pressured to do so until you are ready.  Work hard and you’ll achieve great results.”

Where to view Waste to Wall

From Waste to Wall will be displayed at Farleys House and Gallery from 21 March until 9 May 2021 and from 29 May to 17 June at the Mezzanine Gallery at The Station in Richmond, North Yorkshire.  It will form part of The Swaledale Festival.

You can find out more about James and his art at

Bradford School of Art

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