YORK artist Tom Smith had a life-saving but mind-altering operation in 2016 that had a transformative effect on his art too.

"I was blessed with vigour, a new life, an unstoppable drive, occasional manic episodes and a touch of synaesthesia [a neurological trait or condition that results in a merging of senses not normally connected]," says Tom.

"I started painting obsessively and just couldn't stop. I created hundreds and hundreds of drawings and paintings in an attempt to document my life-changing and psychedelic experience."

The resulting multi-media works, combining his painting and digital skills, can be seen at York Open Studios from tomorrow at the Micklegate Social café, in Micklegate, in a late change of location from Brew York.

Born in York, Tom trained at York Technical College, where his principal tutor was fellow 2019 York Open Studios participant Judy Burnett, before studying in the late 1980s for a BA in sculpture in Birmingham and an MA in hypermedia design, a new technology course in Coventry.

Turning professional, Tom set up the Fine Rats International group with four fellow artists at The Custard Factory in Birmingham, putting on events in factories and, most memorably, a light show under Spaghetti Junction. "People were transported on a canal boat, and I remember we set fire to things and there were animal-headed musicians playing on top of a scrapheap!" he says.

His career path would take him to working in educational technology in Essex, but "then I got very ill, so ill that I couldn't look after myself," Tom recalls. This led him to return to York, and ultimately to his life-saving operation at Christmas 2016.

"At that time of the diagnosis, I was expecting to wait maybe a year, but it was only three days, and everything went swimmingly with the operation.

York Press:

"I started painting obsessively and just couldn't stop," says Tom Smith, in the wake of his operation

"I started drawing in hospital as a way of understanding what had happened, what I was going through.I felt challenged to make something out of it, and there must be 20-30 notebooks from that time. How I felt wasn't what I expected, or something I could prepare for, taking an aspect of your character and ramping it up to 11."

He spent a year "getting back to work, getting back to normal" and he now teaches creative coding in the information services department at the University of York.

All the while, he has been developing his artistic repertoire. "As my faculties returned, and I returned to work, I started producing more digital pieces, developing software to help with the creative process and to generate sounds, montages and augmented reality animations," says Tom. "I've gone from looking inward to looking outward.

"I wanted somehow to begin bridging the gap between my digital work and, albeit with Day-Glo paints and ultraviolet pens, more traditional art practice. It was a chance to bring audio, film and text together with the messy art of painting: it's a kind of punk philosophy that, yes, you can do it!"

Last year, Tom won a commission to create a projected audio/visual installation at the Ask restaurant in the Assembly Rooms for the inaugural York Mediale digital arts festival."After the operation, I began listening to choral music, having been into death metal before that. I had a physical response, a rush of blood, when listening to loud music, and that's why I switched to beautiful, slower music.

"So I then did an installation that turned Donald Trump's speech patterns into this wonderful romantic music. I was taking the news and turning it into a psychedelic experience."

His changing musical tastes reflected his wider experience after the operation. "It was mainly to do with things that I now found visually complex, things that felt like clattering or crashing: going to a charity shop or a supermarket felt too much, and even now I sometimes feel 'what the hell is going on'?"

York Press:

"I'm still here...and more than here," says York artist Tom Smith after his life-saving operation

Nevertheless, the art keeps pouring out of Tom, leading to his first participation in York Open Studios, after his application for a bursary was successful. "The bursary has been the catalyst that has allowed me to try my new approach, combining the painting and the digital, and also to have closure on that time after the operation," he says.

"My paintings are very layered, and taking my ideas into film and sound with augmented reality was something that I could only have done with the help of the bursary money. The York Open Studios event also meant that if I could find a venue, then I could show 20 paintings at the same time, as the paintings are, in a way, all one piece and all relate to the same subject matter."

Tom's "studio" would not have been suitable for displaying his work. "It's a garage, dark and messy, and half my work is at the computer," he reasons.

Instead, Open Studios visitors to the Micklegate Social can enjoy the "augmented trigger" experience of engaging with his paintings. "If people download the wikitude app, enter 'Tom Smith' and point their phone at the picture, the image will then come alive," says Tom.

"All of the paintings' augmentation uses video footage mainly shot in, shortly after, or on the way to hospital: me walking, me on a bike, the hospital loos. The soundtracks are audio montages that lurch from the sounds of beeping machines that kept me alive, to daytime TV noises, to medieval choral sounds blended with the bleats of a dying gnu.

"The paintings are in fact 'instruments' of a sort that the viewers will 'play' as they point their phones at them. It will probably be one of the noisiest painting exhibitions you've ever seen. It's visually loud and sonically just as loud!"

Looking back on how his life changed in the aftermath of the operation, Tom says: "The medication has had all sorts of side effects: I've developed a sweet tooth; I'm hairier, teeth go brown, you get a moon face, but none of that matters, because I'm still here...and more than here. I'm grateful to be alive and in the position I'm in, being creative."

York Open Studios, tomorrow, 6pm to 9pm; Saturday, Sunday and April 13 and 14, 10am to 5pm.Visit yorkopenstudios.co.uk for full details