William Paul Thomas, visual artist

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity. 

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William Paul Thomas recently served as the Brock Family Visiting Instructor in Studio Arts at Duke University.  He is a 2016 Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artist Grant recipient. This grant has helped fund the production of his multimedia portrait project entitled Mood Swings.  Three paintings from the Mood Swings project were included in the RACE: Are We So Different exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  William utilizes his immediate social network to produce paintings, photos, and videos that offer complex representations of people of color. He is an alumnus of the Master of Fine Arts program in Studio Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  In June of 2016, William was selected to be the inaugural Artist in Residence at the Power Plant Gallery located on the American Tobacco Campus and was the Durham Art Guild’s 2016 Artist in Residence at Golden Belt Artist Studios. William is currently one of four resident artists in the Brightwork Fellowship Program at Anchorlight in Raleigh.  Follow updates from the artist using his instagram handle - @willart4food. 

Tell me a bit about your latest series.

My last series was titled Cyanosis. It essentially refers to a blueness of the skin that develops from improperly oxygenated blood. If you do a quick internet search, you can see people’s extremities turn a bluish color, their lips or fingertips. And you rarely see any darker skinned people because it’s more difficult to detect with more melanin. But I apply that term to this series of work showing black men as a metaphor for any sort of deprivation. This could be applied to people in certain conditions or it could be thinking about what [we] are lacking that keeps us from having a life well lived. We all exist in this kind of duality – living our normal life but then having this other thing we might be oppressed by or stressed out by … lacking something that keeps us from doing well.

Jenna's First (Oil on canvas, 2016)

Jenna's First (Oil on canvas, 2016)

When did you first realize that you loved art and painting and visual art and when did you realize that it could be a tool for communication?

Some of my earliest memories are related to drawing at home, usually drawings of cartoons on TV or cartoons from comic books or magazines. I remember my mom buying me a sketchbook in first or second grade, a little 8 x 10 Crayola sketchbook that I filled up with drawings over the span of a few years. I remember being supported by the adults around me; that includes my mom and my grandmother. We did arts-related activities through an organization that my grandmother is the director of. It is a faith-based organization focused on community outreach.

My uncle was great at drawing. I remember going into his room and seeing his drawings up on the walls. In one of the rooms he had [drawn] basically a mural and at some point my grandmother covered the walls with muslin, but it was thin and transparent enough that you could still see what was underneath it. And I remember tracing my uncle’s drawings over the muslin and I got in trouble for that because I shouldn’t have been drawing on them. (laughs)

It meant a lot to me to have my peers and other adults support and acknowledge the fact that I was good at something.

Living a creative life for me means constantly being open to learning and open to possibilities.
— William Paul Thomas

As far as recognizing how effective it could be for communication I think [that began] to develop in high school. I think in college I was further exposed to how artists deploy their art to communicate different ideas, whether that’s culture, history or lived experience.

I think of [painting] as a tool of communication but also as a way of recording experiences, recording moments, things and people I want to remember. A lot of my work is images of people’s faces and in many instances I think of [those paintings as] making records of people I want to remember whether it’s somebody related to me or someone I shared an interesting conversation with.

What does it mean to you to live creatively?

Living a creative life for me means constantly being open to learning and open to possibilities. I try to observe as much as I can. Not everything that I observe turns into an artwork. But part of creativity is having an understanding of what resonates with you on a personal level and thinking about how you can share that without the intent to be manipulative.

Maybe there’s a kind of riskiness to putting your perspective [out there] if you anticipate there might be some pushback or people who might not understand your perspective. But I think creativity is about honestly responding to things that you’re met with in your daily walk of life. And you can keep it to yourself or you can choose to share it. So living open and honest with your own experience.

What are some creative challenges you’ve faced and how did you move through them or how are you moving through them?

For years I’ve been talking about wanting to work from life more for the figurative work that I do. And I am still trying to figure out logistically how I might make that work. When I choose people to paint often they are people I don’t expect can come back for multiple sittings. And the last time I’ve really done that on a consistent basis was in grad school. So there are some things I need to figure out logistically. I have the kind of personality that tries to carry out an idea as it comes to me but I think having more structure would benefit me creatively.

I might have a little one-off idea that turns into a small sketch. And then I might move on to the next thing. So I think my challenge is embracing a kind of prolonged process with ideas rather than immediate gratification and I am still trying to figure out how to do that.

[I also want to] push myself to spend more time with any given idea. I think the Cyanosis series is a representation of that. It’s become a cohesive body of work. It’s a more thorough exploration of an idea. So that’s something I’d like to do more of.

AwayAwayAwayAway (Oil on canvas, 2017)

AwayAwayAwayAway (Oil on canvas, 2017)

How do you think we can get this country or the world to value creativity and art more highly?

I think if we try to embrace and emphasize all the different ways creativity is made manifest in the world we’d be better off so we don’t end up in these narrow pockets of what it means to be an artist or a creative.

It’s easy for people to think of someone painting or making pictures as an artist. But, for example, my sister has a cosmetology license and she’s starting her own business. And I don’t know that she thinks of herself as an artist but I totally do. So I wonder if the labels aren’t pushing people away from thinking of themselves as creative people.  So [I would encourage] thinking more expansively about what it means to be creative in the world.

Encouraging people to dig into whatever they find a love for and to learn more about. And to encourage people to be more disciplined in encountering adversity, getting out of our comfort zones. And I think our country could benefit from citizenry that’s all about learning new ways to do things.

My wife and I watch probably too much reality TV. (laughs) A guilty pleasure for us at times. And I guess it makes me think about the act of consuming media, in that way, being in the audience. 

It’s sometimes to our detriment to be constantly consuming media. We can learn from a lot of things but it can also be stifling in a number of ways to just be a spectator. So I think it’s good to encourage folks to be more than consumers and spend more time thinking about the things that they can share with the world.

What is the role of artists in the community and do you think it’s changing?

I think there are a lot of opportunities for artists to engage in advancing certain efforts in this community for sure. There are already organizations and projects in place that you can hop on board with and if you have projects in mind there are people willing to get behind you. There are social justice causes, things related to class divisions and gentrification.

We should be careful not to  allow our activist efforts to  turn into self-serving or self-aggrandizing efforts. It’s easy to pick up on what’s happening in the world and use those things as opportunities to grow your own career. So you should definitely be an advocate for what you believe in, but there’s a tricky balance [of] not letting those things turn into marketing ploys.

I look around and so many people are using their creative voices to elevate others, highlight issues we may not know about. And I think that’s so important. And it’s important to find not only new ways but also interesting ways to do that. You have to do that in a way that’s true to your own approach but also keep people engaged.

What are some creative influences or resources?

It’s sometimes to our detriment to be constantly consuming media. We can learn from a lot of things but it can also be stifling in a number of ways to just be a spectator. So I think it’s good to encourage folks to be more than consumers and spend more time thinking about the things that they can share with the world.
— William Paul Thomas

What’s interesting about this question for me is that I keep thinking of things that I’m entertained by.

Well I think that’s related.

I think about musicians, popular musicians and the work they do with other visual creatives like directors and cinematographers for music videos. [I want] to explore working with video and audio, combining those things to convey ideas. I’ve been really enjoying Kendrick Lamar. Or even Beyoncé or Janelle Monae, there are these incredible artistic productions that come out of collaborations between musicians and visual artists.

A few years ago, my buddy sent me this piece “Until the Quiet Comes” by director Kahlil Joseph. He’s very savvy about the technical aspects of the discipline he’s working in and the content is dealing with places and people that are familiar to me or are under-represented. [The video] was shot in Nickerson Gardens in Los Angeles, a public housing project. And what you see is some violence at the beginning  and then it segues into this beautiful and tragic moment of a dancer with a gunshot wound in his abdomen, you see the gunshot wound as he’s dancing past. And he’s dancing gracefully past a group of young people like he’s a ghost, he dances past them and then he gets in a lowrider that bounces and glides away .  

The way that work makes me feel, I’d like to make work like that.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to use their creative gifts?

Be thorough and be disciplined and enjoy the process of figuring things out. Go all the way with it, don’t half ass it. It should be your choice – so choose to fully embrace your creativity and find ways to build however you can, whether that’s taking classes or meeting other artists. Find things that resonate with you, don’t close yourself off to inspiration. [Work on] that balance between putting on blinders and not consuming, but also observing. Recognize the privilege – or maybe that’s not even appropriate, I guess privilege is the right word … embrace your form of creativity, whether or not that’s a privilege. Know that it does have value.

This interview has been edited and condensed.