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Will Thomas (M.F.A. ’13)
Student Services Specialist, Art Department
Artist

Before graduate school, I was focused on painting large portraits of African-American faces. Once accepted to UNC, I became inspired by some of my colleagues who were making paintings that were strictly text-based. I didn’t want to abandon portraits, but I wanted to add something to them. I wanted to have more of my sensibilities as an individual integrated into the work.

There’s one painting I did of a guy I probably met for five minutes on a trip to New York to the Whitney Museum of American Art with some other graduate students in 2012. I scrawled over his portrait in big letters: “Well, as you can see, I’m very thin.” Statements like that and others are meant to be read as humorous, but also meant to be somewhat mysterious in that the viewer doesn’t know whether it’s the words of the person represented or the artist. I often find myself in my own head being self-conscious or insecure when I’m engaging with people, so I think about that narcissistic element, “How do you see me?”

I have paintings that are more charged than that, where race comes into the picture. Thinking about race-based conflict has influenced a lot of my work. Using text with racially charged meanings or subtexts can allow for people to enter into an internal dialogue about what that might mean to them.

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I hope people want to discuss the work I make and say how it makes them feel or what it makes them think about — how they see the issues I may be trying to convey. I don’t want everybody to just love what I do — I want them to respond.

From the time I started painting portraits, I have wanted to add to the history of artists showing diverse representations of black people. When we see unarmed black men and women being killed and portrayed in the media, a lot of times you see a distasteful image or a mug shot — it’s meant to frame a person in a certain way. I’m choosing to paint people in way that is not overtly negative or positive. I’m painting them as real people, as emotionally complex human beings. That’s my contribution as an artist.

For my day job in the art department, I help our incoming students get acclimated to the program. I organize orientation events, help point students in the right direction in terms of other contacts they may need at the university, and do tours to show off our facilities. It’s a supportive environment, and on both the student and faculty side I get to engage with people about art on a regular basis.

My mother, Evona Hill, and my grandmother, Carolyn Thomas, influenced my continuing in arts from an early age. My mom bought me a sketchbook in maybe second or third grade. My grandmother runs a youth outreach organization on the south side of Chicago. It’s called God’s Gang. It was an opportunity for kids to not be involved in gang activity or other detrimental activities. We did dance, visual arts, camping, rode horses. We learned about black history through the arts. The organization today is also into urban agriculture, teaching self-sufficient practices. My grandmother is still actively running the show and teaching people in the community.

 

Thomas was selected as the Durham Art Guild’s 2016 artist-in-residence. He will have an exhibition in Gallery 100 at Golden Belt studios on Main Street in Durham Dec. 3, 2016 to Jan. 3, 2017. An opening night reception will be held Dec. 16 from 6 to 9 p.m.

Artists After Hours is an occasional feature in which we interview faculty, staff and students who pursue artistic avocations in areas not directly related to their day jobs and studies. Profiles are archived at our Carolina’s Human Heart website, celebratehumanities.unc.edu. Know someone we should feature? Send suggestions to college-news@unc.edu.

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