In the life of an artist, the daydream of being part of an artist colony probably plays in heavy rotation at one stage or another: the supportive, creative, collaborative environment; fellowship with and inspiration from other artists; time and space to focus and create without the distractions and demands of regular life. But could it really live up to that level of hype? For North Carolina artist BA Thomas, the answer, without hesitation, is YES. She says that being part of a two week residency at the No Boundaries International Art Colony on North Carolina’s Bald Head Island in November 2019 helped shape her trajectory as an artist. “Surrounded by the ocean, dense forests, pristine nature — we explored the island and painted all the time. I felt like a kid again. That type of freedom is a rare occurrence,” recalls Thomas. “I pushed myself harder than I ever had before, and I came home from the residency with this fiery passion. I had confidence in the work, and I’ve continued to ride that wave ever since.”
“The paintings explore the interdependency between exterior and interior, and the inherent specter of human psychology effected by their dialogue. Mundane objects spar with garish spaces, anchoring the romanticism of fleeting moments.”
An oil painter whose work often includes aspects of writing, drawing and collage, Thomas holds a BA in studio art and psychology from UNC Wilmington and through her work explores the relationship between space, time and the human experience. Browsing through images of the paintings she’s produced over the past two years feels like peering into a series of private spaces, residential rooms empty and grounded in a reality that quickly comes into question at the recognition of subtle (and intentional) distortions in scale and perspective. In other paintings, Thomas constructs rooms to capture the romanticism of fleeting moments, illustrating routine human movement through the space as ghost-like forms that feel more familiar than haunted. For the artist, it’s all part of a larger inquiry about the spaces we inhabit, a questioning of traditional social constructs, human choice and the movement of objects, the meaning behind possessions, and ultimately, what humans leave behind.
In exploring these and other concepts in the service of her art, over the past five years Thomas has used journaling as a tool to help her translate written ideas and experiences into a visual language on the canvas. When the pandemic hit in 2020, she decided to read through all of her notes and journals from start to finish, to catch up with her own thoughts. She pulled out recurring and important ideas, categorizing them as either technical or conceptual. It was the start of a new project in her practice that she named FURLOUGH, a 48-day streak of completing a new experimental piece each day. She used the gouache paintings as research, to study various technical and conceptual choices and how they could help shape her work. “The repetition from 48 days of continuous making helped me reconstruct my practice and form a compilation of painting techniques to achieve [new] conceptual objectives,” explains Thomas. “The whole process was like a huge deconstruction and reconfiguring my practice into something entirely new.”
Can you describe a memorable moment from one of yours shows?
“After the opening of my first solo show, I went to the gallery alone to observe the space. Three people came into the gallery and had no idea I was the artist. It was intriguing to hear them discuss what they were seeing, discovering something new for the first time. I cherish that experience because it’s not often that you get purely uninhibited feedback.”
Are you a collector? What do you collect?
“I collect all kinds of brown paper that I use to make highly textured collages when I'm in a rut with painting. I also collect my to-do lists. It’s strange, I know. At the end of every day, I throw my to-do list in a laundry hamper in my studio. Most days are pretty mundane, but I tape on the wall lists of memorable days or life events, whether good or bad. I find it interesting to record the passage of time in this way.”
Describe a piece of art you grew up with...
“A painting of a duck flying over a marsh has always been hanging in my parents’ house. It's beautiful, truly something. I had absolutely no idea my dad painted it until recently when I was home visiting for Christmas. He painted it in college, the first and last painting he ever did (apart from as a kid), but the composition, colors, brushstrokes — all incredible.”
Do you ever collaborate with other artists?
“I’m participating in a collaboration with five other artists from around the US and UK. We've been meeting via Zoom every Monday to draw portraits of each other since March, when things began to shut down due to the Coronavirus. More recently, we started a postal project. Each artist prepared a surface and completed a self-portrait, then shipped the piece to the next person in the mailing order. The accumulation of life changes and events occurring throughout this project has been an interesting thing to look back on as we continue to draw portraits every week, often capturing expressions that evoke those genuine feelings. The women forming this new type of virtual community have had a powerful effect on my practice.”