Painter Patricia Renee’ Thomas hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she has been painting and drawing for roughly six years, but “working largely with oils for about four.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t a “good” painter for the longest time,” the young artist admits. “Over the last couple of years, I have found an extreme amount of motivation from other artists and creators that I admire. I got into painting naturally, I’ve always been into creating things, tearing things apart and pasting them back together. Picking through trash to find something that could become precious. I liked the rehabilitation of things – taking an old sheet, ripping it up and putting just an inch of it into a painting or finding an old pencil under my bed and giving it the opportunity to become a drawing. Making something beautiful, interesting — something some one would stop and look at. I love that process. I love that feeling.”
After coming across her work on Instagram, we were struck by Patricia’s heady mix of hyperactive colours, luscious foliage and cultural iconography spanning from Barbie to Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Look closer and your eyes will start to settle on uncomfortable Jim Crow-era imagery which recalls blackface: Patricia’s way of probing the historical exploitation, exoticism and sexualisation of the black body.
We caught up with the painter to find out more.
Firstly, can you give us some insight into the process which goes into making your work?
My process has recently been to research, then create. When I was younger I would start something without intention, and I would never finish it. It would become this empty, soulless piece. Now, a lot of what I make has a lot to do black beauty, love, sensuality with its opposite. Messing with the confusing historical duality of gentleness and black femininity. It’s for myself, really. I meet a lot of people on transit, people going to work, school, home with their kids or out with their friends. I always end up hearing something that they tend to only tell a stranger. Sometimes a confession. I use those things and fuel my work. It can be a little emotional to work with. Painting wise, I use a lot of bright colours, fabrics, brushes and try to entertain the viewers as much as possible. I have recently been using ink, chalk, painting sticks – as much material as possible that I can load onto my painting. It’s exciting to mesh materials and see how they fit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I enjoy the challenge.
Your work explores the black body. Tell us about that — what lead you towards this subject?
The black body, or just existing while black is a learning process for all black diaspora. I’m still learning myself. When I was young, I lived in a blissful naivety. I learned basics, history, with a tenderness from my family and loved ones. When approaching adulthood, information came flooding toward me; the reality of racism, sexism and colourism. It was kind of a traumatic shock. I had to deal with that. Learning so much history of hate and prejudice made me angry. Frankly, it gave me nightmares. How could I navigate this? How do I express the frustration of fully functioning racism that specifically pertained to me? I find painting about it, the fine line between the power of my history and playing with it’s imagery quite relieving. It gives me a power over it, the ability to control it and how I want it perceived, reaching past an uglier message and possibly using it to reveal more issues in the community. Maybe through my work, that is what I’m trying to say: I have to power to say something important visually, and your eyes have no choice but to see. I like my subjects to take up space. I paint about the things that I find absolutely beautiful, black men, women and children existing in that space, while attempting to convey a message about some of the issues I’m still living and seeing today.
What reaction does your work provoke in viewers?
I’ve seen all types of reactions, but most of the time, I hear that it makes some people sad. I try to use as many bright colours as possible, distracting my viewers from an initial message and hoping they take the time to look. I tend to make work about some sadder topics, which include my fierce little subjects, and I want to make it clear they are part of the story. I don’t enjoy making haunting work, it seems more like a task, or a temporary responsibility, but I do plan on brightening up to content in due time.
You’ve just graduated from Tyler, School of Art. What have you got planned next?
Yes! I’ve recently graduated from Tyler, School of Art and loved every second there. Philadelphia is a fantastic city for the arts. So far, I’ve been making more drawings, planning for larger paintings, and have been dissecting my time to accommodate for work time and painting time. I actually plan on pursuing my masters, to “master” my painting techniques, and the process of preparing for that is a daunting task. There are so many things I don’t know how do and would love to learn in another institution. I also plan on volunteering for non-profit organisations around Philadelphia that specialise in bringing arts to parts of the city who don’t have access. Because of my public school and the dedicated work of my teachers, I was exposed to a world of fantastic art, and I want to do the same for someone else. I find work like that very fulfilling. I will also be taking a few trips to Europe to visit more art capitals, see some of my favourite pieces in the flesh, and interview more black diaspora internationally and eventually, make more work.