William Paul Thomas was surprised when he found out that he is the featured artist for VAE Raleigh’s annual gala and auction.
The honor means one of his works, a 4-by-5-foot painting called “Blonde and Bougie,” will be the finale piece of the live auction Feb. 10 at the For the Love of Art Art Auction + Gala.
“I’m learning more and more how many great artists are in this area,” Thomas said. “Being selected for that felt like a great honor.”
VAE’s Executive Director Brandon Cordrey describes Thomas as a “fantastic artist.”
“ ‘Blonde and Bougie’ is a fantastic piece,” Cordrey said. “A lot of Will’s work talks about identity. He thinks about faces and how they are portrayed and what that says about a person and the viewer.”
VAE is a nonprofit visual arts organization and artist incubator. The gallery exhibits hundreds of works throughout the year, and VAE is behind the SparkCon festival in September. The 34th annual gala and auction celebrates art and artists and serves as a major fundrasier for the organization.
Thomas moved to Chapel Hill in 2011 to earn his master’s of fine arts from UNC-Chapel Hill after studying at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He considers himself a product of both Chicago and southeast Wisconsin, the places he grew up, and those settings still influence his art, he said.
Thomas paints portraits of people in his life. His canvases contain disembodied heads of people of color: the subject’s head and neck is all you see. His backgrounds vary; sometimes a phrase is included somewhere in the piece (for example, “More African” is a phrase he’s used in several portraits).
“I really enjoy just looking at people and observing the differences and similarities between people, family resemblances, different idiosyncratic markings,” he said. “On one hand, it’s about observing the beauty of people around me, but it’s also about how our looks serve (as) advantages or disadvantages (to) us depending on context.”
That’s why there are no clothes that give away status and no backgrounds that reveal home life or occupation in Thomas’ portraits. The only clues the viewer has to the subject’s identity are hair, face and expression.
“It’s more about a psychological connection, and not elevating that person based on body type,” Thomas said. “It keeps the conversation from being about a certain physicality; I’m thinking about black bodies being stereotyped as athletic or exoticized.”
More than just art
His goal is larger than making individual pieces of art. He wants to influence culture with his career. That’s why Thomas took part in 2016’s “Black on Black,” an exhibition where curators of color asked artists of color to share their thoughts on identity. It was his introduction to VAE.
In “Black on Black,” Thomas showed two paintings and a video (“TEEF,” in which black men’s smiles are the focus of each frame as they tell stories about personal happiness) alongside other artists of color like Dare Coulter, André Leon Gray and Antoine Williams (who has artwork featured in Spike Lee’s Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It”).
For VAE’s gala, he’ll only put forth one piece, but Thomas is making it count. “Blonde and Bougie” is a large canvas with graphic and portrait elements. Thomas likes to paint the people he encounters every day – people on the street, his friends, his classmates. “Blonde and Bougie” is no different; the subject is a friend who studied with him at UNC.
But unlike a typical portrait by Thomas, there are two faces here. A blonde head floats in the upper right of the canvas, and a nearly identical head, its reverse, rests below it. The second head has a darker skin tone; behind her is the phrase “She Bad.”
Thomas doesn’t want to fully interpret the piece for the audience, but he did speak to one aspect of the painting, the inspiration for the darker-skinned face.
“NeNe Leakes is a beautiful black woman on reality TV who wears blonde wigs a lot,” he said. “I was thinking about the phenomenon of people beautifying themselves by wearing something unnatural to themselves.”
Perhaps this flexibility and thoughtfulness are some of the advantages he has teaching art at Duke University.
“When you’re able to convey information in a way that allows somebody to build a new skill, it’s exciting,” Thomas said. “It’s exciting to see what comes out of a mind who hasn’t painted before or hasn’t painted in years.”
He’ll keep painting, teaching and spreading his message. That’s the job of the artist, he said.
“An artist’s role is to be honest about whatever form of expression they use and not shy away from concepts they’re drawn to, even though they might not be trendy at the time,” he said. “The artist has to reflect their own truth.”
What: For the Love of Art Art Auction + Gala
When: 6 to 11 p.m. Feb. 10. Dinner is at 7 p.m. The silent auction is 6 to 8:15 p.m. The live auction is at 8:45 p.m.
Where: Raleigh Marriott City Center; 500 Fayetteville St., Raleigh
Tickets: $100 for non-reserved seating. $175 to $350 for reserved seats.
Info: 919-828-7834 or vaeraleigh.org/gala