Conversation with Hank Willis Thomas
City Talks: New York
PLUS: What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
Shara Hughes: The first thing I do when I wake up is take my dog outside and then brush my teeth and make coffee.
P: Where is your go-to place to eat and why?
SH: Since COVID, it’s at my home in Greenpoint. But before that, I really love Glasserie at the northernmost point of Greenpoint. They have awesome Mediterranean food and great cocktails.
P: What part of New York attracts you the most?
SH: It’s definitely the access to all the arts. I love being able to see some of the best art in the world at galleries, and museums all in one day. I love the energy and motivation of the people here as well. I have a very active personality so having that kind of buzz and energy around me feels like I fit in. That being said, I don’t actually leave my routine in Greenpoint that often. I think it’s more of the feeling that others are working as hard as I am all the time that feels comforting.
P: What inspires you to do what you do everyday?
SH: I like having deadlines and something to work towards. I love putting ideas together and seeing them all the way through to the actual show. I get nervous when there’s very little work in my studio. Once it starts to fill up with works for a show it starts to feel like a very full home. The excitement of the works getting shipped out and then traveling to install the work in a gallery or museum rounds out the cycle of a complete idea and project. The work gets a fresh wall and a proper viewing space.
That being said, it has been very hard to put out shows during COVID. You have to install via zoom or images and emails. Many of the shows I’ve put out were in places I’ve never even been to before, so it’s been tough having to imagine how it feels to stand inside the spaces. When the work leaves and you can’t travel for the show it’s a huge letdown. I’ve been working on making books and publications to follow up these shows so at least the work can be written about and live outside of the realm of just the physical show.
P: What does botanical imagery mean to you? And why is it so special to your practice?
SH: I’ve been working with landscapes and nature for the past several years. I like the abstract idea of knowing everything is constantly changing. The light, the time of day, the aging process, birth and death, and the weather. It’s this idea of re-seeing the same thing differently. Nature gives that to you easily. It’s something familiar you can connect to. I like being able to have the freedom to experiment with my own natural way of painting and letting my mental and physical body react to something subconscious as well as something routine and seemingly regular. Having all these kinds of circumstances exist together to create something new is exciting to me.
P: You have once said, “How do I make a flower painting that’s both ugly and beautiful.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?
SH: Specifically with the flower, I believe it’s often thought of as a symbol of beauty. As a society, we like to give meaning and names, and identity to everything. I think it’s natural for us to be able to understand and relate. However, we can be more than one thing. I like using the symbols of a flower to be more than just beautiful. If a flower was a symbol of a self-portrait, I would like it to be strong, scary, funny, sad, boring, sleepy, playful, and beautiful to name a few. It’s more about expanding our ideas and boundaries than the actual flower as a symbol of what we know and expect from it.
P: How do you know when the work is finished?
SH: I know a work is finished usually just by a feeling. I sit with the work on my studio wall for a while. If my eyes keep trying to fix parts of the painting, then it’s unfinished. If I can live with all parts of it for a while without coming back to certain areas of colors or the type of finish (matte, shiny, thick, thin, etc.) then I believe it’s finished. It’s more of a feeling than a hard line.
P: How has the role of the artist change throughout your time?
SH: I think social media has been the biggest change throughout my time. The access to seeing people’s work and curating your personal “Instagram life” is huge. There are more eyes on the work, people can see your show in China from their homes. You can see so much more than ever before. This can be good and bad. Many works are worse in person than they are online. Also, I think there are many artists who are solely popular on Instagram but not in the art world. The screen addiction can shoot you in the foot, so I think it’s always a good rule to be in the studio making the best work you in person can rather than living in the liminal internet world too much. After all, art is meant to be seen in person.
P: What is the one thing you would like to see more in the creative industry?
SH: Bring back the summer group shows with underrepresented artists.
P: What are three qualities in life that you are thankful for?
SH: I’m thankful I can still do my job during the pandemic. I’m thankful to still feel healthy and active. I’m thankful to have my friends and family still safe even though I haven’t been able to see most of them in over a year.
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