Conversation with Hank Willis Thomas
City Talks: New York
WADE AND LETA
Plus: Can you tell me a bit about how you two first met?
Leta: We met in 2013 when we both joined an online dating platform called ‘OkCupid’. So, you can say that we were matched by the algorithm, but we were both looking for very specific things. We were both searching for somebody who was very design-minded and creative. That led us to our first date and it took us two hours to order a drink because we couldn’t stop talking. After the first date, we really appreciated each other’s companionship.
Everything happened very quickly after that. After a couple of months, we started living together. And during that time, a lot of things were happening. I had just started working as a freelance for the first time. Wade had just gotten his visa. So, we also had all of these other kinds of changes in our lives as our relationship developed.
From the very beginning of our relationship, we spoke about how passionate we were about the work we were doing and about our jobs and our personal projects. And so very organically, we started contemplating and deliberating the type of projects we could do together that wouldn’t infringe on the work we were doing with our clients or our jobs. And so we started this portrait photography project which we shot in our living room. We called it “Complements.” We considered it an exploration of our relationship and the universal strangeness of love. It gave us an opportunity to become more comfortable with each other and become more comfortable with ourselves.
P: You have both spent time traveling the world. Why stay based in New York?
Leta: This is a tough question, but there is a vibrancy here that is so extremely valuable to us. There are such intensity and an incredible diversity of peoples and cultures
Wade: It’s just the frenetic nature of the city that allows you to do anything at any time, whatever you want, whether it’s simply picking up materials for work or picking up food. You can find anything here and it’s always within a stone’s throw. When it comes down to it if you don’t dislike New York 50% of the time, you’re not a real New Yorker.
P: Where is your favorite place to eat in New York?
Leta: So we haven’t been there in a while, but there is a taco restaurant that Wade and I adore and have been visiting for years called “Cerveceria Havemeyer.” We’ve had birthdays there and very late nights where we’ve stayed past the point where they’ve closed and they’ve turned the entire restaurant into a late-night, early morning salsa dance party. Besides being food we can’t prepare ourselves, even if our cooking has improved over the last year! Besides that, it’s the staff and the vibed that catch us.
P: What is your collaborative process like?
Wade: We’re always in the studio working together. We both handle both business and the design process [financial components, proposals, presentations, designs]. Everything is a collaboration and we are completely transparent, working in each other’s files and sharing everything.
P: You work within a lot of different mediums: sculpture, photography, digital. If there is a unifying message throughout all of your work, what would that be?
Wade: We like to say that we try to bring music to your eyes. That is the core statement that we try to live by. I think it’s also always just trying to bring optimism to every context, always thinking about different things into each project to make it feel personal, but also to help it resonate.
P: What kept you going when you faced obstacles in your career?
Wade: For us, whether it was painting, making a collage, or making something on the computer, it was always thinking about making work that made us feel good no matter what it was. And I think over the past few months, many people in creative industries have had a lot of time to do that because everyone’s budgets went away. So, everyone has had time to make the projects they’ve been wanting to do for years but never had the time to do.
P: How do you guys stay creative and productive in your daily life?
Wade: I think over this period of time, what we found out is that we’ll have four hours of [real] productivity, but then it starts to slow down, so we’ll take breaks and then get back to work. Finding that out has been really important. That’s tough, though. I mean, the flip side is that it’s really hard to turn everything off because living with the person you’re collaborating with makes it hard to not talk about emails or ideas.
Leta: We often talk about this idea of work-life as being interchangeable. In many ways, it’s not necessarily a separation, but they influence each other because when work is good, life is probably really great too. And when life is really great, you can make sure work is great as well, you know, and because we’re making things, it’s really important for us to make sure that we’re following that sort of cycle. So we just do as much as possible and grow, you know.
P: You are both frequently featured as the protagonists of your own work. Why are you interested in self-portraits?
Wade: We’ve always used ourselves through necessity more than anything. It can also be something that allows us to create more within a set budget, just by cutting the cost of talent. It’s also easier since we know what we want and get a specific pose or look. We can just really be quite blunt in many ways and get things done much more efficiently.
P: What is one thing that you would like to see more in the design industry?
Wade: More diversity and less negativity in. People are often too critical of other people’s work without understanding anything behind it. People like to pull each other down when we should be trying to bring each other up.
Leta: For me, I want people to take their work a little less seriously because I think that that allows for more playfulness and a bit more compassion. I agree with Wade. I think that there’s sometimes too much ego in the design and creative industries. It’s important for people to be relatively open-minded about what other people are pursuing and give them the time and space to really believe in something
P: What are three things that you are thankful for in each other?
Leta: Levelheadedness, bullshit meter, and thoughtfulness.
Wade: Resilience, determination, and positive energy.
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