When artist Autumn T. Thomas works out her struggles as a BIPOC woman in her curved-wood sculptures, you could say she’s going against the grain — by working in a rare medium that’s even more out of the ordinary when practiced by a woman. Her new installation, To Muse the Labyrinth, created in collaboration with young ArtLab interns during a residency at PlatteForum, is a living diary of these elements, told in beautiful arcs and twisted branches.
We asked Thomas to explain her practice and, therefore, who she is: Follow the curves and bends of her life as an artist as she answers the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
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Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Autumn T. Thomas: This is a difficult question to answer because my muse is somewhat abstract. I am most inspired by feelings and by trying to communicate those feelings, most of which do not have language but are the result of overcoming bias and evoking endurance as a Black woman.
I compare my muse to the difference between certain spoken languages. For example, there are ideas and expressions in French or German that don’t have a direct translation in English. It is the same for my work, and I think a lot of artists can relate to this. My muse is best described as ashé — the aura or energy of something that wishes to exist, and my job is to give it a body to live in. I realize this is pretty vague, but that is the most honest, accurate way I can describe it.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
I would love the opportunity to talk with Baldwin at a casual level about his thoughts about what is happening today. He was such an introspective and prolific human being, and his ideas transcended much of the space that he occupied during his time. His ideas often overwhelm me, and I sometimes struggle to get them out of the abstract and into concrete application in my own life.
Dr. Berry would be at the party to accompany Baldwin with witty anecdotes. Her writing and oratorical style are incredibly relatable and easily digested, while still complex.
Issa Rae would be at the party because I see parts of myself in her personality and often wish I had the confidence that she exudes to be my fun, awkward, witty self. Of course, who knows if she feels that way about herself? I have watched her career and appreciate how hard she works, without taking herself so seriously that she misses the fun and humor of life.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
I think the best thing about being a sculpture artist here in Denver is that the field is not saturated with artists. I’ve lived in other cities, and it was much more difficult to find a way into the creative community, simply because there were so many other artists doing the same type of work and vying for the same opportunities to show. On the other hand, it has been incredibly difficult to find appropriate, affordable studio space to complete my work.
There are several community spaces available, few of which are appropriate for woodworking and machinery. Shared woodworking spaces are available but also pretty uncomfortable for me. I have faced a lot of bias simply because I am a Black woman working with wood and tools, and the assumption is that I need help, when in fact, most often I do not. My goal in the next year is to find a private studio space that is coded for woodworking and is affordable and safely accessible.
What is To Muse the Labyrinth all about? What reaction do you hope to rouse as gallery-goers view the installation?
To Muse the Labyrinth is about creating a safe space to feel lost in and to explore what it means to find oneself without all the external noise and pressure to provide solutions. My life up to and including the present has been about creating my own path while feeling judged and ridiculed for the ways in which I travel.
There are so many aspects to being a Black woman in the world that go unspoken, and the pressure to present as “having it together” is overwhelming at times. I decided I wanted to create this meta-experience to take ownership of those feelings. The labyrinth is an external representation of looking inward and exploring all the emotions and fears inside, void of ridicule (even of myself).
I hope that viewers can experience this exhibit in a similar way for themselves and, in turn, for others. I hope it can evoke some acceptance for ourselves and elicit grace for others.
Would you say that art and activism intersect in your work? If yes, why is it important to express the political through personal expression?
Yes, there is intersection in my work; I believe that most art is a form of activism. As a Black woman, my existence is inherently political; my work, however abstract, exhibits my ideas in regard to how I relate to my environment, and this is the strategy with which I hope to effect change. No matter what stage of perceived degree of activism it’s at, my work represents and speaks for me and anyone who can relate to my voice.
I think we often get caught up in the debate between politics and art as if they are mutually exclusive. In fact, we all exhibit activism by expressing our views and advocating for the views of others. My vehicle is my art; others choose to express through their clothing, or their diet or the vehicle they choose to drive.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
What I love most about Denver is the year-round sunshine here. I’ve spent time in other cities but have always missed the Colorado sun. There is really nothing like it. On the other hand, I do wish the city was more diverse and less geared toward capitalism. Having grown up in metropolitan Denver, I have seen many changes, some of which have been good. Those changes, however, have been most beneficial to people who can afford them, at the expense of people who have spent generations cultivating them.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
I believe that Denver is making wonderful changes to the arts community, and I have seen it grow in many ways. There is a lot of support and opportunity in Denver, but it is difficult to take advantage of it without access to affordable studio space.
What’s your dream project?
My dream project has been morphing and growing within me for a few years now. It is a large-scale sculpture in some public venue, with which people can interact and walk through. It has some mechanical elements and makes use of some coding and interactive technology. I think it is pretty ambitious, hence the amount of time it is taking to realize, but I am sure I’ll have the opportunity to create it in the coming years.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
This is a tough question because there are so many creative people in Colorado doing very different work, all of which inspires me in different ways. Honestly, my favorite Colorado creative is that person who is tirelessly working on their craft during the late hours, after working their full-time job, putting their children to bed, taking care of their families or simply saving their last bit of energy to do the thing they love to do. Much of being an artist and creative involves a ton of introspective work and a lot of sacrifice, none of which gets noticed or appreciated. My favorite Colorado creative is that person who is striving for their goals without the promise of notoriety, recognition or “likes.”
What's on your agenda now and in the coming year?
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I appreciate this question, because it is allowing me to acknowledge how fortunate I feel to actually have an agenda. So much of what I’ve done to cultivate an art career goes unseen, and I lose sight of all the amazing things coming to fruition. Right now, I am completing an artist residency at PlatteForum in Denver. I have work on display at the Arvada Center and at Spark Gallery. I am also finishing some work to be displayed during Denver Design Week. In January 2021, I will exhibit in two groups shows: one at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the other at the Arvada Center.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
I know a few artists who are working very hard on their craft and don’t do a lot of social media posts. Tricia Waddell is working incredibly hard on a project that will prove to effect a lot of healing, and I am excited for everyone to see her work soon. I am also excited for Brigitte Thompson’s paintings — I think we will see more of her in the coming year.
To Muse the Labyrinth, an immersive installation by sculptor Autumn T. Thomas and ArtLab interns, opens with a reception on Thursday, October 15, from 6 to 8:15 p.m. at PlatteForum, 2400 Curtis Street, and runs through November 8 by appointment. To attend the reception, register for one of two time slots offered, in advance online.
Learn more about Autumn T. Thomas and follow her work online at her website, and on Facebook and Instagram.