Artist Interview: William Paul Thomas

Anna Buckner

I met Will while he was receiving his MFA from UNC Chapel Hill back in 2012. He was one of the few grad students who would give us lowly BFAs the time of day – I’d catch him on my way to get a burrito from Cosmic Cantina, and he’d tell me about his critique or what he was working on. This genuine desire to connect is certainly reflected in his art practice today. Originally from Chicago, Will is currently based in Durham, NC.

Command Zine interviewed Will about his series called Colored Plush, where he makes large fleece replicas of small paintings.

wpt5Come Hither, Polyester Fleece 80″ x 60″


AB: Can you talk about your subject matter for the colored plush series, and how this relates to your decision to use polyester fleece as a substrate, rather than stretched canvas?

WPT: Every image in the Colored Plush series is derived from a different level of self-reflection.  Even when the image does not include some representation or abstraction of my own body, I always integrate an element that is intended to be a consideration of my relationship to the subject represented.  The polyester fleece works double as conceptual artworks and as cozy blankets.  Because I can wrap my own body in them, and for many of them I have done just that, I enjoy the idea of exploring vulnerability via objects that can also provide comfort.

AB: Yeah!! I love that the body is implicit both within the subject matter and the blanket. You’re able to take advantage of the history of the material in a way that cannot be done with a “neutral” primed canvas. Are you painting directly on the blankets or are they digital transfers? Paint on fleece seems like it’d be anything but cozy to cuddle up with.

WPT: I haven’t painted directly on the blankets yet.  So far they have all been printed on the fleece material via a dye-sublimation process.  I have been thinking about altering them in other ways in the future, but I’d still like them to function as covers, so I’d have to figure out what alterations don’t take away from the coziness.

wpt6Breakfast Break, Polyester Fleece 80″ x 60″


wpt4Notes from a Treacherous Climb, Acrylic on canvas, each 5″ x 7″

SJ: The figures in the colored plush series are painted much more simplistically than in your other work. Could you talk about the differences in styles between your bodies of work?
WPT:  I LOVE the magic and impact of classical representation done well.  Carravagio’s David with the Head of Goliath is a favorite of mine.  Work like his is the reason I began painting bold, dramatically lit figurative images.  I also grew up watching animated TV shows, like The Simpsons and Ren and Stimpy. I’ve been rendering crude unfiltered sketches since I was a child.  In Grad School, by taking advantage of the opportunity to fully explore my other aesthetic interests, I decided that the crude sketches could be viable artworks in themselves.  In some of the more recent plush works, I’ve blended that love of naturalism and graphic stylization.  I’ve made hundreds of the small paintings, but only a select few that really move me get translated into the blanket format.
AB: Interesting! I could imagine the translation from smaller works to these large full-sized blankets creates space for this “crudeness” too. Affirming the viability of sketches is in line with the decision to hang up a fleece as a piece of art in the first place. Like you’re acknowledging a sense of reverence for the history of painting, while also poking fun of it. Is that fair to say?
WPT: Yes, I agree with that wholeheartedly. Some historical and contemporary approaches to painting seem so foreign to me, so it’s been useful for me to trudge my way through abstraction or stylization as a way of understanding some of what I may have formerly viewed as absurd or as empty.  I’m thinking of work like Rothko’s or Malevich’s nonobjective abstract expressionist works.  It may be impossible for me to fully empathize with those artist goals, given our dissimilar contexts, but I have a level of appreciation for the aesthetic value of work like that I didn’t previously have.

wpt3Eatin’, Polyester Fleece, 80″ x 60″

wpt1Can I Kick it? Polyester Fleece, 80″ x 60″ / Site: Near the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Estes Dr. in Chapel Hill, NC


AB: So did anyone actually call you up to kick it?

WPT:  A few people did call or exchange lengthy text correspondences with me.  The most interesting call I received was from a woman who lives in Chapel Hill and was hosting her sister from Virginia.  They left a voice message inquiring about what I wanted to “kick around.”  Eventually we agreed to meet at the Ackland Museum to talk more about the project; to kick it.  We met and soon discovered that we had a mutual friend.  The spouse of one of my professors from the MFA program was their cousin, whom they hadn’t spoken to in over a decade. I called the professor, so they could reunite.  The connection between them may have fizzled, but I learned later that our meeting allowed another estranged cousin of theirs to reconnect.

AB: Wow! And making connections is what it’s all about, right?

WPT: Absolutely!  Making the work is just my way of getting there.  The paintings and blankets both have been catalysts for establishing or exploring those relationships and connections.
credit: Caroline Cockrell
You can check out more of Will’s work here:

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