The Power of Representation
William Paul Thomas, an artist-in-residence in the Ruby this winter, paints moving portraits that honor the people in his life and forefront race and identity. Two African American students at Duke share how his work resonated with them—and left a lasting impact.
William Paul Thomas is in residence in the Ruby’s painting studio this winter (Jan 6–Mar 18). He is a painter, photographer, and videographer based in Durham whose focus as an artist is making images that honor the people and experiences closest to him. He was also a visiting instructor of painting at Duke during the 2017–18 academic year.
In his Ruby Friday talk a few weeks ago, Thomas discussed three long-term projects that are strikingly different in media and approach but all rooted in his community and experience. The one with the greatest exposure is Cyanosis, a series of painted portraits in which “the faces… have been rendered partly in blue as a reference to a condition known as cyanosis; blueness of the skin that results from improperly oxygenated blood. This is a metaphor for the disenfranchisement that people of color have experienced by way of white supremacist ideologies.”
During his residency, Thomas has welcomed students and Ruby visitors into his studio to talk about his process and motivations. His work deeply resonated with Robertson Scholar De’Ivyion Drew, who has a newfound commitment to the arts. Thomas and Duke senior Kalif Jeremiah connected over their shared fraternity, and Jeremiah is now part of the Cyanosis series.
In 2017, when she was still in high school, De’Ivyion Drew saw three of Thomas’s Cyanosis portraits at the RACE: Are We So Different exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. They left a deep impression.
“When you first walked in, three of Will Thomas’s paintings were the first things that you would see,” Drew said. “I remember feeling a strong connection to them. They spoke directly to me as an African American, and made me feel heard, even though the portraits were all of men.
“They made me think of my father, who works in white corporate America. This diagnosis of cyanosis seems very similar to his experience of feeling suffocated, restricted to an image of a safe, unchallenging black male.
“I think it’s interesting that out of an entire exhibit that was full of information and anecdotes, those three paintings are the things that I remember most. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is beautiful, I wish I could do something like this, and I wish I knew the guy who painted them.’”
A few weeks ago, the wish came true. Drew is currently a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Robertson Scholar, and this semester she’s taking Bill Fick’s drawing class at Duke. Fick brought the class to visit Thomas in the Ruby.
“I saw the portraits,” Drew said, “and I thought, ‘this looks awfully familiar.’” When she realized where she’d seen them before, she was able to tell Thomas how important they’d been to her.
“As a sophomore in high school, I was convinced I was going to be a doctor,” Drew said. “When I saw those paintings, I realized that nonverbal communication through portraiture and other forms of art is where my soul lies and where I’ll be most happy working.”
At the beginning of March, Duke senior Kalif Jeremiah was in the Ruby’s painting studio to visit Thomas and to see his portrait—the latest addition to Thomas’s Cyanosis series.
They met because Thomas was walking along Campus Drive one day and happened on some brothers in the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. freshening up the letters they’ve painted on a tree a stone’s throw from the Ruby. Thomas, who shares the affiliation (along with such illustrious names as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson), introduced himself. In the course of their conversation, he let it be known that he was looking for men to include in his series.
Jeremiah wasn’t in the group, but soon heard about it from one of the brothers. “Last year when we were getting ready for our step show, the Ruby was brand new, so of course we wanted to practice in here,” he said. “We were just walking around, and I saw some of Will’s paintings, and I was like, oh, these are dope!”
Jeremiah points to a photo of the paintings on his phone. “That was a year ago—January 18, 2018.”
“And then it just came full circle. Earlier this semester, one of my brothers said, ‘Hey, Kalif, you know the guy who did those paintings in the Ruby? He’s looking for people to model.’ So I hit Will up. We talked, he took a picture, and there’s my face.”
“Thank you so much, man, for being a part of it,” Thomas replied. “Not everyone wants their face to be broadcast like that. I was just telling the class that was visiting that I share these paintings as far and wide as I can, as a way of recognizing the people I come in contact with, and to register these interactions that maybe we don’t experience often enough.”
“Sometimes I think the paintings end up being like a byproduct, and this is all just a way of meeting people and getting to know what they’re up to. I found out that Kalif is a dope musician, so now I have new music to listen to, right?”
The conversation turned to a friend of Jeremiah’s—another Duke senior—who had recently met Thomas when he substituted for the regular professor in her painting class. Thomas mentioned how impressed he is by all the talented artists he has met at Duke—but they are not necessarily arts majors.
“That is a huge thing at this school, and I think it’s because so many people come in and they’re like, oh, that’s not a career!” said Jeremiah. “When I came to Duke I was like, it’s got to be law school. It took me two years before I realized I didn’t want to do that.
“I wish I’d had more faith and confidence when I came in. If I had four years of a music major or minor under my belt, I’m sure I’d be in a different place.”
Jeremiah is now studying cultural anthropology and education. On the music front, he’s making up some lost time by doing an independent study with Vice Provost for the Arts and composition professor Scott Lindroth.
Art made its way into Jeremiah’s course portfolio after all—and his portrait is now part of the body of work that moved him in the just-opened arts center more than a year ago.