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Alumni Spotlight: SHARON THOMAS

Carlos Bautista (2018) interviewed Sharon Thomas (2004) to see what she's been up to since she graduated in 2004.

What was there anything special/remarkable about what was happening in the world during your time at the Academy?

Arriving in New York at the age 22, fresh from Glasgow School of Art with a Villore Scholarship supporting a part-time Masters, I was hungry to take on the big city and meet a whole new crew of artists and makers.  That is certainly what I got, however what I was not expecting was the dark day of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre.

The fall semester had just begun, and students were split between the Franklin St building and a floor space on Mercer St due to the fire that had damaged the school building at the degree show that summer.

Many NYAA alumni and staff were witness to the event and found it hard to process.  It was tough to navigate our practice whilst also grappling with the enormity of the mess that downtown Manhattan was, and also the politics that exploded thereafter: fear of terrorism and a war we knew was looming.

My response, as with many of us, was to channel every bit of energy into my studies, blocking out the noise around me and painting like there was no tomorrow. The hours sat in the sweaty studios on Mercer street drinking cheap coffee actually offered peace, and an uncanny solace was offered hearing the regular voice of Frank Porcu bellowing about deltoids and occasionally Martha Meyer Erlebacher demanding attention as she explained movement of the spinal column using disposable cups.

Over the next 2 years the Academy and its community provided not only formal teaching, but context and grounding for my career that was to come.

What was your most recent “Big Thing”?

My artist practice is a complicated one and is cannot be neatly defined. I am a painter first and foremost, I am also a social commentator and curator and teacher. Returning to Glasgow after years in New York and Rome, where I had worked with powerful female curators and artists, the visual gap of British historical depiction of women in power became glaringly obvious, from the ancient days of early civilization right up to the present day!

Sharon Thomas marching with Govan pupils to unveil the statue of Mary Barbour, Glasgow (2018)

My response to this was to spend 2009-2018 recording powerful Scottish women, some holding positions never held by a woman before, collaborating with writers, social historians, and politicians, culminating in a series of paintings called: ‘Herstory Portrait’. This created the foundation for a series of etchings that I then developed with Glasgow Women’s Library recognizing the story of Glasgow political activist Mary Barbour who led the famous British Rent Strikes of 1915. The attention this work received inspired my leadership of the successful campaign to commission a statue of Mary Barbour, which with a £100k budget was erected in the city in 2018.

Mary Barbour unveiling day Glasgow 2018 (c) Stefan Krajcik Photography 2018

What are you currently working on?

There is never a one single project that I am working on- as I am sure you can glean from my ramblings so far. Just now I have 2 very different collaborative projects on the go.

An important slow project that actually center's around NYAA and its alumni is a visual/audio archive, that will lead to a show is called: Marks Left Behind: NYAA Recollections, Connections and Impact of 9/11. Fellow alumnus Dane Lee (2000) and AANYAA Vice Chair Carlos Bautista (2018) hosted a Zoom conference on 11th September 2001 which was attended by students of that period alongside staff Vincent Desiderio and Peter Drake. Over the next year or so, individual stories are being recorded and works collected to recognize that significant time in NYAA’s history. This archive (which is growing) will go Live via the AANYAA website when completed. (Those collaboration will be able to see the collection develop)

In the studio, work is going on developing a new series of egg tempera on eggshell paintings called ‘Martha’s Domes’. They were initially shown in a great collective painter’s project called ‘Paint Talk’ this summer. Four Glasgow artists invited four ‘outsiders’ and I was psyched to invite fellow NYAA alumni Michael Antkowiak (2003) based in Toronto, Canada to show his work in Glasgow! Installation shots of this show are now accessible via my website. (I may have done a sneaky work swap with Michael to steal one of his gorgeous pieces). I am happy to report that some of these egg tempera works will be taking pride of place upon the walls of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh this December. Again…check out my website for more info later in the month…

What do you find challenging about your work?

I do not find the process of making work challenging in terms of my volition: I need to paint/draw to stay sane. What I have found hard is functioning in the art world as a Mother.

Male hierarchical systems are still in play across Art, Politics and Education, where part-time contracts are seen as a weakness, which in many cases are a necessity by mothers to dually carry out their roles as parent and practicing artist. This realisation strengthens my continual resolve to question the role that gender plays in society and depict the world as I see it.

What do you find rewarding?

For me painting is a necessary action and the process of art-making generally gives me headache whilst simultaneously, paradoxically, offers me peace. I am very happy when I can lose myself depicting a blue hilltop upon a wash of pink sky for example.

Sharon Thomas with ‘Regina Res Publica’ (2001) at the show ‘Rural Rides’, New Glasgow Society (2021)

But, for me the ultimate thrill of my art practice, is seeing what an art project can do to liberate or inspire other human beings. A moment I will never forget is walking with my 11-year-old daughter in 2018, leading hundreds of school children through the streets of Glasgow to the unveiling of the city monument I fought to get commissioned. (My daughter was happy to get the afternoon off school and get free cake!)

What’s on the horizon for you?

Painting….lots of it.

I was recently elected as Acting President of the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Art and council member of Society of Scottish Artists (SSA), so my Inbox is getting heavier (my pay packet however is not). It will be a task making sure that my practice stays fluent whilst maintaining these positions alongside my lecturing work.

But, right now, to be honest I am happy to once more have freedom to meander through galleries and friends’ studios, in person, in real time, without necessity to wear a face mask and constantly sanitize my hands!

Sharon Thomas with Ex- Head of Painting (GSA) selecting of student work at Edinburgh College of Art for RSA show (2022)


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