Ashley Thomas is a visual artist living and working in Austin, Texas. Conflict of Interest Co-Editor Rebecca Marino stumbled upon her work in the current Young Latino Artists 20: Within Reach exhibition curated by mutual friend Ricky Yanas at Mexic-Arte.
Rebecca Marino: Can you tell us the story behind the pink Cadillac?
Ashley Thomas: My mother sold Mary Kay Cosmetics as a second job for a few years when I was young. The “grand prize” for selling thousands and thousands of products is a pink Cadillac. I remember my mother talking about the Cadillac with such a longing. It was definitely a status symbol that was unattainable. A neighbor a few blocks away had one in her driveway. Mary Kay is a pyramid scheme where the goal is to sell traditionally feminine products with the hope of winning a traditionally masculine object. I finished that drawing my last semester of grad school. During a critique, Lisa Wainwright said it was, “like a fuck you to Richard Prince.” I liked that.
RM: Without being cliché or overbearing, there is a strong feminine sensibility to all the objects you choose to depict. Can you speak to that a little bit and why you feel you’re drawn to that quality?
AT: The objects are gender coded because I like “femmy” things, and I grew up around many women. I’m interested in representing so-called “feminine” qualities in my work because they are often erased or devalued. I feel like that is what is lacking in source material or I want to valorize what others might overlook or feel is insignificant.
RM: You mentioned a former peer of yours who wrote her thesis on scrapbooking or what she refers to as “nostalgic desire” and how that related to the history of archiving– traditionally a role associated with women. Is that what you feel like you’re doing, archiving? How do you feel you contribute to and/or detract from that tradition?
AT: Yes, my friend Jessica Bardsley wrote about the archive and how the desire to keep is often degraded by calling it “nostalgic,” especially when it’s a personal archive. Often women are the archivists of familial objects, so this desire to archive is often gender-coded.
And yes, I do feel like I’m archiving. I’m collecting from my personal history. I feel as time passes I will have a nice collection/archive of drawings that can be looked at as a timeline or index. I think I am contributing to the tradition through biography as a feminist viewpoint.
RM: Most of your work focuses on what could be considered quite banal and everyday, but at the same time usually integrates something quite iconic. Is that paradox something coincidental or is it thought out ahead of time?
AT: It’s both. I try to elevate the everyday to the status of the icon, give these objects some reverence. I’m interested in the vernacular objects that you would find tucked in your drawer, which you’ve held onto over the years, or that maybe secretly hold great esteem in people’s lives. The graphite medium itself is also very rudimentary or banal in that a graphite pencil is something most of us use daily and do so dismissively.
RM: Your large-scale graphite drawings are the first things I saw, but you work in a variety of mediums and alternative formats such as collages and zines. Obviously the graphite drawings take much more time, but that aside, how do those two processes compare for you?
AT: The style of drawing I do is very labor-intensive and time consuming. Rendering is a technique that isn’t valued a lot in contemporary art. There isn’t a lot of room for play in terms of process. After almost every drawing I’ll make an assemblage work. For me, the process is completely opposite from drawing. I can physically move around and I can be more intuitive. The collages and zines are really fun for me and I need that to balance the restrictive drawing process. Even though the drawings are difficult, they serve the content/objects well. I don’t think a sculpture or a painting or even a different style of drawing would work with the subject matter.
RM: You grew up in Corpus Christi, then moved to Chicago to get your MFA and have actually been here in Austin for just about a year now. How have those physical moves affected your work, if at all?
AT: Moving to Chicago from Corpus Christi was very “big city, bright lights” for someone who never had the opportunity to travel. Attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my MFA was very intimidating for me. So for two years I just listened and took in as much as I could. After graduating, I felt secure in my choices as an artist. I lived in Chicago for five years and became increasingly more aware of where I wanted to be, which was back in Texas. Being in Chicago made me miss my family and the culture I grew up around. I’ve recognized that nostalgia is a theme throughout my work now.
RM: What are you currently reading? Do you have a good book recommendation for us?
AT: I’m currently reading Heartbreak, a memoir by Andrea Dworkin and Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History by Teresa Palomo Acosta and Ruthe Winegarten.
I recently checked out a lot of books on plant propagation. I have a goal of opening a plant shop. You should read this piece titled, Why We Look at Plants, in a Corrupted World by Hu Fang. It’s beautiful.
Hmm, I like anything by Andrea Dworkin, bell hooks, and Chris Hedges. All radical feminists!
You can catch Thomas’ work in person in the Young Latino Artists 20: Within Reach at Mexic-Arte through August 23, 2015.
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. She also works as a visual artist and curator in Austin. Per this interview Marino will now be curating an exhibition of Thomas’ work at pump project in February 2016.