Patricia Renee Thomas in her studio at Penn
Making Art in a Pandemic: Patricia Renee Thomas
Philadelphia-born and raised, artist Patricia Renee Thomas has been drawing and painting since she was a child, focused on what she calls the “investigation of skin.”
“I was aware of colorism from a young age and wanted to learn more. I started early in the research of the demonizing of dark skin,” says Thomas, a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at Weitzman. “I was hyper-aware of the skin before I knew the nuances of what that meant.”
As an undergraduate at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, she predominantly studied the figure, depictions of Black people, and advertisements from the Jim Crow era to today’s social media, and incorporated what she discovered in her paintings. “I wanted to redefine this visual language for myself so it doesn’t hurt me so much—a reclamation. It became a conduit to investigate other things,” she says.
Thomas worked for the nonprofit Art Sanctuary after graduating from Temple, followed by an artistic residency in West Philadelphia, which led her to apply to Penn for her MFA. She is now one of the 14 second-year MFA students.
“It totally felt right and it made sense for my journey; what I’m working on now with my research feels like a chapter that has to continue in this city,” she says. “I love this city.”
Right before the pandemic, Thomas had an exhibition of her work at the Kapp Kapp Gallery in Philadelphia, which she describes as a body of work about the visual and laborious process of doing a set of African-American hair.
Ken Lum, a practicing artist and the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Penn Presidential Professor and chair of the Fine Arts Department, says Thomas “is reclaiming racist tropes like the pickaninny and redirecting them back in radical ways to speak of the complexities of the African-American experience.”
Thomas’s work, he says, “speaks truth to power,” and she herself is the embodiment of intellectual strength and artistic skill who has been powering through the pandemic.
“Patricia has never stopped making work. Patricia has just kept going: ‘I’m finishing my education. I’m painting.’ The paintings evolve.”
Thomas uses materials that require professional ventilation, like oil paints and spray paints and gouache, and her third-floor rowhouse apartment is not equipped. So while the MFA studios on campus in the Morgan Building were closed last spring because of pandemic restrictions, she ventured outside to reconsider her relationship with nature “and why I don’t trust it very much.”
She turned her attention to examining her surroundings, sketching instead of painting. “I decided to start completely unrelated bodies of work. I was drawing grass and making studies of ivy,” she says. “I went old-fashioned. I made visual studies of things I would pass by.”
When the campus studios opened for the fall semester, she returned to painting, but didn’t finish the pieces there, deciding instead to incorporate her summer discoveries exploring nature in new works.
Self-portraits about the Black body and experience—typically defined by a riot of bright pinks, yellows, oranges—now prominently feature various gradients of green in the leaves of plants and trailing vines on canvases ranging from 18-by-24 to 50-by-60 inches. Her new work is seen “through the language of nature and motivated by my memory and body’s relationship to it, and color, lots of color,” she says.
“I think it is something very primal to have this connection with trees and fresh air. I haven’t taught myself how to be immersed in it,” she says. “I’ll take myself on a hike and I still don’t love it. I don’t feel protected. Who is allowed to be in these spaces and be protected?”
Thomas recounts the episodes of Black people being questioned, whether in Central Park or the wilds of the woods. “In my paintings I am investigating myself in these places,” she says. “With COVID, I was thinking about the healing abilities of nature and how I want to access that.”
For the past two years she has been a drawing and painting instructor at Temple, and a teaching assistant at Penn. Hoping to continue teaching and residencies after graduation, as well as practicing her art, she says she may pursue research “in the secluded woods, the opposite of a city, and to keep painting.”