Spotlight on Alumnus Hank Willis Thomas

“Artist is an unrealistic and audacious ambition for a lifestyle. You have to be unrealistic and dedicated,” says Hank Willis Thomas. With seven residencies throughout the United States and one in Paris under his belt, Thomas says he’s uncertain where in the world he wants to live. “I haven’t figured out where to stop.”

Thomas completed his BFA in Photography and Africana Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1998 before arriving at CCA and earning his MFA and MA in Photography and Visual Criticism, respectively, in 2004. He was here for four years, and had a studio on each campus. “I got as much as I could out of CCA. I was here during the golden years,” adds Thomas.

Thomas’s involvement at CCA went far beyond the classroom; he was a teaching assistant for a public art class at The Center for Art and Public Life and within the Photography Program, as well as a technician at the college’s Media Center. “This is how I broke even.” Thomas then convinced Ryan Alexiev (MFA Design 2007), his then roommate, and several other friends to apply to CCA. “The school owes me,” he laughed.

“All my first influential shows were through connections of CCA alumni. All three of the first shows were solo shows,” Thomas notes. His work has been exhibited at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Zacheta National Museum of Art in Poland, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art.

Thomas received the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Award in 2006; was commissioned with ©ause Collective to create a video installation for the Oakland International Airport; was awarded the 2007 Renew Media Arts Fellowship (Rockefeller Foundation); received the Aperture West Book Prize for a publication of his work in 2008. Additionally, the artist’s monograph Pitch Blackness (Aperture) was released in 2008, and his photographs have been published in Reflections in Black: A History of African American Photographers (W.W. Norton, 2000), 25 under 25: Up and Coming American Photographers (Power House Books, 2003), Black: A celebration of a Culture (Hylas Publishing, 2004), and Winter in America (self-published in 2006 with Kambui Olujimi).

In Thomas’s artist statement “Reasons to Stare” (included in 25 under 25: American Photographers) he states, “I want to use images as a way to question who we are and on what we base our aesthetics and moral judgments. There is so much to learn from the world by simply stopping and looking. Capturing moments in pictures is a way for me to share my thoughts. In my portraits, I try to create a conduit for viewers to connect on a sublime level with my subjects—as if looking in a mirror, or at someone they love.”

In Unbranded, his biggest personal project, Thomas appropriated and digitally manipulated magazine advertisements featuring or targeting black subjects and audiences from 1969 to present. With the assistance of a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Thomas is currently collaborating with CCA Photography faculty member Chris Johnson on Question Bridge: Black Males, a work-in-progress video project that further addresses the issue of black male identity in American socio/political culture.

Why CCA? Professor Chris Johnson recommended Thomas come here. Also fellow CCA faculty members Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg were friends with Thomas’s undergraduate professors at New York University. “It [CCA] had a funny name, and I felt like I could do what I wanted to do,” Thomas explained. Ultimately, CCA’s director of graduate admissions at the time, Steven Goldstein, inspired him to attend the college. Says Thomas, “The grad program at CCA was small, and Goldstein had a funny way of being honest about the perks and limits of CCA.”

“My mother, father, peers, and faculty have been my inspirations. I squished everything together that I learned vicariously through them, and I also learned from their mistakes.” Thomas’s mother is chair of New York University’s Photography Department, and his father has been a Black Panther, a physicist, and a stockbroker, among other things. At CCA a lot of peers helped him out. “There was a lot of camaraderie that developed between students and alumni in the photo lab during this period. The community was also really laid back.”

Thomas explained the benefit of being a minority and part of a limited African American presence within the CCA community at the time: “You stick out, and people remember you.” Thomas was also influenced by many faculty members. “I liked all of my professors, and I had over 20!”

When Thomas is away from work he’s “breathing and pretending that life is fun without the work. I like what I do. I am a big procrastinator—all the time, everyday.”

What’s next for the busy artist? “To figure out a place to live and how to keep it! To make art that is sustainable as far as making a living. I want my art to exist beyond any generic moment, movement, or scene,” says Thomas.

Born in 1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey

CCA degrees:MFA 2004, Photography
MA 2004, Visual Criticism

Residence:New York (in transition)

Current occupation:Artist

Influences at CCA:Larry Sultan, Lydia Matthews, Jim Goldberg, Jeanne Finley, Barney Haynes, Eva Wilson