Artist teaches people to go beyond the surface of first impressions

Artist William Paul Thomas poses with “Big Paul,” a portrait of his father, William Paul Neal. (Photo courtesy William Paul Thomas)

First impressions are built from a variety of visual cues, whether that’s what someone is wearing, where they’re first encountered or how they’re seen interacting with others.

In his new “Us & Them” exhibit, Chapel Hill painter William Paul Thomas challenges viewers to build perceptions of individuals by looking only at their faces- and to use questions raised by those first impressions as inspiration for building deeper, more fulfilling relationships.

“How these individuals identify is one thing,” Thomas said. “How we assume based on a likeness (is another).”

Thomas’ portraits, currently on display at the Durham Arts Council’s Allenton Gallery at 120 Morris St., are not intended to fully capture the essence of their subjects. Instead, they raise questions about a person’s identity based on basic, universally understood facial cues such as the curve of a smile or the sadness in one’s eyes. Text is included on some paintings to guide a viewer’s reflection, but the subjects in Thomas’ portraits are mainly portrayed as “hovering heads” on simple, brightly colored backgrounds.

He feels that removing visual distractions leaves a portrait open to interpretation and widely relatable.

“I would hope that anybody would be able to come to any image that you see here and see something that they would recognize or is familiar to them,” Thomas said.

“Us and Them” is a series of “hovering head” portraits on display at the Durham Arts Council at 120 Morris St. in Durham through Thursday, May 10. (Staff photo by Cole Villena)

Finding community through relationships

Thomas, who was born in Chicago and spent much of his life in Wisconsin, moved to the Triangle in 2011 to pursue a graduate degree in fine arts at UNC-Chapel Hill. Now a Tar Heel alumnus- and the Brock Family Visiting Professor in Studio Arts at Duke University- Thomas says the relationships he and his wife, Shameeka, have built in Durham and Chapel Hill have made the area feel like home.

“We just like the people that we’ve encountered,” Thomas said. “We were embraced by people that we, I think, have started to think of as extended family.”

Many of the portraits in the “Us & Them” exhibit feature Thomas’ friends and colleagues from the local arts community, including former classmates Samantha Amblard and Christopher Musina (featured in “More Still” and “My Hitta,” respectively). “Big Paul,” one of the most recently completed works in the exhibit, features one of Thomas’ oldest friends: his father, William Paul Neal.

Many of the portraits in the “Us & Them” exhibit feature Thomas’ friends, family members and colleagues. “More Still” is a portrait of Samantha Amblard, a classmate from Thomas’ time at UNC-Chapel Hill.
(Photo courtesy William Paul Thomas)

Thomas hopes visitors to “Us & Them” will leave with an understanding that true relationship building comes from shared experiences, conversation and intentional effort, not from judging people based solely on appearance. He acknowledges that each of his subjects carry multiple identities –from racial and ethnic background to religious affiliation, education and employment. Visitors might not be able to paint a full mental picture of his subjects just by looking at their faces–which, Thomas says, is exactly the point.

“I don’t feel like I need to narrow (down) how each of these individuals identify,” Thomas said. “I’m more interested in … what label (a viewer) might place on the individual based on their own kind of knowledge base or experience.”

The connections Thomas has built while in the Triangle have been vital to his artwork.

“Having a true sense of community does come from making an effort to build relationships with people,” Thomas continues. “I feel like people have done that with me, and I’ve intended to do that with people (in my work).”

“Us & Them” will be on exhibit at the Allenton Gallery on the first floor of the Durham Arts Council at 120 Morris St. in Durham through Thursday, May 10. An exhibit reception will be held in the gallery on Friday, Apr. 20.

For more information on William Paul Thomas and his work, you can visit his website.

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Edited by Brittney Robinson.