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nina thomas

september 10, 2017

charlottesville, virginia

Ava: We like to start off asking if you consider yourself a cat or a dog.
Nina: Hmm. I would like to think that I’m a dog, but I think I’m maybe more of a cat? Or like, a cat-like dog? A dog that kind of acts like a cat. I think my parents’ dog is like that a little bit.
Adele: What kind of dog is it?
Nina: It’s a terrier-mutt mix. Yeah. Just very, I don’t know--
Adele: Very cat-like.
Ava: Yeah, my mom has a terrier that’s kind of sassy like a cat. He’s weird.
Nina: He does his own thing, but is still definitely a dog--
Ava: Yeah, like has the same energy? Or the joy of a dog? But maybe a little bit more guarded like a cat.
Nina: Yeah, and some attitude.
Ava: What about cats that act like dogs?
Adele: I feel like that’s the ideal pet.
Nina: Yeah, right?
Ava: Cats are softer.
Nina: I have met some really dog-like cats, they do seem like great pets. Maybe I wish I were more of a dog-like cat. But yeah, I think I’m more like a cat-like dog. Whatever that means.

Ava: Can you describe your studio practice as a party?
Adele: Yeah, what kind of things do you do, what’s the mood, what space is it in? Maybe describe the music, or sounds. Time period, decorations, snacks--
Ava: Dancing?
Adele: Guests--
Ava: Or lack thereof!
Nina: I don’t know if it’s because we’re sitting in the kitchen right now, but I would like to think that my studio practice is a little bit like the kitchen happenings or hang-outs that happen here sometimes, with the radio on. We’ve had some drawing nights in here, very cozy and friendly, with tea and wine and snacks or even dinner--lots of cooked veggies out of the avocado stove! I like them best in the wintertime, so it probably would already be dark, but I like imagining maybe the sun’s just setting, it’s really cozy in the kitchen, hanging out and listening to some music or just whatever’s on the radio and chatting and drawing. At least what I’ve been doing lately has felt kind of like that.
Ava: I feel like your work is so much like a little cozy family dinner party. Maybe extended family, because you often have so many figures in your pieces. I imagine it’s a family that’s a little bit dysfunctional, people are stepping on each others’ toes, there’s a baby screaming in a different room, maybe there’s like, someone who’s in a fight with someone else. But there’s so much love though!
Nina: Yeah, exactly!
Ava: But overall, it’s very tender.
Nina: I love that.
Ava: But maybe that’s comparing your work to a party and not your practice--your work process itself.
Nina: I think the practice itself is a lot quieter. But I love the idea that it could turn into something a little more chaotic and with all those moving parts. That idea is very comforting to me. It makes me think of a couple of those gatherings, in this house, in this space, where you plan to have a potluck and you think it’s going to be really low-key and quiet and it morphs into a weekend thing. That’s like a metaphor for my practice turning into drawings.
Ava: Like people camping out in the yard--
Adele: Yeah, staying the whole night--
Nina: Neighbors yelling--
Ava: The next morning, pancakes.

Ava: Can you talk about who these figures are, in your work? I know we talked about that a lot in our thesis seminar [at UVA] two years ago, but the people are still there. Maybe they’ve changed or maybe you think about them differently.
Nina: I do think about it a little differently now, I hope. I’ve been trying to figure out ways of moving away from what I was doing and then I find that the figures still show up. They’re pretty anonymous figures for the most part, but of course come from the kids that I babysit or the people I work with or my friends and family. They’re also these really repetitive figures, and I start with just the motions of drawing them: a face, and these eyes, and this way that I draw these noses.

When I put them together I feel like that plays with their relationships to one another and creates the space. Usually they are just kind of floating around in these funny blobs--orbs of wiggly people. I think I am always--still--trying to figure out what they are. I like that sometimes they seem really solitary or separate, even when they’re kind of mashed up against each other.

Adele: Do they have backstories?
Nina: I usually don’t have particular stories, although I guess that is changing a little bit now. Sometimes I’ll think more specifically about certain stories or ideas when I start drawing them.

I’ve been playing around with other sorts of figure drawings, like trying to create similar drawings in different ways and they’ve become different things. For example, I was watching videos of choreographies and making all these gesture drawings of the dancers and smushing them together. At first, they were a lot more abstract, and I was taking them as an opportunity to keep them really anonymous, because it was more about their bodies moving. I wasn’t immediately adding faces in, and I was playing with making pattern in the spaces. But then I found myself wanting to create relationships between the figures.

I also started making some drawings where I was going through pictures of friends that I had on my phone. That’s an example of starting with specific people, which I don’t normally do, but they were made kind of anonymous in my drawing. It was more like a quick capturing of a moment--like, “why did I take that photo at that time?”--and then I became interested in layering them on top of each other and making up stories about how those moments relate. On the paper, that became a lot more about the line, too. In general, I love thinking about being a person in the world, around all sorts of different people, and I think that’s where the initial urge comes from, that idea of being surrounded by--
Ava: Community?
Nina: Yeah, totally. Community. But even if it doesn’t feel like a community that you can name, necessarily. Does that make sense?

Adele: Can you talk about your choice to use drawing as a primary medium? Or necessity?Maybe it’s not a choice, I don’t know. There was something you said earlier about the mobility of drawing--you can draw in your studio, you can draw anywhere. Which I thought was really compelling.
Nina: I think that’s what I love about it. In school, I’d been making a lot of prints, a lot of etchings, and just realized I rarely went back to line drawing in order to make those. I’m trying to think about what I had been doing directly before I started making a bunch of etchings, but yeah, something about the line drawing--I discovered I could do it so immediately. I really liked that, and I liked playing with the line.

I think the fact that you can draw wherever you are, and that you take it with you. With a notebook or sketchbook, you can write and draw wherever you are. It’s a form of note-taking in some ways. Sometimes I’m not sure what it is that I want to make, and there’s something so comforting about just sitting down and drawing. It can become this big thing and I can cut it up and collage it with something else that I’ve been working on. There’s something about paper, too. I just love drawing on paper. I love collecting scraps of paper that I’ve written or drawn on.

Ava:  Your etchings are mostly black and white, grayscale, yet you sometimes incorporate color. How and when do you decide to add color? And where do your patterns and textures come from?
Nina: I love line and mark-making. Again, I think something about just that immediacy of pencil or pen on paper, or an etching needle on a copper plate. I love repetition--just in terms of the action--going through the motions of drawing and making up patterns and continuing to move and not totally thinking about it. I like filling surfaces with patterns, and I started doing that a lot with etchings, creating layers, and I continue to do that even when I’m trying to loosen up and play with color a little bit. I really wanted to fill the space but in a very surface level way, and part of that was recognizing that I was starting to draw these figures and I was having a hard time answering the questions about the spaces they were occupying. And I like the question of them as sort of amorphous, mysterious things.
Adele: Wow, is this an etching that you then colored over?
Nina: Yeah, it is. I have a bunch of proofs, and I’m having fun coloring. Like creating my own coloring book pages.
Ava: All of these marks are so amazing.
Nina: I took one of those etchings--this one’s more botanical, it doesn’t have any of the people in it--and it was really fun to sit and color it in with some cheap pens. Maybe that’s where the chill studio party comes in, just really relaxing and creating spaces within which I can really zone out and work and play with the surface and pattern.

Adele: These colors are so good. What were you painting with here?
Nina: Gouache.
Adele: The way that this is standing on the yellow and teal is amazing.
Nina: I have loved working with the gouache, just the physical feeling of painting with it. It’s so nice and watery but still has a really nice opaque body, too.
Adele: Yeah, it’s so velvety.
Nina: Yeah, it is really fun. My mom’s cousin just gave me a bunch of her old gouaches, too.
Adele: The box is beautiful!
Nina: Isn’t it lovely? It’s got inks and stuff in it, too. I guess she just used it when she was a student. It’s funny to walk around town with my little toolbox. So, yeah. I love making the lines and playing with the lines and creating patterns with the lines.
Adele: And the nice thing about etchings is--actually, I don’t really know anything about etching. But I imagine that you can make a bunch and then go back into each one differently.
Nina: Exactly. As a printmaking student, I editioned my prints nicely when the time was right, but I was always more interested in printmaking as a jumping off point to making different things. I did start to paint on top of things when I was making prints and cutting things out in school. I do love printmaking for that--I can print off a bunch of things. You know, you can print them on different paper go over one with pencil--
Ava: And you still have all these plates? That’s the other cool thing, is that you always have the plate. As long as it is stored well.
Nina: Yeah, which I think I’ve been pretty good at doing. I do still have a bunch of zinc and copper plates that I carry around with me. They can also be reused. I love that, too. When I start etchings I find it helpful to use bigger plates, like recycled pieces of roofing copper that I got from Martin’s Roofing in town, mostly because I was cheap and I didn’t want to buy nice, expensive copper. And you can get a great deal for this thin roofing copper. It has such a history, like some of these marks are from the roofing copper originally, that ended up being etched. Some of that is just from me carrying the plate around, but I love having that sort of background texture to work with. Something to start with. I guess it makes it feel a lot less precious. I used to love finding plates that other people had started to work on and wiping them--scraping them back--and going back over things.
Adele: The fineness of these lines is so incredible.
Nina: I love the way it feels to make that on your plate with your etching needle. It’s just so satisfying.