For weeks, artist Patricia Renee’ Thomas toiled away in her West Philly studio on a collection of 13 paintings and drawings — ensuring that each line, each shape, and each color aligned with perfect cohesion.
The collection, “Grapejuice,” opened at Center City’s Kapp Kapp Gallery this month, marking the 24-year-old’s first solo show in Philadelphia. (She’s also had solo exhibits, with different collections, in New York and Los Angeles.) The works on display here are “an ode to the preparation and performance it is to be a woman, specifically a black woman,” said Thomas.
But like many other art galleries, Kapp Kapp has now closed to the public to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Her show was on exhibit for just six days.
“When we started to notice the restrictions of gatherings drop from 250 people, to 100 people, to 50 people, I knew that galleries and museums would be next on that list,” Thomas said. “I was sad when I realized that people wouldn’t be able to come and see the work.”
When Kapp Kapp reopens, gallery owner Sam Kapp hopes to extend the show, he said.
Thomas is a graduate student in fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania. Her “Grapejuice” collection was inspired by her experiences getting her hair professionally styled as a teenager, when her mother began to send Thomas and her sisters to hair salons instead of braiding their hair herself.
“Hair braiding is a very intimate thing," Thomas says now. “You first associate hair braiding with your mother.”
Each time Thomas went to the professional braiders, she would have the same meal: chicken wings and grape juice. Since then, she’s associated the flavor of grape juice with a fresh hairstyle. She thinks of its deep and rich color, its smooth texture, and its sweet aroma.
“There’s something sweet about the word and the image, she said. “I wanted to keep that sweet nostalgic association to this beautification process in this show.”
To Thomas, the process of painting is similar to the process of hairstyling. Both take time, and often, several attempts for perfection. When Thomas was in the first grade, her class learned how to trace leaves. In class, she only made a few sketches. But when she went home, “I made an entire book.”
She started painting with oils in high school when her mother passed down her collection of oil paints. “I wasn’t using the paints properly, but I was still painting with them,” Thomas said.
In the “Grapejuice” collection, Thomas also uses white chalk for drawings of hair. Loose Wave shows a deep, wavy texture, while Bundle is a thick, single braid.
“When I was drawing the hair, I was thinking of the relationship between the paper and chalk and how to make the bundles of hair shine,” she said.
One of the standout pieces in the collection, Mousse and Rollers, depicts a black woman at her vanity mirror primping her hair, which is wound up in pink rollers. A comb and various hair products are strewn before her. “Nothing here says, ‘This is for black women,’ but every black woman can relate to the content of the work,” she said.
Thomas doesn’t shy away from bold colors in her collection. She leans into them, and she’s been critiqued for that. “To use really bright colors in the art world is a little much. I’ve been told to roll back my colors because it’s distracting to the image,” she said. “A lot of people have told me that my palette can be too crazy.”
But Thomas believes that liberal use of color is important to her aesthetic. She said it’s a reflection of being a woman of color, “in which color is a very beautiful thing.”
It’s also a “rejection to the rules of painting,” she said. While art school can promote traditional, European-based notions of beauty, she sees color as a tool to break away.
Thomas said she was disappointed that Kapp Kapp had to postpone the show, but she knew it was necessary as authorities encourage social distancing amid the global pandemic. She’s painting her way through it.
But, “I paint large," she said. “And I do realize that during this time I can’t paint large.” Last week, Thomas had to move out of the big studio where she works on Penn’s campus, and doesn’t have space to work at that scale.