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Kamar Thomas

Every designer or artist wants to be able to make a living from their work, and this week’s guest embodies that desire. Generally, Kamar Thomas splits his time between being a design educator at two institutions — Centennial College and VCAD — but outside the classroom, he’s a prolific artist who specializes in vibrant oil paintings filled with deep meaning. He also just finished his first book, The Artist’s Creative Vision, which publishes this winter. Very nice!

Kamar started off talking about his teaching career, which also includes stints in the U.S. and Jamaica, and he talked about getting into art and painting as a kid before attending college at Wesleyan. He also spoke on the themes of the Black figure, masks, and abstraction in his work, his first gallery show this year, and what he ultimately wants to convey in his paintings. For Kamar, you can make art from wherever, and also have a great career!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, tell us who you are and what you do.

Kamar Thomas:
My name is Kamar Thomas. I am a fine art painter, primarily an artist. I’m also a professor at two colleges, Centennial College and Visual College of Art and Design. And lastly, because I have finished a manuscript, I will be an author of a book called The Artist’s Creative Vision.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on the book.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you. When it comes out, hopefully it does come out, I hope it makes an impact.

Maurice Cherry:
It will. I think every person’s book makes an impact, especially for the person who wrote it.

Kamar Thomas:
Especially for the person who wrote it.

Maurice Cherry:
Book aside, how has the summer been going so far?

Kamar Thomas:
The summer has been busy. I fill essentially three roles. I teach and I make and I write. And the summer is my season of making and writing, so I’ve had an exhibition in the summer. I’ve been going to museums quite a bit, and I’ve been just polishing up the manuscript, which is a whole long process in itself.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see on the websites you’ve got the book here available for pre-order and everything. We’ll also make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so people can check that out.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you. I’m very grateful. I need it.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your inspiration behind it?

Kamar Thomas:
It came from solving my own problem, which was I was a starving artist, and I didn’t want to be a starving artist anymore so the book is written to, if I can, eradicate that concept, get rid of the idea. And to solve that problem, it’s… The real issue is how does one come up with work consistently that people want to buy? Rather than just making and following the muse and blindly following inspiration.
And I sat down and I came up with a system. And by sat down, I mean with trial and error and teaching people and tried a few other method here and picking up things through teaching and applying them to myself. And the system is combine your interests with your biography, with art history, repeat. Eventually someone will buy.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds pretty simple.

Kamar Thomas:
Sounds pretty simple, just like saving money is simple, but it’s really difficult. Just like exercise is simple, but it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, I want to get more into your work as an artist, but let’s talk about your work as a professor first. You mentioned teaching at two universities. You’re teaching at the Visual College of Art and Design; that’s in Edmonton, Alberta. And you’re teaching at Centennial College, which is in Toronto, which is on in Ontario. That’s east coast, west coast geographically. How do you balance teaching at both of those schools?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, balance is a strong word. Let’s just say… What’s the word? Manage. Balance supplies. For a season, there is teaching Visual College of Art and Design is online, and their classes are two to three hours long. And I fit them in the schedule where I can. And I teach at Centennial in person; I’m full-time there. And that schedule is largely immutable. The meetings have to happen, the classes have to happen, and I have to physically be there. And so it’s just a matter of systematizing and being rather ruthless with what I say yes to and being very hands on with the planning. I spend a significant portion of time just planning just 20 minutes here and there. I think if I added it up over the week, it would be at least an hour and a half just on planning what I’m going to do with the time that I have.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s good that you manage both of them because it sounds like one’s online, one’s in person, but then the schedules don’t seem to really cross over either, so that’s pretty good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. If it’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching, it’s systematize. If you repeat anything, figure out the best way to repeat it rather than having to make yourself figure it out each time.
I have a complicated system of things coming into my inbox to moving to a… I gather up a place, I put them in a folder, and then once a day I go in the folder, I put those into the planner ,and the the next day I get out a physical piece of paper and I write down the things from the planner. And I keep it on my person so I won’t have to keep checking the planner. And then somewhere on the paper on my person, I have somewhere to put the new stuff coming in so nothing really slips through the cracks. Some things do, but for the most part, 90%, 95% do not.
The same with art; a system that you can go back to, that you can rely on to produce results is much better than inspiration-based or client-based. It’s more of if you have a method of working, you go, you consult the system. I do this. Let me check art history. What do I have inspired there? Let me draw something from my biography. Go.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting, I didn’t really realize that about teaching myself until I started teaching. Which when I was in college, I would always have professors that would… They wouldn’t necessarily repeat themselves, they’d always just tell you it’s in the syllabus. It’s like, “It’s in the syllabus. I put it in the syllabus.” And I’m like, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Then when I started teaching, I was like, I get it, because the syllabus is like your system. You put everything in there, and it’s up to the student whether they read it or not. If they don’t read it, it’s not your fault. You put it in the syllabus. They should have read it.

Kamar Thomas:
Correct. It not only has everything, it has when everything is going to happen and it has how you expect it to happen and it has the consequences of if they don’t happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep. And then the students get mad when they’re like, “Well, I didn’t read the syllabus.” Well, that’s your problem. The syllabus is the key to the system for me, so I get it.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve been a teacher for awhile now. Not just with these two colleges, but you’ve taught in Canada, you’ve taught in Jamaica, you’ve taught in United States. What do you learn from your students? Are there any differences between students in different countries and stuff?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, there sure are. In Jamaica, the difference in students in Jamaica, I was teaching high school. And the difference really… Well, what would have made the difference there is finances, it’s money. A lot of the issues could be solved by a few dollars here and there. The main challenges I was up against was actual art materials, was the space to make the art, was the resources. Once you have the money, those problems are solved.
In the United States, when I became a professor, the problem I faced the most was a problem of agency. And that I loosely define as is this thing for me? The students, a lot of them didn’t feel like making art was… Nevermind being possible, it’s possible, but just for someone else. And so a lot of my teaching was geared towards having students not only believe that it’s for them, but making projects that reinforce that belief. And there are very few things more encouraging than a few dollars in your bank account.
In Canada, it is the students I teach now, it is a equivalent of a community college. And the students I teach are adults, and they want to be professionals, and they need tangible results. The difference in Canada is students are a little more responsible because they’re a little school older. But they just need the resources. They need to know when and where what’s happening. A lot of my job is just finding things for my students to enter, finding outlets for them.
In Jamaica, it is a straight financial barrier. In the US, it is a problem of agency a lot of the time. And in Canada now, it’s a matter of finding and connecting the students to the resources.

Maurice Cherry:
I found when I talked to some educators here in the States that teach at HBCUs, it’s a combination of those things that you mentioned. If they’re teaching on HBCUs, it’s often the lack of funds and resources as well as the agency, depending on what program it is or how many people are in the department and such. It’s interesting how the problems scale based on not just country, but also just where you’re teaching and the students that you’re teaching, the type of students you’re teaching.

Kamar Thomas:
That’s correct. The agency is a rather complicated problem because it’s not an individual problem. You can’t really solve it by one student, you have to get the whole class to want to do well. And as a result, the individual will do well within that, so you have to set the expectation and then you have tom in a way, make it known that what they’re doing is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard, and see if you can get them on board for the difficulty. It’s a really delicate dance. But the US, that was the problem I faced, and hopefully I rose to the challenge. And I apologize to the students if I have not.

Maurice Cherry:
Do your students take you up on office hours?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes, they do. Because drawing is a bit like singing where it’s your voice, with drawing it’s your hand, it feels, and it’s your art, it’s what you are trying to say, a lot of the things that I give in class, it feels like I’m attacking them personally. They take up the office hours to tell me that I shouldn’t have attacked them personally. And then we have sessions to show them, no, it’s not you, it’s understanding of the subject matter that we’re doing is not quite there yet. This is what you’re doing. You’re over here. I need you to get to here.
An example of that would be I’m teaching measuring things, just measuring, and I’m I say, “You draw a line, a straight line, a perfectly vertical line and then you measure every other angle from that.” If I say picture a 90 degree angle, you have that in your head. If you cut that in half, you have a 45 degree angle. If you’re looking at a line, you can guess what that angle is because you know what 90 is and you know what 45 is. If it’s below 45, you can say, “Oh, that’s about 30,” et cetera.
And what students do, they don’t do that, they just guess. They just put it down, it looks right, and they come to office hours and say, “Hey, you were picking on me.” And I said, “I knew you guessed because you immediately put down something before attempting… Before I even finished the sentence.” Yeah, they take up office hours, they get extra time at the beginning.
Now, at the advanced level, when they’re about to graduate, they want to know if there’s a gallery showing, which ones I should contact. If there’s an art festival, how do I get in? What do I do now? I’m about to be out there. What do I do now? And I have a whole packet for them. I have what’s the steps that they take. What are the expectations? I break out the spreadsheet. Rent is $1,500. If you sell for $500, you need to sell three every month. You need to contact 10 people every month as a result. It’s 30 days in a month. If you do one every other day, you’ll get to 10; three of them might buy. And if you do this over a year, you won’t run out of money. That’s what my office hours are for.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, back when I was teaching… Oh my goodness, this might have been over 10 years ago. I started off teaching in person, and then I asked to be moved to teach online because my students were wearing me out. One, well, my students were all older than me, and so a lot of them tried to think that they would punk me because they’re like, “You’re my son’s age.” And I’m like, “So? I will fail you if you don’t get these assignments right.” Some of them would ask me to… They would bring their kids to class and they would try to use office hours as babysitting. They would have their kid come to office hours. And I’m like, “Where’s your mom?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” What am I supposed to do? I’m not running daycare over here. And I asked to be moved online because I was like, I can’t keep coming out here and fooling what y’all doing this stuff.
And online is just different because the students just have to have more discipline. And again, this was 10 years ago, pre-pandemic. Now where I think everyone’s used to doing virtual work. Just trying to get them to have the discipline to just say something in the forum, just participate in class. Because there was a participation element to their grade. And then when they have office hours, it’s just like, “Well what can I do to make up for the time that I wasn’t speaking?” I’m like, “You can’t. You can’t make up participation. There’s no extra credit for participation. You didn’t speak up. That was it.” Trying to do anything they could just to pass. I would have students that would try to justify why they thought it was okay cheating because the class was online. And if the class wasn’t online and Wikipedia wasn’t there, then why would it be available as a resource? They’re very creative.
I was teaching a… It was basically principles of web development to business students, which was probably why they were so duplicitous, because it wasn’t design students, they were business majors that just needed a credit. They didn’t really care to learn, they were just like, “What can I do to get past you?” Essentially. And it would be just so disheartening because I would have students that would fail my class two and three times coming back doing the same stuff, and it’s like, “Do you want me to just pass you out of pity? Because it’s getting there. It’s hurting me to see you doing the same stuff. The assignment has not changed from semester to semester. I would think you would be better at it because you’ve done it before.” Yeah,. I do miss teaching though, I just don’t miss all of that, I don’t miss all of that.

Kamar Thomas:
Some people you’re not going to get when you are in… What is it? The lower school levels of everybody, and everybody’s decent. But as soon as you go to high school and you’re high school as 2,000 people, you know at least one or two crazy people, just absolute… You see them, you cross the street.
In teaching, some people it might be they might not make it. It might be that they, for whatever reason, their motivation, they’re unwilling to do the work; and that’s fine. I do my absolute best to not take it in any way personal. I actually take it as a point of pride to produce the same professionalism, no matter what the student comes with. And I treat them extra, extra nice just to make the D or the E that they’re about to get a bit more palatable. But I’m-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, did you say D or E?

Kamar Thomas:
Listen, there’s no time machine. You’re going to fail this class. It’s over for you.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait. There’s a grade that’s a E?

Kamar Thomas:
There’s a F.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kamar Thomas:
It exists, but I explain in great detail, the grades that are coming, and I explain the connection. And I try and point out what they can do next time, provided and they take it again. And I make it really long, and it takes a long time for me to do it. When they come back the next time I say, “Remember that long list I sent you? You haven’t done it. You showed up when there was three weeks remaining in the semester and you were asking me to perform a miracle, but I am merely a teacher. I am not the Lord. I cannot turn the water into wine. I’m sorry, I can’t make time return itself.” If you plan on making it, you have to come to a certain number of them to get participation. A lot of it is merely giving people the benefit of the doubt that they’ll try again and not taking it personally. And I’m going to be honest; it’s been really difficult.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. I can imagine.

Kamar Thomas:
It’s very, very difficult. But again, systematize. I’ve seen it before now. I’m actually mad if it bothers me at all when I see the second time. I always think you’ve seen this before. You really [inaudible 00:21:30]. You see it’s not the first person that has come in three weeks before. Go look for the three weeks before folder, search to your computer. Oh, here it is. Oh yeah, this is what I said. Got it. And then I go and set out the template.
And that way, again, because in the US, agency was the problem, I always wanted to preserve the idea that this person felt like what I was teaching was theirs. And so I would try and be excruciatingly kind, the kind of understanding, “Oh, you’re still going to fail, but it’s an understanding fail.” It’s with love, it’s with kindness, it’s with accountability. And I think if the students have changed me in any way, I’ve become way more understanding and way more empathetic. Still going to failure you, though, but way more empathetic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I get it. Sometimes I know students are going through a lot, and you try to do as much as you can. You want to get them to the level where they hopefully are understanding and doing it for themselves, and then sometimes you just don’t have that. But I think as educators, you and I both realize that it comes with the territory.

Kamar Thomas:
Unfortunately, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you. I think, as folks can probably tell by now with the quiet storm voice, that you’re from Jamaica. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Kamar Thomas:
I’m from port Antonio in Jamaica. Place called Boundbrook, which is near the town of Port Antonio. Yeah, it’s called Stony Hill. As the name suggests there are stones. It’s a hill in areas. Not forest. There are trees, lots of them. There are dogs wandering on your properties. That’s your dog now. My neighbors knew all of my business. It’s a small place and it’s…
My parents, man, they did a great job. They did what they were supposed to do. And as a result, I felt like I could… Not only was I supposed to do well in school, but it was like, yeah, when I pass any exams and I come home with some a good report, all right, that’s nice, but we were expecting this. And that environment, I think, is what I credit for my trying so hard at anything.
Growing up there, our national heroes are all Black people. Every teacher I ever had was a woman. The prime minister was a woman at the time. When I came to the US and the term African American or Black had anything negative attached to it, I was very, very surprised, to say the least, because we don’t really have any negative connotations towards a Black identity in Jamaica at all when I was growing up. Things may have changed. But when I was growing up, we didn’t.
I come to the US and, oh. In Jamaica, you’re a man, and you come to the US, you’re a Black man. What does that mean? And my work is a direct result of trying to answer that question exactly. What does that mean exactly? And the answer for me was to expand what I think Black identity is, to expand what identity is in general. And to do that, I make a whole bunch of paintings that refer to my identity on the one hand, but also does so in a more abstract way. I make a whole bunch of paintings that are abstract, but they’re real, and I’m trying to say identity is abstract and also real.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first get into art and painting?

Kamar Thomas:
Ah, so that is a really good question. In Jamaica, we have, when we leave school, they’re called Caribbean examination council exams. Everything is exam-based. And I took art in these exams, and I got just a little bit below the best, so I was into art in high school.
As a profession, absolutely not. That’s not in the tables. That’s not a thing. It was at my university I met my painting professor; her name was Tula Telfair. She was born Capon. She had long hair. She wore Prada dresses. I don’t know if it was Prada dresses, I just know these dresses were expensive. And she got oil paint on them and it didn’t bother her. And she drove an Audi, a blue one that sounded like a hair dryer. And she could paint quite a bit.
And I was thinking to myself, I understand being a professor pays, but you’re not buying an Audi from professor money. And I actually asked her, I got up courage, “Hey man, how you sell these paintings? How does this work?” And she’s like, “Well, you have to get very, very good and go take the classes you need. And we can talk about it when you get into the class.” And I did. I took the classes that was needed. And while I was painting with her, she just treated me and all the other students as if we were already professionals.
Now, to many people, she was mean, but it’s a very specific thing where she wants you to be ready. As soon as you step out, she wants you to be already ready. And so she would come into this studio and say if she were a curator and she gave me a show, she’d take it back immediately. I need to be painting way more than this, and then just leave me to contemplate what she just said. She would come in and just really treat me like an equal, to be honest, treat me like, “Look, when you graduate, nobody going to know what this is. This is not fun and games. You really need to be making the work consistently and professionally.” And somewhere along the line, it just happened that I felt like I was a professional. It was very gradual, but a few well placed curse words got it into my head that one should be a professional, treat it you would like any other job. It was really in college.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get back more into you, into your background. Was your family really supportive of you getting into art?

Kamar Thomas:
That is such an interesting question. Supportive is a strong, strong word. My father is an EMT, and before that he was a fireman. He’s out here saving lives. My mom was the secretary to the dean of a college in Jamaica. This serious working people. And they send their son to America definitely not to paint, definitely not.
I’m there. Initially, I was doing physics, and it went okay, but I decided, okay, if I attack the painting with the same consistency I was doing physics, I might be able to make it work. And I, behind their back, just major in art. Don’t tell nobody. Get down to business. And it’s time to graduate now. And I call them up and I go, “Hey, the graduation is nice, but it’s me and 700 people. Nobody cares. Why don’t you come to this thing I’m having called an exhibition?” And they came and I made some sales, but I told the people, “Could you wait and give me the money in the exhibition so that my parents could see that I’m out here making it?” And they did. And they’ve been supportive ever since.
They’ve been supportive of me as a person, but because I hid it initially from them, as an artist, after I graduated, they were on board. And they have the ordinary fears. All parents are afraid that their children will perpetually depend on them until they’re 60. Parents live like, “When are you going to grow up?” And once I demonstrated that I got this, I’m fine, then they were very happy. Then it was like, all right, relax, mom. You don’t have to tell this lady that’s doing your nails. Then it’s a matter of holding them back right.
But before that, if you’re an artist listening, your parents are afraid you are going to be broke. Avoid it at all costs and you will be supported. And then you’ll have the problem of having them… Telling them to relax on the support a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go to Wesleyan for school?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so I got into medical school in Jamaica. Got into the University of the West Indies. I’m 17 years old applying to things, my dad’s an EMT I saw those medical books. And my dad has been going on, ambulances, picking people up, so I was barely familiar with what medicine actually means. And I thought to myself at 17 years old, nah, can’t do that.
And I was in this program for… I don’t want to say gifted. It was the Association of Quietly Excellent Scholars and Thinkers, AQUEST was the name of it. Just a group of people who met. And they said, “Apply to some colleges in the US. They give scholarships.” And I applied to a few and a few said yes. And I picked Wesleyan because it gave the most.
I went blindly with not very much information. These are the days of, of course, paper applications and paying for internet at internet cafes for half an hour at a time. The kinds of research that people do today, not possible. The virtual tours and the flying in and doing it, that’s not a thing. It’s you see a name, all right, it’s in Connecticut. How much of a flight is that? Okay. All right, apply, see what happens. And what happened was they called me and said, “Hey, you’ve been accepted.” And I go, “Great. What does that mean?” “It means you’re going to get a visa and come and you live here before.” “Oh, all right.” It was more of I need to get an education, and medicine at 17, at 18 is rough. That choice was too difficult, so let me go to a liberal arts school and figure out another path.

Maurice Cherry:
And what was that path? Of course, it was art, but tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Initially, it was physics. In general, I really like excellence of any kind, but I really was into all of the great physicists, Faraday and Einstein and Niels Bohr. I read these people’s biography. I loved the mathematician, Riemann’s hypothesis. I was reading that. I was just in the library reading up about people, with their mind, with their head, they were doing things. And that kind of a thing was impressive to me because I’m nearsighted so physical feats, they were impressive, but they were hard. I wasn’t going to catch anybody. Got glasses and sorted that out. But what really wowed me was sitting into the library and reading. Wait a minute, this guy, Newton, came up with the theory of gravity and figure out white light is made up of all the other colors and invented calculus, and then he turned 26. Whatever he’s doing, I need to have some of this. These people were what were impressive people to me.
And then I went to college and I found out what professional physics was, which is you write some code and you run a model and then you refine the code and then you run the model. If you are a professor and you’re at the end, if you can manage a tenure position, you have a grad student write parts of the code and run the model. It’s not this romantic notion of sitting down and solving the kinds of universal questions I was hoping for. It was more of can you learn to code? And can you learn the math? And can you learn the math to tell it to code?
And so I figured that out around my second year when it was time to decide a major. And I was doing some drawing and I said, “If I actually flipped a coin, flipped it, heads, I stay with physics, tails, I go with arts.” It was tails. I then went, “This can’t be real,” so I went online and I took a random question answer generator, and it ended up with art as well. I said, “All right, I’ll go with art.”

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Kamar Thomas:
That’s what it was. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You just left it up to chance, huh?

Kamar Thomas:
Left it up. Because again, I figured… Let me put it in perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Kamar Thomas:
There was a guy in my classroom, his name is Zin Lin. He was from Burma. He skipped both levels of calculus, and multi-variable calculus, and was the TA of the physics class while he was taking it. And there was fives Zin Lins in my class of 20 people. And there are people who they’ve been doing physics so long, they are as good at physics as Mozart is as good at music. These people are good, good. You’re not going to catch them in your lifetime.
And I was working an extreme amount just to… I would get 92%, and that would be a B because somebody got 108% and the A was moved up to 108%. It’s this kind of environment where the effort I’m putting in, I’m thinking if I apply this work ethic to basket weaving, I’m going to have some amazing baskets.
And again, I was already doing… It’s not a random pick, it was something that I was already doing. I was taking languages, and I’m doing art at the same time, art and art history all at the same time. And I figure if I threw myself at this art the way I’m doing at physics, I’m going to be all right, I’m going to be cool. And that’s why I was comfortable leading up to chance. For those listening, that’s not wise. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. If you already have an arena of proven work ethic, go for it. But if not, then put some more thought.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re attending Wesleyan, you’re majoring in art, and you graduated. After you graduated, you ended up going back to Jamaica for a while, and then you ended up coming back to the States. Tell me about that time.

Kamar Thomas:
I graduated, and I just couldn’t come up with the money to move to New York so I stayed near that the school and worked at a little supermarket, sold paintings and again realized… really figured out that I don’t have a gallery, I don’t have a curator backing me. I have no critics looking at my work. I’m just a guy out here, but I need to eat. And so I would, for jobs that I was applying to that were arts related, I would send them what I was working on and just let them know that I painted as well and let them know what it was about very quickly. And many of them would respond, and I wouldn’t get the job, but they’d buy a painting or they’d refer me to somebody else, and they would buy a painting. I figured out pretty early, if you tell people, they will buy.
Then, of course, my visa expired and I had return to Jamaica where I was hired as an art teacher at my old high school. Taught 8, 9, 10th, and 11th grade. And then after that, while I’m in art school, I’m doing the same thing I did, just whenever I had to email somebody or whenever I met someone and I took their number, I just told them that I painted. And it worked the same way in the US, it worked in Jamaica. Somebody was like, “You paint. I never met an artist before.” Said, “Well, now you have. Would you send them what I’ve done?” And I sold paintings. And people would pay me in installments, so they’d pay a little this week and then another bit next week in Jamaica, and that allowed me to save up the money to apply to graduate school. Came to graduate school, did pretty much the same thing. And I’ve been doing it since.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it seems like you always had your eye on the prize when it comes to that, which is good. Even though you were doing other things like teaching and stuff, you still were telling yourself and other people, “I am an artist.”

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I think around half of the battle is just showing up and making the work and committing to telling people. Around half, which seems like an exceptionally large percent but the thing is, if you continually tell people, you are going to need to show them something that you’ve told them about, which is going to make you want to continue to paint. And the more you paint, the more you want to tell people, and it starts this virtuous cycle of making something, talking about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you make, the more you make, the more you talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s also just keeping that dream in the forefront. It’s not about having whatever the weight of reality or the weight of the world kill that idea for you. You still had it in the front of your mind, I am an artist, I am an artist. You’re telling people, you’re doing it. I think that’s just a powerful thing for people to keep in mind as they go through whatever it is they’re going through as part of their creative journey; keep the dream at the forefront and keep striving towards that.

Kamar Thomas:
I was raised as a rather religious person, and in the church, they have daily bread. They have daily readings, daily Bible texts. And as a young child, this is bothersome. This is a problem. You’re up every day? kind of a thing. And I applied that same concept to my artwork, which is the daily reminders and daily things and daily… not affirmations, but something entirely dedicated to reminding me that I can probably be better but also looking back at what I’ve already done to give myself the permission to just do a little bit more. All around my house, I have all kinds of… Well, I have paintings that I’ve made, so I see them every day.
But I also have whiteboards here and there. And I’ll write a quote that I want to keep repeating. And one of them, the most recent one I have written is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. I didn’t realize that that’s where that came from until you asked me that question, but it’s the idea that you have to do something every day to remind, to get yourself to do it so that inevitably when you don’t feel like doing it, you’ve had 47 days of reminding yourself of the importance and looking back at what you’ve done so much, for how much you’ve done so far. And you eventually will just keep making stuff just because you’re in the habit of reminding yourself.
The same with exercise. I haven’t really missed a workout in years. And when I have to miss one, I feel it because when I get up, I exercise. I don’t even think about it. I get up, I exercise, them’s the rules. The same, I get up, I exercise, and before I leave, I have to see this thing that I wrote down with my hand. I’m surrounded by paintings that I like, so it’s a constant reminder. I think that’s really key when you’re pursuing something that is a creative risk, to constantly and regularly remind yourself and encourage yourself because outside is not going to do it. There is no reassurance coming. You have to provide it for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get more into your particular art style and your process. Based on what I can see from your website, I feel like after you came back to the States from Jamaica, this is when you really started to come into your own as an artist, not just in words, but in deeds as well by the actual paintings that you’ve created. Tell me about your process. What inspires you to make the art that you do in this fashion?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so the main inspiration was the difference of being a Black man from Jamaica to the US and trying to work out what identity means and trying to make something that says it’s a little bit more complicated than you think. And what changed in graduate school was I more clearly could articulate what the art was supposed to do and I could use better metaphors. I could talk about it better is really what changed. And talking about it better is a function of thinking about it better and more clearly.
The change I want to make was I want someone to look at whatever identity they occupy as something that’s within their control. That sentence took two years of making artwork that I didn’t like to figure out. It took two years of trial and error and critiques in graduate school.
And once you have a clear direction, then I choose from the tools that are available to me. Oil paint I can paint really realistically or I can paint really abstractly or I can use technology to manipulate how an audience interacts with that artwork. And I make series of paintings that are somewhere between really abstract or close to realistic to walk people painting by painting through the idea that your identity can also be… Sure, it can be tangible, it can be reifined, it can be reaffirmed, but it’s also changeable by you. What changed in graduate school was I refined the message a lot more.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you have a connection with one of our other guests on the show, Bennie F. Johnson. He’s the executive director currently of AIGA. How did you two connect?

Kamar Thomas:
After I graduated but before I graduated, a parent of one of the students graduating was walking by the cafeteria, and they had some paintings of mine in there. And she Googled me and contacted me and said, “Hey, I’m in the art business. I’d like to have a conversation.” And we had that conversation. And she introduced me to Bennie. And we went down to DC and I painted Bennie and his wife and hung out with his kids. Wow, those kids must be grown by now that I’m thinking about it, probably. He was really little boy and really little girl, but now they must be big.
Yeah. I made two paintings of him and his wife. And I actually painted their face with face paint with the kids. But the kids are just rough with the face paint while stabbing daddy with the paint brush. I’m like, “You have to be gentle. Just paint a little bit at a time.” And just attacking his face. And same, his wife Akira, I believe is her name, [inaudible 00:46:26], painted her as well I painted them both. I painted a pair of paintings, and I delivered it. And I believe it’s still in their home to this day. It was a lovely experience, and I thanked them for trusting me to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
He texted me the photos. They’re really something. I know the photos don’t do justice to your work, but they’re really striking

Kamar Thomas:
Again, remember I’m from Jamaica, I’m from this hill in Jamaica.

Maurice Cherry:
Stone Hill.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, Stony Hill. Washington, DC may as well be Mars. It may as well be a different planet. This is a place where people work in the government and people talk about the Capitol. And people are like, the president’s going to be… White House down there, and this is an Anacostia. And this is professional. He’s driving around and telling me about all this, and my world is expanding. And I thank him quite a lot for that, just telling me about the history of the place and the residents that were there and the kinds of just work that people do.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, Bennie wanted me to ask you a question. When I talked with him, I told him I was interviewing you. He’s like, “Oh yeah,” and he texted me the photos. Bennie wanted me to ask you about how you use the Black figure and abstraction in your work.

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. When I came to college in 2008, around ’08, ’09-ish was when occupy Wall Street happened. And it was activisty, activist town, activist everything. I arrived in the United States in 2014. And if I remember correctly, that was when one of the first big public police shootings happened. It was just bam, I stepped out of the airport, and then the shooting happened. It was on TV. And it was very much in the air, the making of work that was overtly describing the Black experience as well as it is lived by many in the United States. And I said to myself, “They don’t need anymore negative portrayals of Black people.” I understand, I get it fully what’s happening, but I think… What’s his name? Do you know the book Between the World and Me?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah. If I’m a writer, he got it. He nailed it. He got it. I don’t need to write another one like that. I think he has it. I said the same with my paintings. I think when I look through what’s being made right now, I think they got it. I don’t think if I say something, it will be nearly as impactful as if I really focus on this idea of agency, of mutability, of aspiration. And I think now more than ever is when it’s needed.
Never say never, but for the most part, I look at the Black figure… I want, when I’m an old man and my memory’s going in the art history books, they see images of representation that are complex, that are layered, that are nuanced, that are not only in relationship to whiteness, that are exploring the same way every other artist gets to explore. And so that’s how I use the Black figure. Complicated. Take its place, like everybody else.

Maurice Cherry:
Masks are a regular theme in a lot of your work. Tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Masks are a metaphor that I return to. And masks in the Caribbean… In Toronto, they recently had this big carnival called Caribana. It’s where one gets to put on a mask and put on a costume and go outside and essentially simulate sex through dancing, essentially, to a beat. And that’s only acceptable if you’re wearing this costume. You can’t just do this at your day job. You can’t pull up to accounts receivable and start doing this behavior.
And I use and I think about masks in that way. It allows you to occupy an identity that gives you privileges, that gives you the ability to act in a way that you ordinarily wouldn’t. And you don’t have to keep it forever. You can change it. And so masks, as a notion of identity is look, of course you are who you are, you’re born or you’re born, but if, when it comes to making art, if you view all of it as yours and like you’re supposed to be there, suddenly where you take influence from is much wider. If you view that the creative production is for you, then telling people about it is not that big a deal. If you think that you are supposed to be passing this class, that your identity is, yeah, pass classes. Then chances are, you’re going to work to pass that class.
Masks are this wonderful metaphor that I keep going back to, I keep finding nuances. Mask can conceal things. You can put it on, you can rob somebody, you can get away with it. Masks can review things. You can wear a mask for ritual purposes to act in ways to enter into states like trances, to enter into states, well, at carnival, et cetera. And masks, with the pandemic, went from being something to protect other people from getting infected with COVID to protecting yourself, to being a status symbol, to… The meaning of it changed over time, so I’ve been fascinated by this concept of masks.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked earlier about this exhibition that you had recently. How did it go? Tell me about it.

Kamar Thomas:
It went okay. What I did was I rented a gallery and just paid them the rent for a week and told as many people as I could about it. And people came and purchased the work. It was undertaking because when you pay for the gallery, you have to do everything. You have to show up and hang the work and sweep out the gallery and paint the wall and nail in the painting onto the wall and set up the lights. But from a introducing Toronto to my work perspective, it went swimmingly because one does it. I can show you better than I can tell you. It was a matter of inviting people. Many of them were new to Toronto. And I sell my art mostly to people who have never really bought art before, so it was a great success in that way. I got many, many people who didn’t even think of themselves as people who buy artwork to buy art and to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome, that’s awesome. I’m glad that it was really successful for you in that way.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you planning on doing another exhibition this year? Or surely in the future, you’re planning on doing something.

Kamar Thomas:
In the future, yes. My time for the next couple months is taken up with the book and with… I’m going to be the coordinator of the program I’m teaching at Centennial, so it’s a lot of emails and a lot of tours and a lot of interviews, et cetera is coming up.
But next year I’m planning to… I’ll be painting the whole time. Next year, I have anywhere from five to 10 exhibitions that I’m putting into the calendar. But I’m going to be producing the work to get that done now next year, 2023, by January, the book will be out. By March, I’ll have at least one exhibition. By June, I’ll have another. By July, I’ll have another. By August, I’ll have another. And if my papers are right, I might have one or two in Jamaica as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you got a plan. That’s good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, I have a plan, but saying man makes plans, God laughs, because COVID really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, well, that’s true, that’s true.

Kamar Thomas:
Here there’s a whole monkeypox coming on the scene.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
We can’t get a break in this century.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that you ultimately want to convey with your work?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Ultimately, I want people to see art as something that is for everybody. And I want them to see it as a decent job. Now, will you get rich doing it? Probably not. That being said, will you get rich doing anything? Probably not. It’s not more difficult than anything else.
I want people with looking at my work to understand and think through their identity as something that they get to pick. I want to overall increase agency in the world. Increase not just confidence, but the idea of possibility.
My largest challenge is getting students to not just believe that they can do what I’m asking, but that they’re supposed to do what I’m asking, and they’re supposed to do it well. If you look at identity, there is… I think Ben Akerlof, he’s an economist, and he says identity is one of the most significant economic decisions that someone can make. That means when you pick your identity, you pick what clothes you’re going to buy, you pick what shoes you wear, what colleges you can get into, what person you can marry, what neighborhood you’re going to live. And I want people, after having consumed my work, see the significance of those decisions and see that they have much more agency over them. They have way more power.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your younger self, let’s say your 16 year old self, when you look back at him, what advice would you give him?

Kamar Thomas:
Oh man, that’s such a really good question. At 16 years old, I was honestly not listening to nobody. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at physics. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at anything.
At 16 years old, well, I would actually say go to the dance, is what I would say. When I was in college, they had these things called winter dances. And I was a member of the ASA, African Student Association, and they had a dance. And every year they would ask me, “Just come practice for the dance and do it on the night.” And I would go, “No, I have to paint. I have this problem set to do.” And I never did the dance, never did the dances because, again, your undergraduate was so hard I never did them.
And it was in graduate school I realized how much I missed by not doing the dance, how much outside of class relationships I could have formed if I did the dance, if I just went through the thing and practiced and maybe gotten 98% instead of 100%. You still get an A. I realized at that time, because when I started selling paintings, I realized the need and the importance of human relationships. That’s most of life. Life is group work, is what life is.
I would tell my 16 year old self, A, just go to the dance. Sure, be focused, but you don’t have to be all that focused. Go to the dance. You will have a good time. You’ll form human connections. And when they need help, you’re going to be able to help them. And when you need help, they’re going to be able to help you. But go to the dance is what I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career as a painter, as an educator, now as an author, how do you define success?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I was talking to someone earlier about this concept. I woke up when I was 26 years old and I realized that I had all that I wanted. I wanted to be a painter, and that’s what I did most of the time, most of my days. I applied for a professor job, and I was working as a professor at 26.
Success for me was spending my time doing and utilizing God’s gifts as they have been bestowed to me. And I can learn pretty quickly and I can teach fairly well and I can paint, and I do all of these with most of my time. Success is doing or using the gifts that you have for most of your time. Doesn’t have to be all the time now. We all have to pay taxes and commute to work; most of the time. And for me, I have all I want.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that, and you’ve sort of, I guess, already teased this out a little bit, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? What work do you want to be doing? Any bigger projects or anything like that?

Kamar Thomas:
Whenever I run into any new medium, I try and figure it out and do a project in that medium. Now I’m looking into AR, so Instagram filters and Snapchat filters, provided Snapchat still alive as a company. Those are the kinds of AR that everyone would be familiar with. Augmented reality is what AR stands for. And I’m thinking that this can be a really strong addition to my work. And I’m thinking if I can figure this out, if I can learn that small bit of code… I’m taking a class here and there. In four or five years, I will have two, three projects tying technology and the art that I’m doing.
When I moved in Quebec, all of my friends were concept artists, and they worked in the entertainment industry designing monsters and trying to tell stories. And a part of my job now as a professor is I found myself helping people become illustrators and helping them learn to design those monsters. And as such, I’m looking at them watching much more stories, so there might be some short films in the mix. There might be some form of narrative in the mix.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work and everything online?

Kamar Thomas:
You can find me at kamarthomas.com, or you can find me on Instagram at O-H-K-A-M-A-R. As mentioned earlier, I was a flowery languaged young man, and I got the sentence, “Oh, Kamar,” quite a bit so I made that my Instagram handle. And you can find me at those two places primarily, or if you type my name, Kamar Thomas, into Google, I am proud to say you will find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Kamar Thomas, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, I think just like your energy, you really just come across as very self-assured and cool as well as artistic. But I think also just telling your story of coming from Jamaica and always putting your artwork and the work that you’re doing and who you are as an artist at the forefront as you’ve went through life I think, one, it’s granted you the success that you have now, but I think it’s just a really great example to set for others out there that can hopefully do the same thing. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kamar Thomas:
Perfect. Thank you. Thank you so much. It was a privilege and an honor.

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